Derby County's dismal form continues as they lose 4-1 to Leicester City
TELEVISION cameras pick up on everything. Two or three times they zoomed in on Nigel Clough, who cut a forlorn figure in the dugout as he sat arms folded watching his Derby County team flounder in a woeful opening half hour of this East Midlands clash with Leicester City.
Clough's pre-match message to his players centred on the need to stop conceding poor goals. With Derby two down – and fortunate it wasn't four – the manager's words had clearly fallen on deaf ears.
Given their away record – now only eight points collected from 30 – and their annual struggle at Leicester – Derby last won there in 2002 when the Foxes played at Filbert Street – it was exactly the start they could not afford.
Derby gave themselves a mountain to climb.
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To their credit, they gained a foothold thanks to Theo Robinson's ninth goal of the season and a lengthy period of possession and promise gave them a glimpse of the summit but they lost their footing in the latter stages and tumbled to a painful 4-1 defeat – their fourth successive defeat on the road.
The Rams have been better on their travels than their away points tally suggests. Think of the games at Wolves, Huddersfield, Middlesbrough and Millwall, when only two points from 12 was scant reward for the way Clough's side played.
But their start at Leicester was as poor as we have seen this season.
They were out-fought, out-manoeuvred and over-powered.
Leicester were impressive. "The first 30 minutes was the best we have played this season," purred Foxes manager Nigel Pearson.
His promotion hopefuls boast a formidable home record and do not need a helping hand but they gratefully accepted one from Derby and took full advantage.
Richard Keogh lost his man for a split second and could not recover as Zak Whitbread met Martyn Waghorn's sixth-minute corner to send a downward header from eight yards past goalkeeper Adam Legzdins and Michael Jacobs on the line.
Their tails up, Leicester pinned Derby back and Legzdins prevented the Rams from going under.
Twice he denied Waghorn and was relieved when a free kick from the striker came back off the bar before the home side deservedly doubled their lead after 22 minutes.
James O'Connor, in at left-back for the injured Gareth Roberts, gave the ball away and was beaten too easily by Anthony Knockaert. He found Jamie Vardy, who slipped a clever pass to Waghorn, who coolly dispatched his finish from 10 yards low past Legzdins.
Waghorn is a player Derby have chased in the past. When fit and playing regularly, he can be a terrier of a striker and was at the heart of the action. He also cost Leicester £3m.
Leicester met little resistance and just kept ploughing forward. Vardy's shot was saved by Legzdins and Knockaert's curling effort was tipped over by the keeper.
Keogh and O'Connor did not have the best of afternoons but they were not alone. Defensively, Derby were at sixes and sevens as they clung on desperately.
They have tried a number of formations in away games and although Leicester's first two goals can be traced back to errors rather than the system, starting the game with 4-4-2 appeared to suit the hosts more than it did Derby.
The average age of the Rams' midfield four was 20. Craig Bryson was ruled out by a knee injury and so 20-year-old Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes, 17, formed the pairing in central midfield.
Neither player can be described as an "enforcer" and it was a big ask to expect them to control the middle of the pitch away from home against one of the leading sides in the Championship, who went into the game buoyed by a thumping 6-0 victory over Ipswich Town in their previous home fixture.
Not for the first time this season, Derby's improvement came once they amended their shape.
They boosted their midfield with an extra man, Paul Coutts, and looked more comfortable immediately.
Whether the formation is viewed as 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 matters little, numbers in midfield is Derby's ally in away games.
It allows Hughes and Coutts to get on the ball and makes the team play with greater fluency. Rather than being seen as a negative approach, it actually has the reverse affect.
Having been starved of possession, Derby suddenly saw plenty of the ball and Hughes blossomed. He drifted into pockets of space and his deft passes troubled Leicester, whose stranglehold quickly evaporated.
Coutts tested Kasper Schmeichel from distance in the 33rd minute for Derby's first attempt on target and they pulled a goal back five minutes later.
Hughes slid a pass to Jacobs and he clipped the ball in to Robinson, whose run from the right to the middle of the goal caught out left-back Paul Konchesky and Whitbread. Robinson's touch allowed him to smash the ball high past Schmeichel from eight yards.
Two cute passes from Hughes could have brought an equaliser before the break but Conor Sammon's attempt lacked the conviction to seriously trouble Schmeichel, who then beat away an effort from Robinson.
Belief can be brittle in football. It is fascinating to see how much a goal can knock or lift the confidence of a team and this game was an example.
Leicester fans became edgy as Derby pushed and probed for an equaliser without creating a clear-cut chance. Jacobs' free kick was deflected over and Robinson was close to turning in a low centre from Sammon.
The next goal was going to be crucial to the outcome.
Nigel Pearson felt his Leicester team handled the second half well but it was surprising that he took so long to switch the shape of his own side in a bid to nullify Derby's growing stake in the contest.
What Pearson was able to do was introduce £1m substitutes David Nugent and Ben Marshall and Nugent's two goals in the final 16 minutes made the points safe.
Derby never cleared the danger after Waghorn pounced on O'Connor's slip and saw his shot deflect off the body of Legzdins and on to the bar. Marshall returned the ball into the box and Nugent rose above Keogh to head in from six yards to settle home nerves.
Nugent grabbed his 11th goal of the campaign two minutes from time when his half-volley from 16 yards flashed into the top corner.
Derby have conceded a dozen goals in their last four away games.
There was encouragement in the manner in which they dragged themselves back into the match at Leicester but this was outweighed by a need for them to show greater resilience on the road.