Jeff Hendrick set to be given a breather for Derby County game against Birmingham City
JEFF Hendrick's dip in form could see him handed a breather when Derby County take on Birmingham City in Saturday's televised Championship clash.
The 20-year-old has started 16 of the 17 League games but he has struggled to reproduce the level of performance he showed last season when he won the club's Young Player of the Year award.
Hendrick had a tough afternoon against leaders Crystal Palace last weekend and manager Nigel Clough has hinted that the youngster might be taken out of the firing line.
"We either persevere with him or there is a chance he might come out and have a little breather," said Clough.
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"At 20, we could possibly do more damage leaving him in there.
"He had a great first season but he is struggling a bit this season. We are reminding him of all the things he did well last season and he has got to get back to doing those things.
"Last season, he was getting about, getting tackles in and making forward runs. He was a lot more assertive on the pitch than he has been this season, and we want him to do that again.
"It was about his strength, power and running and he just seems to have lost his edge in that area a little bit.
"Confidence plays a huge part. Look at Palace last week. They looked fitter and sharper. They're not but that's how it can look after 13 or 14 matches unbeaten.
"Second seasons are tough for young players like Jeff because everyone knows a bit more about you."
Clough uses Palace striker Glenn Murray as an example of how a player's fortunes can fluctuate.
"He could not get in Palace's team last season and I think he scored six League goals," said Clough.
"He's got 15 this season, and he's having a purple patch.
"How old is he? 29? Players even at that age have ups and downs."
Derby are set to revert to 4-4-2 against Birmingham, having lined up 4-4-1-1 in the 3-0 defeat by Palace at Selhurst Park.
"We will try to get two back up front for the home game," said Clough.
This would leave a four-man midfield.
If Hendrick drops out, Will Hughes and Craig Bryson would be the likely partnership in central midfield with Paul Coutts on the right and Michael Jacobs could keep his place on the left after a lively display against Palace.
Derby say striker Jamie Ward will probably be out for another week.
Ward has missed nine games with a hamstring injury and he is not available to face Birmingham on Saturday and probably Cardiff City on Tuesday.
"We have had him scanned again and there is a small problem there. He can run at a certain pace at the moment but, unfortunately, he can't sprint and go flat out," said Clough, who admits the injury has taken longer to clear up than they had hoped.
"We thought at the time it was only a strain and would take a few weeks but you never know with hamstrings," added Clough.