Before this game our manager emphasised how we needed to return to winning ways, whilst our supporters emphasised the need to rack up our goal difference. A robust, if limited, performance from Derby County, however, ensured that only O'Neill was left even reasonably satisfied. For all Derby's short-comings, and there are a few, they were stung into a battling, physical performance by the public barbs of their manager last week. This was not an easy match, or 'sensational, super Saturday' as the pre-match host dubiously announced, although you always felt one goal would be enough.
In the end it was a short second half burst that secured us all three points. Both goals, fittingly, fell to our two best players on the day, and who's efforts this season have only been matched by Gareth Barry and Gabby Agbonlahor. Ashley Young was particularly lively yesterday, playing with obvious confidence and verve. Lets hope he keeps that momentum into next weeks derby. I feel, though, that he is hampered by our lack of width on the right since Gabby went up front. There is no doubt he is a better striker, but now we have no natural width out there, a full-back who is as uncomfortable as any player in the league coming forward and as a result Ashley gets less space. These issues will hopefully be solved in January, but by that time they may have cost us valuable points.
The attacking zest we all expected was admittedly sparse in the first half. Derby started well and had a few sniffs of goal, though not really threatening to score. Then after quarter of an hour we found our passing range, Barry and Petrov started to find attacking space, and suddenly we were tearing Derby apart. Chances came and crosses flew in from both sides but we couldn't quite make this pressure count. Then, as suddenly as it started, this threat dissipated as our opponents cleverly killed the game and atmosphere. Again they should be given credit for this. As half time came some of the Holte End decided to make their displeasure known, the players leaving the field to muted boos, but I personally wasnt' especially surprised of either this reaction or the pattern of play. We are not yet at the stage where we can blast defensive teams off the park, last season these sorts of games all finished as draws. This year we are grinding out ,hopefully, important victories.
In the second half Barry set a brighter tempo for us, and moving Reo-Coker to right-midfield helped our shape considerably. It was a clever tactical move from O'Neill, giving us pace on the wing and putting one of our best tacklers on their best player - Barnes. Reo-Coker got an assist for the second goal as well, further vindicating the switch. The finish was applied by Ashley, minutes after his free-kick was headed into Laursen's path by Barry. Two quite simple goals, really, that may imply our intensity wasn't always what it should have been.
After this burst the game was secure and we largely strolled through its remainder, displaying more class in possession, whilst Derby huffed and puffed to no great effect. Ashley was taken off in preservation for next week and in his place Maloney showed some great touches. I feel sorry for wee Shauny but he just doesn't seem to be fitting into O'Neill's plans at the moment, although a place on the right of midfield could suit him in winnable home games. Next week is not one of those and I would be suprised to see us make any changes, apart from hopefully seeing the return of Big John.
Luke Moore remains worringly unconvincing and is starting to worry me. He has generally been regarded as our brightest young hope but has been quickly overtaken by Agbonlahor, and is looking low on confidence at the moment. I hate to say it, but this looks to be an attitude problem. Luke scored goals at the back end of last season coming on as a substitute - when he had to prove himself. His sharpest displays this season have also been off the bench. It is not that he is playing particularly badly, or particularly lazily, but there is a concerning air of indifference in his play. He fails to make obvious runs at key times, reducing the number of chances he is getting, and whilst quick does ot possess the Gabby-like rapidity to create openings out of nothing. At 21 it is time Luke takes his career by the scruff of the neck and realises his talent, or he may end up on the academy striker scrapheap that has already claimed his brother. On his side, though, are the supporters; he needs to start repaying their faith.
This three points have set us up nicely for next week, and hopefully another three-points. Its important we don't just rely on our home form this season. We don't have a home game until December anyway, which means I may have to give a post-derby update in the next week or so.