Derby County have been work in progress over the course of the 2019/20 season under Phillip Cocu - but the Rams’ manager is seeing positive signs for the future.
Derby’s campaign has been one of fluctuating fortunes, but one thing that has moved forward during the season is the team’s level of performance.
Cocu was appointed as the Rams’ manager in early July last year, by which point the squad had already reported back for pre-season training in the lead-up to the new campaign.
He had the unenviable task of replacing last year’s loan stars Harry Wilson, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori - while several senior players such as Bradley Johnson, David Nugent and Craig Bryson moved on during the summer.
Inside a month, Cocu had to assess and build his squad and also quickly implement a style of play and way of working.
Perhaps understandably, Derby’s start to the season was inconsistent - but their footballing identity has become clearer as the campaign has unfolded.
The fruits of the Rams’ labour on the training pitch has been clear to see and while they struggled to find the net early in the campaign, creating and scoring goals hasn’t been a problem in recent months.
Derby’s home form has been excellent, the third best in the Sky Bet Championship ahead of Saturday’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday, while their fortunes away from home have proved to the Ram’s achilles heel.
However, while results aren’t as consistent as Cocu would like he has seen a vast improvement in his side’s showings on the road and there has been no repeat of the 3-0 reverses at the likes of Brentford, Charlton Athletic, Fulham and Reading since moving into 2020.
In fact, the highs and lows have been far less extreme – but there’s still room for improvement.
Derby’s form since the turn of the year has been encouraging and as well as edging their way up the table they’ve also reached the Fifth Round of the Emirates FA Cup, and Cocu is keen to focus on those positive aspects moving forward.
Speaking to RamsTV ahead of Saturday’s game at Sheffield Wednesday, Cocu said: “It (the difference between the home and away form) is a reason why we are stuck in the table where we are. We just can’t get a good streak of results in the away games and that is holding us back.
“We have to look at the positive development of the team and I definitely see that we play much better in the away games than we did in the first half of the season.
“We have to find a way to get results away from home, such as a draw or a win like against Swansea recently.
“The defensive part of the team can be more solid and make the right decisions at the right moment. My feeling is that we are not so far off getting the results in the away games but for the confidence of the team it is important that we get one on Saturday.”
He added: “The football has improved and also the attitude and the presence of the team. The highs and lows in one game are not so extreme anymore, but still we need some extra to put into the game to get a win.”
Cocu arrived at Derby with a track record of developing not only young talent but also an excellent track record of achievement in his managerial career with a proven ability to develop players to drive both tangible success and value.
The 49-year-old believes the Rams will be all the better for their work in the current campaign in the long-term.
While he appreciates and understands the need for results in the short-term, he also has one eye on the long-term too and the improvement over the course of the campaign is offering cause for optimism.
He said: “I know we have to get results and we have to perform this season, but it is not only about this year.
“By keeping the same formation and style of play, you get the improvements and the consistency we are working on for the longer term. That will be a big benefit for next season.
“If you change the system or the formation every time you don’t get a result then progress is unlikely. However, you can sometimes have a result so working towards the short-term is an option too, but for the long-term I would rather have the development throughout the whole team and like we play now.
“The football we play, combined with the attitude we want to see on the pitch, is a direction we have to proceed in. Still we have to make some improvements. Maybe it is 10-15 per cent because in the last game, when we lost 2-1 at Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday, we saw that the moments our opponent had were decisive.”
He added: “We know that football is about results too. This is something that we try to get every game, we play to win it home or away.
“It gives us a positive feeling within the technical staff that you can see definite progress and the team feels it as well in how we play; that is why we stick with it and we can see our identity.”