After a successful pre-season, an impressive squad had been assembled and optimism was high among the Rams’ faithful for our opening league fixture away at Bolton. However, what happened in the opening 30 minutes, where we lost not one, but two of our central midfielders, no one could have anticipated. The second, and most crucial loss in that game, was of the unquestionably talented Will Hughes.
It was highly likely that there were going to be four players this season who were guaranteed to start every game; Jason Shackell, George Thorne, Chris Martin and Will Hughes. Since the goalless draw at Bolton, it has been revealed that the young midfielder is going to be sidelined for at least six months, which is a massive blow for him personally, as well as for the team. The bittersweet news is that Craig Bryson is only expected to be out for a month, but already Mr Clement has a selection headache in that midfield area. So what are his options in the coming weeks?
Jeff Hendrick should come straight in to replace Bryson, a position they have both been battling over for the last couple of seasons – replacing Hughes however is a little trickier. If Clement decides he goes with the tried and tested 4-3-3 formation key to our recent campaigns, he could move Thorne from his holding midfield role and put either Baird or Hanson in that position. However, if he plays the 4-2-3-1 formation that he has spent most of pre-season trialling, then he may be tempted to go with Hanson and Thorne as the two holding players, with Hendrick in front of them alongside the two wide men, and Martin up top in his preferred role as the spearhead in attack.
This is what Paul Clement settled on for his first home game as manger, the 1-1 draw at home with Charlton. It appeared to work reasonably well, with Thorne and Hanson dictating large parts of the game, however his next test, welcoming Middleborough to the iPro, will be a completely different game. There is already plenty for our new “gaffer” to ponder over.
In addition, there are further options in the squad with Simon Dawkins (who I think gets a lot of undeserved stick from our fans) who could come on and fill a role in the centre, and the flexible Chris Baird could move from his right-back role to holding midfield, allowing Thorne to push further forward. The other option available is to try and add to the depth of the squad further by bringing in one or two new signings before the transfer window closes in two weeks’ time, one of them being a midfielder to fill Hughes’s place. The name of Tottenham’s Alex Pritchard, who had a very successful loan spell at Brentford last season, has already been bandied about. Paul Clement has yet to dip into the loan market, but that may change soon.
All in all not the start many of us had hoped for, but at least this season we have a much stronger squad and, possibly more importantly, we have the resources to strengthen further. One thing we can gain from this setback is the fact that it came so early in the season, with plenty of time for us to react to it. However I’m sure I speak for every Rams fan when I say I’d rather have ‘Hughsey’ on that pitch week in, week out. Here’s to a speedy recovery, Will!