A Derby Demise – what went wrong for Phillip Cocu?

Just 16 months after being appointed, what caused Dutch legend Phillip Cocu to lose his job as Manager of Championship side Derby County?

As a player, Phillip Cocu oozed class. 

In a glittering 20 year career he won four Eredivisie titles with PSV Eindhoven, captained Barcelona to the La Liga title in 1999 and eventually left the club in 2004 as its record holder for the most league appearances by a foreign player. Before his first stint at PSV, he developed into one of the Netherland’s finest central midfielders during spells with AZ Alkmaar and Vitesse Arnhem. His international journey was equally smooth and successful; spanning a decade, over 100 caps and appearances at five international tournaments. 

Photo credit: PSV Inside

However, after a terrific spell as coach of PSV in which he won the Eredivisie three times, his managerial career is now turning out to be a little more bumpy. 

In mid-November, he lost his job as Manager of Championship side Derby County, just 16 months into a four year contract. This followed his sacking in 2018 by Turkish side Fenerbahçe after just 15 games. 

At the time of what eventually seemed an inevitable departure, Cocu’s side were languishing at the bottom of the table with just 1 win from 11 games and a mere 5 goals. No Championship team had ever scored fewer in that amount of matches. 

When he was announced as new Manager, Cocu and Derby seemed an ideal match that could take The Rams back to the Premier League. Particularly when Wayne Rooney was brought in to Captain the side in January. 

So, what went wrong and caused Cocu’s Derby demise? 

The numbers 

As the saying goes, football is a results business – and by the end, the results were not pretty reading for Cocu. 

In his first campaign there were promising signs, putting a challenge in for the play-offs before eventually finishing 10th. Yet the drop-off at the end of last season continued into this with just two victories across 19 fixtures and one winless streak spanning seven matches. That particular run was hardly edge of your seat stuff either, including three 1-1 draws and three 1-0 defeats.

By the end, Cocu achieved just 21 wins from 65 matches, a percentage of 32.3%, half of what he had achieved with PSV and the lowest of the last seven Derby Managers to have managed at least 15 games at the club. 

Ultimately, Cocu just couldn’t arrest the sliding numbers that had put his position in peril. 

Photo credit: Sky Sports

The playing style 

Sometimes a way of playing just does not work with the group of players available and that very much seemed the case with Cocu and Derby. 

At times it seemed that Cocu was starting to even outsmart and confuse himself, playing four different formations in the early part of the 2020/21 season, although his favoured 3-4-3 formation was clearly not delivering the results the fans craved. Often Derby would dominate possession without really showing any attacking threat. Unfortunately for Cocu, you don’t win points for passes. Too often his side would look passive rather than penetrating, hesitant rather than decisive, before then leaking a late goal to fall to defeat. The use of an on paper intelligent pressing systems and zonal marking just didn’t do the job. 

The Championship, with its intense fixture list and match tempo, requires teams to be settled in a system they understand if they are to succeed. You never got the impression that was the case with this Cocu team. 

Photo credit: Derby County

Losing the players 

To say Cocu lost the dressing room would be unfair. He and his assistants, Twan Scheepers and Chris van der Weerde, were well respected by the players and Board, especially for the way in which academy players were integrated. The official club statement on his sacking said as much

However, over time Cocu lost his capacity to motivate them. This lack of morale only worsened as results continued to plummet. There was said to be confusion over both his selection policy and formation alterations, whilst his (arguably typically Dutch) bluntness in post-match press conferences when criticising player attitudes had the opposite motivational effect he was probably hoping for. 

Furthermore, there were grumblings over the pre-season regime, with players feeling they weren’t up to the required fitness levels when the season started – losing their first three games, including being on the wrong end of a 4-0 thrashing on the opening weekend, suggests they were right. 

Fingers should also rightly be pointed at the players but part of Cocu’s job remit was to reinvigorate them – he failed in that task. 

Photo credit: Derby County

Problems out of his control 

Having the feeling that the axe was about to come down on his reign and knowing that potential new owners were more than happy to wield it cannot have been a nice position for Cocu. The imminent club takeover, and the likely changes that would incur, was just one of several unfortunate circumstances not of his doing. 

Indeed, throughout his time in charge, Cocu had to contend with various problems that made his job even harder, on top of the universal challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. These ranged from untimely injuries and suspensions to tight financial budgets and major off-the-field disciplinary issues with the likes of Tom Lawrence, Mason Bennett and most notably former club Captain Richard Keogh, who had his contract terminated due to gross misconduct.

Such factors are just the type an under pressure Manager wants to avoid. 

Photo credit: Daily Telegraph

An unbalanced squad

The last, but by no means the least, factor surrounded the playing personnel itself. Regrettably for the 50 year-old, his team lost several experienced players over the summer and a lopsided squad became far too reliant on academy youngsters, despite the immense experience offered by Rooney. 

It was well documented that Cocu was desperate to not lose key striker Chris Martin, the ideal focal point for his side, on a free transfer but the club could not meet his wage demands. Likewise with another experienced head in Tom Huddlestone. The combination of these players not being replaced, and struggles with big money new signings such as Krystian Bielik, left Cocu having to over rely on academy players lacking the required nous and experience to get out of the hole they were in. 

In trying circumstances, a coach needs his senior players to step-up and be counted. By the end of his tenure, they were few and far between for Cocu.  

Photo credit: Derby County

What next? 

It surely won’t be long before we see the man from Eindhoven back in a dugout somewhere, perhaps in his native Netherlands. This is a coach clearly with great ideas and the ambition to implement them, shown by his initial willingness to buy into the Derby County project. His past managerial success, not to mention the four years of experience as Assistant Manager for the Netherlands, are not suddenly meaningless. However, Cocu will need to choose his next role carefully and put this Derby demise quickly behind him.

A Derby demise – what went wrong for Phillip Cocu?

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