Derby County convincingly swatted aside a potential Third Round upset beating League One leaders Tranmere Rovers by five goals in The FA Cup Third Round.
Strikes from Ben Davies, Conor Sammon, John Brayford, Jeff Hendrick and a first senior goal by 16-year-old Mason Bennett ensured Nigel Clough’s Championship side had a comfortable passage into the Fourth Round. Although easily beaten, Ronnie Moore’s visitors will rue that much of the afternoon’s damage was self-inflicted.
This was, however, an afternoon defined by Derby’s collection of youthful talent.
Here, The FA’s Peter Glynn looks at the progress of Derby’s precocious young midfielder Will Hughes.
Nigel Clough didn’t pause to think before answering.
“Outstanding,” was the Derby County manager’s summary when asked to assess 17-year-old midfielder’s Will Hughes’s ascent into senior football.
After making his full debut in the final game of last season, the dynamic young midfielder hasn’t stopped to look back appearing in all of Derby’s 26 league games this term. Another slick performance was registered in Derby’s five-goal haul over Tranmere.
Hughes’s consistency was the first plaudit his manager reached for: “From making his debut at the back end of last season in the last couple of matches, in five months he’s hardly missed a game,” added Clough.
During that run the Rams’ much coveted talent became the second ever youngest player to represent England Under-21s, making his debut against Northern Ireland last November.
It comes as no surprise that his upward trajectory has attracted admiring glances. Arsenal, Liverpool and Barcelona are supposedly amongst potential suitors.
Hughes is distinctive in many ways. Not least for his shock of bright white hair and luminous orange footwear. Nimble footed, slight in build, with a straight-back running style the Surrey-born tyro glides around the pitch with the demeanour of a winger.
Against Tranmere, Hughes began his assignment at the base of the home side’s midfield. And it wasn’t long before he demonstrated his maturity and confidence in receiving the ball from the back four, allowing the hosts to build play through the thirds of the pitch.
Here’s a practice from The FA’s Future Game philosophy focusing on playing through the three thirds of the pitch:
One of the first defining observations of Hughes’s game was his penchant for one-touch play.
With a clear picture of the arrangement of players around him, the midfielder moved the ball quickly adding rhythm to the hosts’ short passing game. Often too many touches or an unnecessary sideways pass can hinder a team’s forward momentum.
Hughes, however, has a taste for eliminating opposition by moving the ball swiftly, preventing defensive units from closing ranks. Furthermore, the midfielder possesses a natural instinct to move the ball forward.
Both of these skills sounds simple, but very few midfielders consistently play quickly and forwards with accuracy and efficiency.
Here’s a practice from The FA’s Future Game philosophy focusing on forward passing :
It would be a disservice to paint the left-footer as only a deep-lying midfielder. This is a talent comfortable linking play in all areas of midfield and attack.
With elusiveness about his movements the midfielder demonstrated the knack of emerging wherever the play was developing. His brief changed throughout the game and in the second-half he found himself deployed much closer to centre-forward Conor Sammon.
Clough is clearly delighted to have such a multi-talented player in his pack: “He’s got that ability to play off the front man or to receive it off the back four and get us started that way. When we play a five or three in midfield it enables Will to get a bit further forward.”
Hughes’s positional flexibility raises an interesting point. With tactical arrangements in the modern game becoming more fluid and a greater expectation for positional rotation in midfield and attacking positions individuals must be as comfortable on both sides of the pitch as they are receiving in deep or advanced areas. Hughes gives the impression he could play in any of Derby’s front six positions.
Here’s a practice from The FA’s Future Game philosophy which coaches can use to develop rotation of position :
“He’s just getting better, as is Jeff Hendrick alongside him,” summarised Clough, who will be hoping Hughes’s form and Derby’s positive New Year start signals an upturn in fortunes in what has been a season defined by inconsistency.
The reference of Hughes’s midfield partner, Hendrick, intensified the spotlight on Derby’s dedication to youth. The 20-year-old Irishman is another graduate from the Rams’ production line. The precocity of youth is the base from which Clough wishes to build a team.
Clough added: “To have a midfield partnership in the Championship of 17 and 20 years of age, is great for us because I hope they’re in there for a long time to come. They suffer from a little bit of inexperience at times but they’ve both got great ability."
The youthful theme of the tie continued as the game wore on. And Derby’s celebratory afternoon was decorated with a fine first career goal by 16-year-old academy graduate and England youth international Mason Bennett. With more cameos of this sort, even Hughes will start to feel old.
Advice for grassroots coaches
- During small-sided games challenge your players to use one-touch play and to move the ball forwards wherever possible. Ask them what sort of body position they need to adopt to allow them to do so.
- Challenge traditional ideas about team shape by encouraging players to rotate positions and develop their understanding by playing in different areas of the pitch.
Peter Glynn is the Editorial Manager at St. George's Park and editor of The Boot Room, The FA's Coaching Magazine. Peter is a journalist and has been with The Football Association for five years and holds the UEFA B Licence and The FA Youth Awards 1 and 2.
The Future Game Tactics Column takes a weekly look at the evolution of the modern game, linking to practices from The FA's Future Game philosophy and providing advice and tips for grassroots coaches.
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