PREVIEW: Bristol City vs Derby County
NO player was more relieved at Bristol City's return to 4-4-2 at Sheffield Wednesday last week than Sam Baldock.
Signed from West Ham for a £1 million fee in August, the striker, pictured, arrived at Ashton Gate expecting to spearhead the attack alongside either Jon Stead, Ryan Taylor or Steven Davies.
But things have not turned out as planned for the former MK Dons raider, who has spent much of this season kicking his heels in frustration on the substitutes' bench.
A shortage of goals during October and November went some way to explaining his omission, but there is no doubt Baldock has been a hostage to fortune.
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If manager Derek McInnes was content to start the campaign with two strikers, his team's long-standing inability to prevent goals going in at the other end of the pitch occasioned a rethink.
The Scot's response was to return to the 4-5-1 formation that served the Robins so well in their fight against relegation last season. But that precluded Baldock from starting and he was relegated to the bench while the more physically-robust Stead and Taylor were asked to lead the line.
Widely criticised for deploying just one striker at home to Wolves in a game City lost 4-1 earlier this month, McInnes opted for a change of course at Hillsborough and watched from the sidelines as Baldock scored twice from the penalty spot in a 3-2 win.
Given City's return to goalscoring form and winning ways, it is inconceivable McInnes will tinker with either formation or personnel when Derby County provide the opposition at Ashton Gate tomorrow. Whatever he may have felt privately, Baldock insists he understands why the manager did what he did.
He told The Post: "I understand why the manager has done it (4-5-1), because we really needed a clean sheet. We have not been able to manage that as yet and it is very frustrating.
"But, if I'm honest, 4-4-2 is my preferred system, because it gives me a bit more licence to roam.
"I found myself in some decent positions (against Sheffield Wednesday) and was able to drive through and create a little bit more.
"I had some chances and that has not happened much for me recently."
Baldock certainly benefited from playing alongside Taylor, whose aggressive approach and physical presence kept both Wednesday centre-backs occupied.
He said: "Ryan is great for me, because he takes the hits and he took some big ones (last Saturday). He can take it and he can dish it out as well, which helps take the heat off me."
"I'm confident I can score goals in this league with another striker alongside me, but we have to keep picking up points if that is going to happen on a regular basis.
"We played 4-4-2 early in the season and it was fine when we were scoring threes and fours. But we cannot expect to do that every week and clean sheets hold the key for us.
"It may be that we are simply going to have to try and score more goals than the opposition do. If that is the case, then it suits me fine."
Tomorrow's contest against an in-form Rams team represents an acid test for a City side that has gained more points on the road this season. Indeed, since beating Cardiff 4-2 at Ashton Gate on August 25, the Robins have taken a meagre two points from their last eight home games in the Championship.
Baldock said: "Our last three away performances have been of a decent standard and show what can be achieved. But we have not been in form at Ashton Gate of late and we need to show the home fans what we can do."