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Commons given free vote as Derby go Dutch

Leeds United 1 Derby County 2

The Dutch reputation for technical excellence and tactical innovation, built in the era of Ajax, Johan Cruyff and Total Football, may have been diminished by the brutishness of Van Bommel, De Jong et al in the World Cup final — but when it was put to Nigel Clough that a Kris Commons-inspired success at Leeds had a Dutch flavour, the Derby manager took it as a compliment.

County's senior coach Johnny Metgod wore the Oranje shirt 21 times in an age when the defining characteristic was fluidity rather than thuggery. His influence, allied to the core pass-and-move values Clough absorbed from his father at Nottingham Forest, was stamped all over a deserved victory in a pulsating season-opener at Elland Road.

Derby deployed a lone striker with three attacking midfield players in support, a formation they first used – out of necessity, as they had only one fit front-runner – at Ipswich 10 months ago. It was successfully introduced and refined in pre-season, and even if Derby had to "fight and scrap", in Clough's phrase, in the face of second-half pressure, its potential could be gauged from the fact that goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was Leeds' outstanding individual.

The player linking it all together – Cruyff in a chunky frame if you like – was Commons. The English-born Scotland international, who received high-quality support from Paul Green, can no longer be classed as a winger. Now he is a midfielder with a free role, materialising in the "hole" as often as on the flanks and blessed with a precision and vision that Leeds can seldom have encountered during three years in what chairman Ken Bates's programme column described, with fate-tempting charm, as "the sink estate of League One".

Clough admitted that Commons' elusiveness comes at a price. "I don't like the term 'wild card' but he's the one we get frustrated with because he doesn't work as hard defensively," he said. "I think you have to allow for one in any system. Kris has that extra ability but he still has to get fitter and sharper, which he will do.

"He's had injuries which have prevented him from being up to the standard of fitness. But he's now been fit for six weeks, touch wood, which is a long time for him! Last year he got injured three days into pre-season. He then had four hamstring injuries and hardly completed a 90 minutes all season. Maybe once."

Derby now appear primed to move forward again after what Clough called two "tough" seasons following a humiliating exit from the Premier League in 2008. Having gone ahead through Rob Hulse, they shrugged off Luciano Becchio's equaliser for Commons to stroke what proved to be the winner from the spot after Lloyd Sam tripped Tomasz Cywka.

For Leeds, who on Saturday's evidence are further behind in their rehabilitation after their own Year Zero in 2007, it was a sobering reintroduction to the Championship. However, the return to fitness of Robert Snodgrass, Patrick Kisnorbo and Billy Paynter can only improve the creativity, defensive strength and cutting edge respectively in Simon Grayson's side.

Schmeichel, at least, looks capable of excelling at a higher level, though the newcomer from Notts County conceded he would rather not have been "in the spotlight", adding: "We had chances and hit the bar twice, but this is a very unforgiving league and we have to learn quickly." Had he talked to his father about his eventful debut? "He's my dad," the 23-year-old Dane replied with a Nigel Clough-like determination to succeed on his own merits, "not my coach."

Leeds United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; Connolly, Naylor, Collins, Bessone; Watt, Howson (Grella, 86), Kilkenny (Clayton, 77), Johnson, Sam (White, 70); Becchio. Substitutes not used Higgs (gk), Bruce, Hughes, Bromby.

Derby County (4-2-3-1): Bywater; Brayford, Roberts, Anderson (Barker, h-t), Leacock; Savage, Bailey; Cywka (Pringle, 74), Green, Commons (Porter, 84); Hulse. Substitutes not used Deeney. (gk), Buxton, Moxey, Doyle.

Referee N Swarbrick (Lancashire).

Man of the match Commons.

Attendance 26,761.