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|Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 3 Birmingham 1|
at 12:36 30 Apr 2018
A lovely end to the season at LR, where results have been pretty good all season. It also, at least until TF's odd comments afterwards, provided real hope for next season. The only downer was the bizarre fight in the SA stand just below me, between two mature gentlemen who really were old enough to know better. Bit embarrassing - one of them went completely Barton-at-City-in-2013 - head completely gone. Madness. What was that all about? We were 2-1 up at that point, too.
1. POWER OF YOUTH: Let's get the caveats out the way, because caveats, mostly, are boring aren't they? Birmingham were pretty awful. But that is only a very, very small caveat when weighed up against the side we actually put out. By my calculations, none of the first XI were in the side 18 months ago, apart from Sylla, and even he has never been a regular. Seven of the 11 (Lumley, Kakay, Furlong, Manning, Chair, Eze, BOS) were under 23 and started the season with the asterisk of 'one for the future' next to their names and only two of them had had any sort of first Xi experience. Of our back five, the keeper is a youth product who'd only started one game for us before; the right back had only played four games for us, mostly in cups, the two CBs were out of position, and the left back is usually a central midfielder. The two oldest players in the team were Freeman and Sylla at 26 and 27 respectively. Given all of that, how good or bad Birmingham were is pretty irrelevant. That was a hugely inexperienced side without its four (maybe five) first choice centre backs and its first choice keeper and still we were the better side. There were, of course, a few scrambles and we were fortunate once or twice not to concede, particularly in the second half. But that was to be expected.
Overall, you couldn't have asked for more from that team. It was really impressive. We looked particularly good when getting the ball on the ground and playing through Chair, Freeman and Eze. We had pace. Everyone worked extremely hard. People knew their jobs. Scowen, I thought, was magnificent - he needed to be calm and disciplined as captain of a young side and that's exactly what he was. Freeman too, sparkled for probably the first time when playing in the same side as Eze and there were signs of a growing chemistry developing there. People worried before the game that teams around Birmingham would be angry if we fielded a weakened team - well, on paper this was the weakest team we fielded all season, with half the team changed from the previous week, and our captain left on the bench. And it was still easily good enough to win this game. Well done everyone.
2. CHAIR: Well, Ollie can't say we don't win when he plays now. I thought he had a great game and was arguably man of the match. He's been tidy whenever I've seen him play before, but this time he really upped his game. He started quite well, but as the game went on he seemed to grow in confidence and just get better and better, culminating in his richly deserved goal. It'll be really interesting to see how he develops. He clearly has a fabulous touch (one tough ball dropping out the sky in the second half he killed nonchalantly with one touch, giving the impression he could do that all day), his vision is good, he's tenacious, I thought he worked phenomenally hard and it was clear he and Eze in particular had a really good understanding between them.
His position is a slightly odd one. His Nick Barmby-esque shape makes you think he needs to play in the hole rather than be a central midfielder, but on Saturday he was certainly middle of midfield and despite giving up height and strength to his opposite numbers he wasn't over powered in the slightest. Having Scowen behind him clearly helped, and Freeman played very well too. The goal was brilliant. Freeman superbly skipping round a challenge and then playing an inventive ball well over the keeper for Chair to finish. It wasn't an easy one either, but, like Smyth the other week, his technique was excellent. Doesn't quite have the same dynamism as Freeman, but perhaps likes to move the ball quicker and perhaps there are signs that if Luongo or Freeman were to go this summer, Chair could be the one to step into their place next season. We'll see. Long way to go etc etc.
3. MANNING: I often wonder whether left back might end up being his position and although he struggled against Jota in the second half (can't blame him for that), I thought he did really well playing there on Saturday. He is a good defender, but if he could start playing there what he'd also offer is his immense quality in passing and crossing. He is, of course, very comfy on the ball, but that real ability he has to pick passes and put good balls into the box would give us an extra dimension from that part of the pitch (although Bidwell's been racking up the assists from there lately to be fair).
At the moment, I think his best position is still not decided. He's a really good player, but is he quite good enough for central midfield? Or os that where his talents can be best demonstrated? I'm not quite sure. The one thing we'd miss if he played left back would be his intelligent runs into the box, his ability to support the strikers and get goals from inside the box, which Freeman and Scowen don't really offer - although Luongo has of late.
Still, the point is, as part of an inexperienced defence, I thought he had a great game, he didn't look out of position at all, and showed all his qualities. Be really interesting to see what happens with him next year.
4. FURLONG: I keep saying it, and I still believe it - future QPR captain. I don't know how many games he played as a CB at younger age groups, but he looked very confident there on Saturday. Scowen did a great job of talking to him and Bidwell, but despite being out-matched in terms of height, both of them did really well. Most young centre backs, if they can break into teams at a relatively high level, will come in as full backs, where they're not quite as exposed as they would be at centre back, but with scope later, as happened with Onuoha, to move to centre back. That may be what happens with Furlong. He's not the tallest, but he has a great spring and he's getting stronger physically too. I mean, this was a really tough ask - a hugely inexperienced back five - yet he never looked panicky, or worried, or phased. And when Birmingham finally realised their best option might be to chuck it in the mixer, Olly nipped that one in the bud with a sensible substitution.
5. ONUOHA: It was a brave decision not to start Ned considering the poverty of options in defence, but here, I think, we saw a bit more of the philosophy about developing young players that Chris Ramsey has spoken about. He says that in the U23s and younger they might put players in unfamiliar positions or deliberately pit them against players they know will give them a really hard time, because that helps growth and helps them learn how to deal with extreme challenges on the pitch. It would have been easy to start Ned and Smithies, but instead Olly challenged the whole back 5, plus Scowen in front of them, to deal with the game without two huge characters at the back.
That worked pretty well, but it was clear as Jota began working his magic and Blues went more direct to good effect, that a sub would be wise. It came at the right time, and Ned's presence, speed and power, along with Furlong being a bit of an improvement on Kakay (who did play well) pretty much halted City's progress in its tracks.
It really showed how important he is to this side, actually. The difference was striking. And it also showed how much we will miss him next season and how important it is that, whether we sign one, two or even three centre backs, we have to get this one right. On our budget, that is not going to be easy. People keep damning him with the faint praise of a 'decent Championship defender', but for me that's grossly unfair. Finding someone else with his experience, his speed, his strength and his leadership is a huge ask.
I was really pleased to see him get several ovations though - when he warmed up and then again after the game, when he waved goodbye. I think he's been great for us. In an era of ludicrously high turnover of players at LR, he's been a rare constant. In the end, he stayed here even longer than Clint Hill, but never received the same cult status, or had as much love. I'm not quite sure why. In purely playing terms, over the whole period, he's probably been at least Hill's equal. So maybe it's because Clint was a surprise, but we all expected a lot more from a relatively big money signing from (at the time) another Prem club. And yet, he's rarely let us down. He's been fit for most of his time here, he's a superb ambassador for the club, a great man to have as a captain, a very good player, extremely active in community issues, he's a very clean defender, rarely gets booked, was part of a promotion-winning side and took a pay cut to stay with us before. What's not to love? I'll miss him a lot - and I think the team probably will too. Cheers, Chief.
6. MACKIE: It's not often you know a player is off at the end of the season, and if Ned was never quite a cult hero, Mackie certainly was and is. Never universally loved on messageboards, he's nevertheless always been a favourite with the actual crowd. And the reasons for that are numerous: his never say die attitude, his strength, his tenacity, his teamwork, his willingness to play almost anywhere on the pitch. And the goals. Not just his incredible run when he first joined, but people forget he scored 7 PL goals in his first season - highly respectable for someone who wasn't a regular, and wasn't playing as a striker. But more than that, it's his memorable goals. The Liverpool one will, of course, will forever be his calling card. A game dead and buried until he came on as a sub, he not only helped inspire the comeback through sheer force of will, he completed it with the calmest finish you'll ever see on a tumultuous night under the lights. But there was also the goal at Man City. The equaliser at Derby. There'll be others I've not mentioned, but for any QPR player to have scored three goals of that magnitude is a bit special.
His return to the club may have been as much about heart as it was about head, but I still think it was the right thing to do. It was shameful how Redknapp shoved him out the door (only months after saying he wished he had 11 Jamie Mackies in the side... before then inexplicably dropping him for most of the rest of the season), and it was a symbol of all the crap that was going on, transfer-wise, at the time. He may not have had quite the same impact this time around, but he still scored some vital goals, he still had real impact on games (particularly early this season) and I'm sure he was great to have in the squad. It's a real shame how injuries after that first one at Blackburn have stymied him a bit down the years.
I remember Paul Furlong's last game, and he went clean through late in the game and could've scored but for a great challenge. In the end, I think of that less than what Furs did for the club, and I hope it'll be the same for Mackie. But I was desperate for him to score on Saturday. He had one and a half chances really, the first he was forced a bit wide, but was still unfortunate not to score when his deflected shot just hit Stockdale on the face or chest. You could see even from where I sit that Jamie was almost distraught at his luck there. And then the second was not really a chance at all. Freeman had the ball just outside the box, and Mackie was free, but he delayed the pass and in the end he was a bit wide. Really, at that stage, no one would have blamed Mackie for just shooting even from that angle, but, ever the team-man, he elected to cross (although he had words with Freeman after). I wish one of those had gone in - it would have been the perfect ending to his QPR career.
It was genuinely emotional watching him walk off, tears in his eyes. He's played at a few clubs, but this was clearly the one for him and it was from the second he arrived. That doesn't happen often - the player who signs and just 'fits' - Ainsworth was another, Austin another. For Mackie it all came together at QPR. He'll be much missed. Thanks for the memories, Jamie. Hope Wycombe can find the wages to pick you up on a free. That would seem a great fit.
|Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 1 Preston 2|
at 14:13 16 Apr 2018
Like a tethered hot air balloon. Flying high one minute, back on the ground deflating quickly the next.
1. CHANGES: I'm not too bothered about changes at this time of the season. I know it angers some, and I can see why, but with our place secure, I don't really have any problem with changes being made. But, I'm very much on Clive's side with this one: not too many.
We're already down to the bare bones at the back, so we are by definition weak at centre half. So, to remove not only two of our most consistent players in midfield, but also the two forwards who impressed the most AND scored three between them a few days earlier is just asking for trouble. I have no issues with giving Ingram a run - no issues at all with any of the *players* he picked. But for me, there were just a couple too many changes. That might not have saved the game and equally playing the same side might also have resulted in a loss. We don't know. Picking the same team does not guarantee results. But Sylla, surely, deserved to keep his place having scored two and been taken off early in the week? Same with Smyth? Sylla in particular must be wishing for the sort of prolonged run Washington has been granted (more than once). He's on form, he's scored two, Smith has played tons of football this year: let the man play!
I do have sympathy for Ollie. We want to see what Cousins can do when he finally gets a run in his preferred position. We all want to watch Eze. But there are a few games left, there's time to tinker and experiment without ripping everything up from game to game. to play devil's advocate, it is worth pointing out that the first 15 mins aside, we were not great against Wednesday (nor did we need to be after going 3-up) - in fact, on another day they might even have come back for a draw. So it wasn't as if changes were ludicrous, but any team will find it difficult having to adjust that much from game to game.
2. INGRAM: A couple of years back a few chin-strokers were keen to tell us that of our two new keepers, Ingram would end up usurping the more experienced Smithies. Seems unlikely now, although it's worth remembering that some people wrote off Smithies after he came on for 20 minutes when Green had been sent off. It's very harsh to judge any player, but particularly keepers, on just one or two games. But Saturday did show the value of a settled, confident goalie. In the week, we'd seen Smithies outshine the Wednesday keeper; here the Preston keeper had almost nothing to do and Ingram was very much a mixed bag: some confident punching, some nice takes, a couple of well-saved shots. But also some poor distribution, a moment of madness in the first half when he was forced to hack down a Wednesday player, and some unconvincing handling. So not great then, but we should have a better idea of his skills assuming he completes the rest of this season.
3. CENTRE HALF: This is beginning to become a problem position - in fact, amazingly, considering our inability until recently to take chances, it's the position that most needs looking at this summer. I didn't think either Baptiste or Robinson were that bad on Saturday, but neither were great either. Baptiste seemed at times unable to communicate effectively with any players around him as he challenged three or four times for the same ball with a different colleague each time. Robinson is decent but in truth was never quite the great player he has been credited as being at times - we were more just relieved he was competent at CB when we had so few other options. Lynch is both inconsistent and injury prone, Onuoha's may well to leave and Hall may have to look for new line of work. Even if Onuoha and Robbo stayed, Baptiste should be moved on so we need a new one. If one leaves we really need two, and if both go we may need three centre halves come August - because Robbo/Baptiste at the back next season is a recipe for even less clean sheets than this season, if that were even possible.
4. EZE: Certainly not his best game for us, PNE made sure of that through the subtle use of clever bodychecks that the referee couldn't hope to catch, yet his play was still the most enjoyable thing on show in blue and white hoops. His clever movement, his total calmness on the ball in any situation, his bursts of speed, his vision and most importantly his ability to make the difficult passes when he does see them did shine through - just not very often. Played the pass of the game when releasing a ravenous Smyth down the right wing in the second half - absolutely wonderful play.
5. REFEREE: Never blame refs for results - chances are, he's made less mistakes than any player or manager. and the narrative of a game where Ollie has changed half the team and we went a goal up cannot be that the ref is to blame. But he was poor. You know he was poor because first half he was getting sarcastic cheers from PNE fans when they got a decision, but at the end of the game he was booed off by home fans. I see Clive reckons the Sylla penalty decision was not much of a shout, but that looked as clear-a pen as I've seen all season. He shielded, held off tight marking and only when he was ready to strike did he fall after being clearly yanked back. I know Sylla is eccentric, but even for him that would've been an odd time to take a dive. But it was the bodycheck on Eze that really took the biscuit - as people called for a yellow card, they were left gobsmacked that it wasn't even a foul. Sadly, for a man of his size, he seemed to be bullied by PNE players, who took advantage of him at every turn, particularly in the final, trying 15 minutes, when they acted as if it was a tennis match - you know, when you get to stop and have a drink every 3 minutes, because it's such hard work under all that hot (15 degrees) sun. The issue really is that until you book someone, players will keep doing it because what have they got to lose? A ref who resembles the Terminator could hardly have been more timid. The only thing more timid was our attack in the second half, in fact. So it wasn't his fault we lost. But any game when you come away discussing the ref is a sign he's had a mare. And he had one.
6. CHAMPIONSHIP: It is bloody annoying to be bouncing around like this: brilliant at Villa; disappointing at Reading. Quiet first half v Fulham, superb second half v Fulham. Take Norwich apart, get taken apart by Hull, demolish Sheff Wed in 12 minutes. But it's not all down to Ollie's eccentricities. Our 4-1 win v Norwich was followed by our loss to Hull and Norwich smashing promotion-chasing Villa 3-1. After beating us 4-0, Hull did also smash Burton 5-0, but then lost 1-0 at home to Sheff Wed, who had just lost 4-2 to the side they (Hull) had just beaten 4-0 (us). This league is a stupid, enjoyable, unpredictable bunfight. For all we know, keeping the same side barring Luongo for Scowen might only have resulted in a heavier defeat. Still, that's why I like it. I'm yet to even feel a tiny pang of longing for the terrible Premier League.
|Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 4 Sheff Wed 2|
at 11:24 11 Apr 2018
4-1, 0-4, 4-2. You would say classic Rangers, but it's not that classic, is it? A set of results as bizarre and surreal as the whole bizarre, surreal game last night, topped off, incredibly, by a piledriving long-range scorcher (by his standards) from Sylla for his second goal. Enjoyable game in which I only felt truly comfortable for the 6 minutes before they scored and the last minute of injury time.
1. SMYTH: In a season that was fairly dull for large portions, bright spots have emerged. Two in particular in the last three months or so - Eze, of course, but also Paul Smyth, who with each passing game looks more and more like a proper player and not, as can happen, an adrenaline-fuelled youngster impacting games through energy alone.
I thought he was very good in this game, the only disappointment was that we failed to get the ball to his feet more often, particularly in the second half. To describe his goal in a match report, it would sound pretty ordinary: goalie flaps cross out to him, he scores. But it was so much better than that. It was a beautiful first touch and then his second was an accurate strike into the corner - nicely placed, and he didn't try to hit it too hard. Really skilful.
Obviously his work rate is fantastic, he has good pace, and he does what you want him to do: if he can go for goal, he will. If he can shoot, he doesn't hesitate. If he gets it wide, he wants to beat his man and cross the bloody thing from the byeline. None of it is complex, but that very simplicity is what makes him so dangerous. As with Eze, I don't want to get too excited, but from nowhere it looks like we've found two players who could cause some serious damage next season.
2. SMITHIES: Nothing he could do about the two goals, and you have to feel for the blighter, having shipped four including that unfortunate own goal on Sat, plus having some fans ludicrously claiming he was at fault for Aluko's goal the other week, plus his little aberration against Norwich in the first half when he did his best Rob Green impression. All of that added together doesn't make a hugely pretty picture, but last night he was, in the end, one of the main differences between the sides. While at one end Wildsmith flapped at one cross, fumbled a tame shot from Bidwell, didn't command his box for Sylla's first and playfully rolled over so he could tickle the ball past him for the fourth, Smithies pulled off a breath-taking save just before the break to keep it at 3-0, and another very good one near the end to keep it at 4-2 to head-off what could have been an immensely embarrassing collapse reminiscent of England's first innings in New Zealand the other week. Lucky to have him.
3. OSAYI-SAMUEL: Another one I'm becoming more optimistic about. Was involved in two goals, looked ready to receive the ball, showed strength and pace and a willingness to try and beat his man. It was probably his best game for the club and you do wonder just why he hasn't had a few more opportunities in the team -particularly as we're light on players who can play left wing. There's lots to like here and he clearly bothered the Wednesday defence for the whole night - I felt he was unlucky to get hooked, although Pav did give us that extra bit of experience as we ran the game down. We shouldn't get too down by 0-4 reverses at rampant Hull, and neither should we get too excited by 4-2 wins against Sheff Wed, but this is what we wanted, wasn't it? Young, hungry players with pace and desire? Eze, Smyth, Bos, possibly Oteh and Chair in the wings too. Really encouraging.
4. COUSINS: Feels unfair to have a moan after a good win and final confirmation we won't be shitting it at our last home game like we were last season (although, as Clive has been saying for ages, relegation has never looked like a genuine possibility except to the most pessimistic or jaded of fans) but I'm starting to tilt the other way with Cousins, as I have with Washington.
Just the other week, I thought he was excellent when he came on at Fulham, but you have to take your chances when they come, and I don't think Cousins is doing it when he gets starts. I feel for him because it's been a wretched two years - he's had injuries, he's been shoved in at right back and right wing, he's been stuck behind three immovable objects in the centre of our midfield... it's such a shame, because still the bes game I've seen him play was for Charlton against us. I was convinced he was a great signing :young, yet experienced, full of energy and drive and skill and power. and it hasn't happened and last night, despite one or two good moments, particularly a lovely passing triangle in the second half, he was one of our weaker players. The thing is he needs games and I wonder whether it would benefit us long term if he went on loan for 6 months next season just to play every week and find himself again.
5. MENTAL STRENGTH: Now, yes, we did come a little too close to somehow chucking away a four-goal lead. And even when we were 4-up it felt weird. We've played better in some games and been 1-0 down thank to our propensity to miss four million chances. But, stop for a moment nd look at the team. Two youngsters and Sylla, who's been out injured for ages, up front. No Luongo, no Onuoha, no Lynch. Three leaders all gone from the side. A converted left back and a clearly struggling Baptiste at centre half. And we won. And we didn't collapse. Now, Wednesday were awful at times, admittedly, but it was greatly encouraging to me that even with an under-strength side we put them to the sword. Onuoha and Luongo are vital to us - captain, and the captain's understudy, and yet we still went out and won. Amazing, really, after Saturday's debacle. I also liked that Ollie took off Scowen, even if I thought it was too early. His message to his players was: I trust you. You can do this without four or five of the players we've relied on this season. And that's important. Chris Ramsey talks about challenging his U23s - putting them in unfamiliar positions or putting them against players he knows could tear them a new one, because that helps you learn. There was similar thinking from Ollie last night when Manning went on, where he was asking him to make sure we don't miss Scowen, one of our most important players. That'll help the squad grow, and also help if and when we do have to sell our better players.
6. SINTON: It was easy to think, when Les brought in Andy Sinton as Ambassador, that it was jobs for the boys, it was a ceremonial role, we'd probably never see him, he'd just shake hands in executive boxes each week. But it hasn't turned out that way and with each passing month the wisdom of having someone like Sinton at the club in this role looks more and more, er, wise. Your reaction is to think 'we don't need this sort of role', but actually we really do. He provides a face for the club, someone people relate to, someone people like and respect, someone who can perform numerous roles. Last night was truly moving. His speech, delivered eloquently from the heart and bravely without notes, about Ray Wilkins I'm sure brought tears to the eyes of many and was clearly appreciated by Ray's family. The stadium went silent as he spoke and although you couldn't see him, it was clear he was choked up - it was a wonderful eulogy. And you wonder who would do that at other clubs? It was perfect that we had Sinton there - fitting. Les deserves credit for spotting that the role was needed - and Sinton has been key to the club finally being welcoming of ex-players when it wasn't in the past (Forever Rs is easily the best half time entertainment since round the pole's turn of the century heyday) too. If Les is now the club's patriarch, a sort of Don, then Sinton is his approachable brother, like a smarter Fredo, and Hoos is the consiglieri, and Birch is Michael, Ollie is Sonny... sorry. Lost the thread there. You know what I mean. Well done Sints.
[Post edited 11 Apr 11:49]
|Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 4 Norwich 1|
at 13:19 3 Apr 2018
An entertaining match and a great win marred only by the miserable bloke near me mansplaining the game to his female companion thinking he sounded like Guardiola, and then, after moaning about long balls, conceding the goal and the lack of atmosphere, failing to celebrate our goals because he was busy checking his acca. We all go for different reasons, don't we?
1. ONUOHA: I think he's been in fine form recently - as has Lynch, to be fair - and he had a particularly good game yesterday. We often struggle against Oliveira for some reason, but while he was certainly a threat first half, Ned stuck to his task well and wore him down quite effectively. I know he's had his detractors at Rangers, but now he's finally settled as a centre back I think he's become a really important player. His pace and strength are vital, and he's also really silenced the critics who believed he wasn't a proper captain. He leads by example, is rarely booked, and while he does make mistakes, all players do. First half in particular he made some crucial challenges, and there was one lovely moment where he strained every muscle in his body to catch up with Oliveira and execute a perfect tackle before glaring at Darnell Furlong for being caught upfield. That's all it took. No bollocking, no histrionics, no playing to the gallery JT-style. Just a hard look. Perfect person for Furs to learn from.
Second half things were a little easier for us at the back, and Ned decided to cut loose with a couple of rare marauding runs, one of which saw him winding up for a long range effort which would have brought the house down had it flown in. But he got tackled before foot met ball. Never mind. Persuading him to sign again migth be our most important signing this summer. It's no coincidence that our worst run of form this season came when he was injured.
2. SECOND HALF: This felt very much like the Fulham game to me. We didn't exactly play poorly in the first half, but we weren't quite at it either. Both times a goal from our prolific midfield goal-getter Massimo Luongo proved an important stepping stone to us dominating after the break.
And here you have to give credit to Ollie - he shifted things around and our renewed vigour nullified Norwich's main threats while simultaneously making us much more dangerous going forward. Clearly, the second half display was one of the best of the season, with the floodgates finally opening as we finally scored the goals our creativity merited. I thought just about every player improved second half, so whatever was said at half time worked a treat. but what is the reasoning? Is the team just a bit unsure of itself? Was it too scared of Norwich's counter attacks, in the same way they were timid against Fulham? If so, hopefully recent results will give them a bit more belief.
3. SMITH: I think there's a pretty good case for the argument that this was his best game in a QPR shirt. I don't think he's ever won so much in the air and for once we were regularly getting on the end of his flick-ons. He gave the Norwich defenders a torrid time, and while their manager may pathetically make jibes about our long balls, the fact is we have to play to our strengths, as any team does. And if your big man is winning that much of the ball, you'd be foolish not to use him. Having said that, none of our goals came from actual long balls, so not really sure what he was going on about.
But back to Smith. I really admire players who obviously work at their game, and Mathieu is one of them. He's shown definite improvement in his year at the club, he now has 9 goals for the season which is none too shabby, as well as a similar number of assists. He was desperately unlucky in the first half when he hit the post, but his goal he really made out of nothing. It's a rea skill to challenge for that ball and not impede the keeper in any way - great opportunistic striking. His knock down for Eze for number three was also excellent, and it showed the value of having someone as bright as Eze getting in and around him for precisely those kind of balls. And then there was the stunning trick he did in the centre of the park. Moments like those are just so great - the whole crowd cheered in the way they do when a centre back unexpectedly tricks his way past a full back out on the wing after a corner's been played to deep. In a way, you feel for Smith, because the reaction is one of surprise as much as delight that he could pull that trick off when, as wooden as he looks, he's 1000 times better than any of us will ever be at playing football. But I'm sure he knows the spirit in which it's offered. Brilliant - a goal, an assist an all-round display and some Taarabt-like skill. A perfect day for him.
4. EZE/MADDISON: First half, Maddison looked terrific, particularly in tandem with the dangerous and very quick Murphy down the left (another tough test for Furlong there). We really struggled with the little triangles those two were a part of with various third wheels down the left in the first half, and Scowen couldn't quite seem to get hold of Maddison. Meanwhile, despite swapping positions behind Smith, Eze couldn't get into the game effectively, and often had to drop too deep looking for the ball. not that he played badly, but he was just not as involved as you'd want him to be.
Second half was almost the opposite. Eze took up a Taarabt-like position on the left and we finally started getting him the ball regularly. And he stated causing trouble. He is so difficult to disarm and so good at just bursting away from defenders with a little puff of speed. More than once, Norwich were reduced to just kicking him, and in the end he scored a nice goal that his performance deserved. Meanwhile, Maddison was not the force he was before the break, with Scowen in particular ratting around him and snuffing out his threat. So while Maddison couldn't quite capitalise on his freedom first half, Eze did in the second.
5. SCOWONGOMAN: Yes, we could even call them Scowongomanning now, if we want to. Anyway, point here is that I thought of the three, in the first half only Luongo really shone. I think he made about 5 tackles just in the first 15 minutes, and he made several telling interceptions as well as being dogged in possession. Indeed, while his goal was a nice one, with some good passing, it really came from his utter determination not to give up even as three or four Norwich players converged on him. He's really matured this season. Scowen improved markedly after the break to shut down Maddison as he began to hunt the ball like the wild dog that he is - he won it more frequently and higher up the pitch too, cowing Norwich with his ability to close down incredibly quickly. Freeman was perhaps not so great, but he was still dangerous as usual and is having to adapt to a slightly different role now Eze is in the side. The trio's ability to adapt to the changing side will be key next season (assuming they all stay).
6. MANNING: I'm not as high on Manning as a lot of fans, although I still feel that he should've played more games this season than he has done. On Monday I felt he really struggled first half. When on the right he didn't give enough or effective support to Furs against Murphy (although Freeman didn't offer much more when he switched) and he also didn't offer much going forward. However, as the game wore on he got better and better. His great running and his sharp closing down matched Scowen's work and in the end he scored (another) fantastic header, even better than the one against Villa. Coming in from the right, beating his man, and adding power and direction as he met Bidwell's superb cross. And that's what Manning really does well - attacking the box. We have lots of players decent outside it, along the 18 yard box, but he's not afraid to get in there and give support to the strikers. Now firmly back in the fold, Ollie has real headaches when choosing his midfield, especially when you consider he had Smyth and Wszolek, both with MOTM displays in the last few weeks, sat on the bench. The future feels bright.
at 12:47 28 Mar 2018
So, not so much actual players, but positions.
Assumptions: Ned stays, Robinson goes. Smithies stays. Luongo and Freeman stay.
For me, much depends on how well Smyth, Furs, Manning and Eze do between now and the end of the season, but if their for continues, do we need a lot?
For me, I'd like a target man who can actually hold the ball up so that any three of freeman, Eze, BOS, Pav, Smyth, Wash, Wheeler etc can play off him. A Helguson, basically.
And a centre half. I worry about Hall, Lynch lacks consistency, and Robbo gone. We need someone new in there.
If Perch goes, maybe a right back, as furs wold be our only one? Do we need a left back to give competition to Bidwell?
|Antti's Six Knee Jerks: Fulham 2 QPR 2|
at 12:20 19 Mar 2018
Full disclosure, couldn't attend for a variety of reasons, so watched on laptop while child was watching Ninjago. He was slightly startled when I leapt up, thanks to Pav. A result I did not see coming, even after the Miracle of Villa Park.
1. WZSOLEK: It's been a difficult time for Pav. This time a year ago, there were people on here calling him 'premier league class' and worrying that we'd lose him to a richer side sooner rather than later. But this season then he was a victim of Ollie's incessant tinkering towards the end of last season, and has had a stop-start season this term. He's probably best suited as wide right in a midfield four, or wide of a three playing further up, but while he has had runs in the side this season, it's been mainly as a wing back, or even as a full back.
He deserves credit for working at his game in those positions (his first time at RWB was genuinely terrifying, with Fleming basically coaching him through it) but it's deprived us of his danger further forward, and it's always seemed a bit of a waste. I've never subscribed to the 'premier quality' line, but at the same time, I like Pav a lot - because there is a lot to like: determination, strength, ability to keep the ball, energy levels, and the nice cut back he does (if only we had forwards who could take advantage of it). But, he hasn't had the impact this season that we all were hoping for around Jan/Feb last year.
Until Saturday. On TV, Hinchcliffe was heavily critical of him (of course he was, Hinchcliffe's continuing hatred of us continues to baffle) for first not taking on a volley from a Bidwell cross (the problem with too many pundits these days is that tjhey judge everything the prism of Messi or Aguero or Kane - zero allowances made for players that haven't got absolutely perfect technique) and then for not tracking Fredricks for the second goal (although he kind of did, and was blocked by a Fulham player, and he was probably entitled to expect Bidwell to have been a little wider). And yet, in a really poor first half, he was by far our best player. Not only did he work hard at the back, he was also a genuine threat going forward, despite playing in an unfamiliar role on the left. He was the player smart enough (and quick enough) to exploit Fulham's high line and expose a weakness that we attacked better after the break - and particularly once we had the added mobility of Smyth and Washington on the pitch.
After the break, if anything, Pav's effectiveness increased. The rest of the team took their cue from him and we started to win so much of the ball. He put in some great balls, he was a constant menace, he linked up well with Bidwell, he kept the ball well and then, finally, he got the goal his performance deserved. Nicking the ball was good, but the way he flicked it in front of him, leaving Odoi flat-footed. He still had much to do and bravely took it on early with a finish so calm you have to wonder how on earth that was only his second of the season. For me, man of the match, and I'm delighted by that. The change of formation has benefited so many players - and he's one of them, and just a week or so after whether you wondered he may struggle to get back in the side.
2. MISSING SCOWEN: Steve McClaren managed to be more insightful in about 10 seconds than Hinchcliffe manages in an entire game (Hinch, along with Savage, comes from the school of 'Should've' - ie: when a corner hits the first man: 'should've beaten the first man'; when a shot goes wide: 'should've got it on target' etc. The laziest sort, which tells the viewer absolutely sod all they haven't already seen) when he pointed out that both Fulham's goals would have been prevented had we had the sitting midfielder in front of the centre backs that this formation requires. Spot on. Scowen may not have been in top form over the last couple of months, but I mentioned after the Sunderland game how vital his presence is, how much unsung work he does, how many crucial challenges or interceptions he makes. On Saturday, I'm not sure whose job that was first half - presumably Luongo - but not only was he not doing that job well, neither was anyone else. The space at the back of our midfield was huge and Cairney fully exploited it. The encouraging thing was that Ollie did the necessary at half time and things were miles better after the break, when the lack of a rat was much less pronounced.
3. LUONGO'S GOAL: It was a really disappointing first half from Luongo - the way he played was a microcosm of the team as a whole. Too slow, too weak, no belief. Giving the ball away cheaply. No zip in the passing. No crunch in the tackles. Indeed, it was his poor ball that led to the first goal. However, one of the chief, and fair, criticisms of Mass has been his lack of goals. Now, though, he has five for the season, which is par for a player in his position. If he could get 8-10 a season, then that is superb. It's what midfielders probably aim for, but few actually get. And this was a class goal. Good free kick, good knock down, but he had loads to to score - to control with his head and still slam in the volley showed superb technique, and really that goal changed the game. I'm not sure, had we gone in two-down, that the second half would have been the same. It lifted us, gave us belief despite being totally out-played for 45 minutes, and in the end, it should have helped us to three points.
Second half, Luongo again epitomised the team as a whole. Winning more of the ball, using it better, pressing higher, and he as well as Manning, who seemed to come in field to great effect, suddenly took control of the midfield that had been all Fulham before the break.
4. FURLONG: I worried for him in this game. He has definitely looked so much happier at right back, but this was a huge test against the frequently brilliant Sessegnon. His early touches maybe betrayed his knowledge of this. I think his first three or four contributions were to kick it out, give away possession, or clear the ball to safety. But from there he settled in and Sessegnon never quite had the impact we would have expected. This was a really good sign, and maybe we're even seeing the distant echo of his tough experiences years ago against Sanchez and Bolassie. It won't ever get tougher than that, and so really he has nothing to be scared of. He has all the tools and I've said before I still think he'll in three or four years move into central defence. And, as against Sunderland, he once again here made an absolutely vital clearance with his head and his ability in the air is a real bonus for the back four.
There was a really interesting discussion about Furlong on the board on Saturday about his improvement. I think the fact is that he is one of the big beneficiaries, along with Bidwell, Pav and Eze, of the move to a back four. All season he's been asked to play as a wing back, and when he has we've questioned his positioning. But perhaps that just shows what a bastard of a position that is. I don't blame Ollie for using it early in the season when it was getting results, I just blame him for not changing it sooner when too many teams had spotted how to exploit it. The truth is, we don't even have one proper wing back, because Bidwell, Robinson, Pav, Perch and Furs have all tried, and none have convinced except in odd games. Now back at right back, his positioning has improved. Is it his game has improved, or is it that, as McClaren suggested on the telly, things have been simplified and the back four now know what their jobs are. It's been noticable in recent games how much less players have been looking to the bench doing the arms out 'whatg am I supposed to be doing, where should I be' gesture.
He's not the finished article, but hopefully now that spot is his, and hopefully even when he has the inevitable bad game, he won't be immediately dropped and made to wait weeks for another chance.
5. SMYTH: After a difficult game against Sunderland, and being out the team with an injury while they put in their best performance of the season, he must've been desperate to do well when he came on. It showed. I thought it was a brilliant substitution by Ollie. Pav had shown in the first half they were vulnerable to straight low balls between full backs and central defence, but the problem was neither Eze nor Smith were able to exploit that. The signs were there: once Freeman was played through with a defence-splitting ball, but he didn't have the pace to capitalise, and a second time when he did get one-on-one, he could only blast his shot straight at the keeper.
Smyth and Washington came on and suddenly not only were the midfield harrying a flustered Fulham, but they had to contend with two nippy forwards doing it as well. Undoubtedly the work of Smyth and Washington contributed to Pav's goal indirectly, because Fulham were starting to live on the edge by then. But of the two, once again, Smyth shone, having a similar impact to Shodipo's cameo at the Cottage last season. His directness, willingness to run, and quality of delivery caused them new problems, and he was so unlucky that his smart cut ball back to Freeman didn't yield an equaliser.
6. COUSINS: Poor old Cousins. Two seasons of injury and misery. And thrown in to a tough game for the excellent Manning. He had a big job on - not only to stop Fulham from extending their lead but also to help us get an equaliser. And here's where momentum and confidence make a difference. With the team playing well, Cousins didn't need to turn the game - he was just needed for added energy. And while Smyth will take the plaudits, I thought this was Cousins' best showing for a while. He looked comfortable, he was effective, he won the ball, his passing was crisp. It would be a huge boon if he can start stepping up.
So, a poor first half, a very good second and things looking up. But is this now the danger? There is a theory being tossed about that Ollie is dangerous when things are going well. Tactical things worked v Villa and second half v Fulham. We're unbeaten in four and few would have predicted 8 points out of 12 from those fixtures. We're all but safe, we can begin to look forwards. But, this theory goes, when all is rosy, Ollie starts to thing he's Guardiola and he can't leave well enough alone. He over-complicates it, we begin to lose, and he has to find the formula again. I don't know if that's true. I'm not sure how anyone can, but it does have a ring of truth. In his two spells as manager he's had these runs:
Winless runs: 9, 12, 8, 6, 6, 6, 7, 6
Undefeated runs: 10, 13, 9, 7 (wins)
Is that normal? I don't know. There are lots of four-game losing streaks I haven't listed there too. That streakiness is more pronounced over the last year than it was before, but it's always been there. 9 without a win at promotion-chasing Palace in his short spell there. 9 wins, a draw and a loss in 11 at Blackpool. Runs of 6 and 9 with no wins in the Prem with Blackpool. 7 without a win at Leicester. 9, 8, 6, and 7 winless runs in just over a year at Millwall. I don't know what the answer to this is, maybe it's typical of all middling managers, but if he can find a way to stop the bust in his boom and bust... that would be handy.
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