Leadbitter’s late penalty sinks battling R’s - Report
Sunday, 22nd Nov 2015 19:39 by Clive Whittingham
A late Middlesbrough penalty denied QPR a point they deserved from an improved showing on Friday, but the tactics and selection ran counter to the club’s “raised expectations” mantra.
Compared to where QPR were even six weeks ago, walking out at Middlesbrough without a recognised striker on the field and with Kevin Blackwell directing traffic from the dugout is some fall. Another defeat at the Riverside on Friday night made it no wins, and no goals scored, from the last four games and a descent down the Championship table is gathering ominous pace.
Middlesbrough are one of the better teams in the division, with a formidable home record of only one defeat and just two goals conceded all year going into this match. Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton were reunited as their deep-lying midfield combination and you’ll struggle to find a better partnership in that position than those two in this division. This is a team - well drilled, greater than the sum of its parts, built over several campaigns from a very low starting point by manager Aitor Karanka and invested in heavily this season for a final push.
With that in mind, QPR’s disparate rabble could be reasonably pleased with their first 45 minutes. Winger Matt Phillips was ostensibly the lone striker with a four man midfield behind him and Sandro sitting deeper still in a 4-1-4-1 set up. It’s not something Rangers have tried yet this season (Lord knows they’ve tried just about everything else) and initially it seemed to surprise the hosts.
During a reasonably bright start to the game Paul Konchesky drove forward from left back, executed a one-two with Leroy Fer and shot straight at goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos, who was the unfortunate goalkeeper undone by a stray bottle cap for Bobby Zamora’s late winner last time these two sides met on this ground.
But this was, in the main, a side set up to frustrate Middlesbrough, and while that seems odd considering we’ve been told that expectations have changed and we have the players good enough to push for promotion now, it did that reasonably well. Boro didn’t craft a single chance in the first 15 minutes and the home crowd quickly settled down to almost complete silence.
That was no thanks, really, to the two full backs, who once again had poor games – Perch so off the pace he was eventually moved to right wing with much-maligned Karl Henry slotting in at right back and doing a very decent job. But it was bolstered by the performance of the two centre halves – Grant Hall, who has been great all season, and Nedum Onuoha, who had probably his best game of what’s been a poor personal campaign so far.
It was Onuoha who rescued Rangers after a quarter of an hour when Boro did finally work out how to pick the lock. The former Man City man is quicker, and far more athletic, than most Championship centre backs and he needed to strain every one of his many muscles to reach a chipped through ball from Clayton and acrobatically hook it away from David Nugent as he threatened to pile through on goal. Later Nugent hit the post from point blank range after Albert Adomah had tempted Konchesky way out of position tight to the touchline and then exploited the acres of space he’d conceded behind him to cross low – a push from Onuoha as Nugent ran in perhaps just knocked the striker too far ahead of the ball but he still should have scored.
But it was Hall who impressed the most. This may be damning the former Spurs trainee with faint praise, but he reminds me of Martin Cranie when he was on loan here early in his career – i.e. before he discovered beer and broken legs. He reads the game well and positions himself accordingly, frequently making an interception and rarely having to lunge into a tackle – a crucial clearance in his own area four minutes before half time after Boro had skinned QPR’s makeshift, mediocre, right side once more absolutely typical. He’s well-schooled and growing in confidence while all around him lose theirs.
He may have had a goal too, had he not been wrestled to the ground in the area as he honed in on a corner. There were a couple of incidents like that but once Boro realised referee Chris Kavanagh was going to let it go on, they continued safe in the knowledge no spot kicks would be awarded. If only QPR had realised too, this may have finished 0-0 after all given how the match ended.
Hall was a real positive, as was the way QPR started the second half. Kevin Blackwell pointed out afterwards that as a veteran of three play-off finals he “knows what he’s doing” but this is a man who has been out of work since he was sacked by lowly Bury in 2013, and is best remembered for a medieval style of lumping the ball into the channels to turn full backs around as plan A, B and C even during his more successful stints prior to that. But he deserves credit for whatever was said during the break here because QPR re-appeared with an attacking purpose and ambition to their play.
For all the defensive improvements in the first period they only had an Ale Faurlin free kick, whipped in from a wide area after a foul on Fer by Leadbitter for which he was booked, that Konstantopoulos nervously fisted away to show for it. Faurlin had struggled during the first half, yards off the pace defensively and lucky to get away with a final warning from referee Chris Kavanagh for a wild lunge after 22 minutes. But with Neil Warnock literally phoning it in, in constant communication with Steve Gallen after a personal problem had prevented him from travelling, Faurlin and QPR began to grow into the game.
Great play from Fer and a slick pass from the Argentinean had Yun Suk-Young, recalled wide left, in space in the left channel of the penalty area from where he laid in a low cross which Matt Phillips somehow failed to bundle into the empty net during a biblical scramble on the goal line. Faurlin was then booked for another wild and late tackle but it didn’t disrupt the growing momentum as Phillips forced his way into the area with a purposeful run that allowed Fer to turn and shoot, sadly straight at the keeper.
Faurlin tried one himself after more enterprising work from Yun but saw his shot saved at the near post, then he played a glorious chipped pass which Phillips watched all the way over his shoulder and onto his boot but then thrashed at and missed completely when technically through on goal in the penalty area.
Later Faurlin played a delicious free kick from a wide area that Hall glanced wide with Konstantopoulos beaten.
It was certainly better than recent weeks, but that lack of a recognised striker was costing the R’s. Chances had been created, which is more than they’d managed against Preston, but they’d been missed and Warnock’s pointed decision to immediately ditch several of the summer signings made by his predecessor and Les Ferdinand – Seb Polter and Tjaronn Chery didn’t travel at all, Massimo Luongo was an unused sub – felt a little bit nose to spite the face stuff as the game wore on and players started to tire.
Faurlin and Sandro, after decent individual knocks, were both hanging long before the end but Blackwell had only Daniel Tozser to summon for the former – another poor 15 minutes from him here – and it took until nine minutes from time for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas to replace the latter. On a chilly night in the North east, Emmanuel-Thomas seemed to have turned up in every item of clothing he owned, and his impact was minimal when he did eventually get them all off and get on the pitch.
Sloppiness started to creep in. Hall, after initially intercepting the ball well, inadvertently gave it away to George Friend with a slack pass and he lashed wide of the top corner close to the hour mark. Within four minutes Stuart Downing had missed low to the right from similar range. Onuoha’s bad touch with a quarter of an hour left forced him to chop down Clayton for an obvious yellow.
Scenting blood, Boro sent on Kike for Adoma and nearly got their reward when Robert Green, terrifyingly and for reasons I cannot possibly fathom even after watching it back several times, walked off his line, underneath a deep cross three minutes from time, and then turned to pursue it across the six yard line leaving the goal unguarded – thankfully Kike headed off target.
And the trouble is, when you set up to try and get a point – as Rangers undoubtedly did, despite the flurry of chances at the start of the second half – you run the risk of conceding a goal and having to tear up the entire game plan and start again. Or, in the case of this match, conceding with the last kick having invited the pressure.
Five minutes of added time seemed generous given the lack of injuries and incident in the second half, but Boro only needed two of them to win the game. A simple back post corner, James Perch left Daniel Ayala unmarked, the Spanish defender executed a bicycle kick and Fer thrust out an arm on the goal line to divert it away. Replays suggested Robert Green may have got to it, although the shot carried plenty of power and the keeper looked to be too low to do much about it, but we’ll never know. I’ll castigate Perch for losing his man more than Fer for making a split second decision like that.
A red card, a Grant Leadbitter penalty, another 1-0 loss. QPR have tightened up at the back, but have now stopped scoring completely – from the most goals in the division to five blanks in six outings - and are thirteenth in the league.
It’s going to need a really strong, exceptionally talented, manager to arrest this slide and get this group of players moving in the right direction. Warnock and Blackwell basically admitted here, with their selection and tactics, that this team of players that have apparently raised expectations to “should achieve promotion” are actually only good enough to go to Middlesbrough, good but hardly infallible opposition, and play for a point.
Whether QPR can attract a manager of that calibre in their current state will become clear in the coming days.
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos 6; Nsue 6, Ayala 6, Gibson 6, Friend 6; Leadbitter 7, Clayton 7; Adomah 6 (Kike 78, 6), Fabbrini 7 (Stuani 63, 6), Downing 6; Nugent 5
Subs not used: de Pena, Meijas, Stephens, Zuculini, Woodgate
Goals: Leadbitter (penalty, handball Fer, 90)
Bookings: Leabitter (foul)
QPR: Green 6; Perch 5, Onuoha 7, Hall 7, Konchesky 5; Henry 6, Sandro 6 (Emmanuel-Thomas 81, -), Fer 5, Faurlin 6 (Tozser 75, 5), Phillips 6, Yun 6.
Subs not used: Smithies, Angella, Luongo, Petrasso, Blackwood
Red Cards: Fer 90 (deliberate handball preventing a goal)
Booked: Phillips (foul), Faurlin (repetitive fouling), Onuoha (foul)
QPR Star Man – Grant Hall 7 As said above, not losing his form or his confidence despite it draining away from others around him. Very assured at centre back, unlucky to lose.
Referee – Chris Kavanagh (Manchester) 6 I liked how he started this game. Faurlin, Friend and Leadbitter were all let away with a warning for fouls other referees would have booked them for, and by not showing yellows he didn’t create a situation later in the game where he would be under pressure to start showing red cards in a contest that never really called for it. Good game management. The big decision for the handball was correct as well, but QPR had one decent and one stone-wall shout for a penalty of their own when Hall was dragged to the floor as a cross was delivered. You have to be brave enough to give away teams decisions like that if they’re merited.
Attendance – 20,299 (300 QPR approx)
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