QPR improve, but suffer same result at Villa - Report
Wednesday, 5th Apr 2017 15:12 by Colin Speller
QPR slipped to a second consecutive 1-0 defeat on the road at Aston Villa on Tuesday night, but as Colin Speller reports for LFW this performance was a great improvement on the Derby no-show.
I am currently resident in Birmingham, so in the absence of the rest of the LFW gang and, thus, the usual pre-match fun, I had the curious experience of setting off for a game about an hour from kick-off. I like Villa Park, a ground steeped in history that has been adapted for the modern world without losing its identity. With a crowd of just over 27,000, it was barely two-thirds full on the night but when roused positively the home fans delivered significant noise and encouragement to their team.
The relatively modest numbers of QPR supporters were accommodated in the corner of the lower tier of the side stand and my initial seat in row C offered a view that was about level with the pitch and, thus, pretty unsatisfactory for any sort of perspective on the game. So, I took the opportunity of the fair amount of space in the allocated seats to migrate to the top of the tier, as did several others, more of which later.
With relegation a very unlikely risk and little else to play for other than the pride of a higher league position, Ian Holloway – quite rightly in my view – took the opportunity to experiment a little. In front of Alex Smithies he fielded a fairly conventional back four of Bidwell, Hall, Onuoha and Furlong. He brought back Luongo into the midfield and gave a start to Sean Goss. With Mackie and N’Gbakoto on the wings, the other midfield place was taken by Luke Freeman. Idrissa Sylla ploughed a lone furrow up front.
The initial exchanges were not encouraging. Rangers seemed a little disorganised and undisciplined and in a very early phase of the game I noticed five or six players at or across the halfway line despite Villa having calm and unhurried possession at the back and, thus, every opportunity to by-pass most of the QPR team with a relatively simple ball. It was just such a pass, albeit from a free kick from the goalie, that did just that and a few moments later Adomah was crashing the ball against a post. Not long after that, Bacuna slipped the ball to Kodjia to smash it home. Knife, butter, 1-0 and it looked as if it was going to be one of those long nights.
This feeling of impending gloom was exacerbated when one of the many people who had joined me in moving to empty seats at the top of the tier launched into a loud, invective-filled and more than slightly racist deconstruction of Birmingham and everyone who lives there, particularly poignant to me as one of those residents, sitting two seats in front of him. I chose to keep my thoughts to myself but a Villa supporter in the adjacent seats started to respond in kind. With most of us around shrinking into our seats – and a family with two small children clearly disturbed by the incident – the stewards moved in.
Now it is a well-known fact that football match stewards can be real bell-ends, often creating as more trouble than they stop, but I take my hat off to the guys who dealt with this. Their opening gambit was to plead reason and when that had clearly failed they came back up and quietly and politely asked the bloke to accompany them downstairs for ‘a chat’. To his credit, he went reasonably quietly. ‘He won’t be back,’ said one of his mates – and he was right, much to the relief of those of us who had come to watch the football.
With order restored, I was able to concentrate on the game and to my pleasant surprise – and rather like Newcastle away – Rangers grew steadily into it as the half progressed, holding a lot of possession and building one or two opportunities. Luongo, Freeman and Goss swirled around the midfield like a swarm – Luongo all hustle and bustle and Goss seeking space and pinging impressive passes in all directions.
But, it was Freeman who caught my eye. He really is a very impressive and skilled footballer, capable of bringing the ball under control almost however badly it is delivered to him. He has the capacity to beat people – often two at a time – and the strength to ride challenges. If he has one weakness, it is the choice and/or execution of the final ball, but this is a problem for the team as a whole, a mater to which I shall return.
Despite the possession, energy and application, Rangers did not really threaten in the rest of the first half. A shot from Yeni was deflected for a corner and Mackie shot wide, but that was about it.
My impression of the early stages of the second half was that Villa started stronger. A break on their right saw Bidwell outnumbered, but the shot was wild and high. Then Luongo blocked a shot on the line, turning it out for a corner.
Despite this, I wouldn’t say QPR were over-run, but Holloway had clearly sensed some waning of the energy in the team and on 64 minutes he brought on Smith for Sylla. Further substitutions followed at 72 mins (Washington for Goss) and 75 mins (Petrasso for Furlong). It was a feature of the early part of Holloway’s current reign that his substitutions made things worse, but in recent times they have improved things and that was certainly the case for the first two here. Smith manufactured a decent header from an indifferent cross that from our perspective looked to be creeping inside the post, but sadly was wide. Washington shot sharply but also wide. Luongo got a shot on target (QPR’s only one of the night) but it was an easy take for Johnstone.
There were times in the last 20 minutes where QPR laid siege to the Villa goal, but in truth they never really opened up a defence that had only conceded one goal in seven games. Villa defend in numbers, they block very well and are skilled at hitting the deck under the most gentle of challenges. But, in reality, it was the lack of quality in the final quarter of the field that cost QPR here.
Inevitably, Villa had chances on the break and probably should have scored. Hutton cut the ball back from the by-line to a pretty defender-light penalty area but it went behind the onrushing attacker. Amavi cut inside from the left and blasted over when he had better options. In the end, though, Villa had done enough and hung on for another win.
The mood of the QPR support at the end was overwhelmingly positive, with most people expressing the view that we should have got something out of the game. And, if we look at the team as a ‘work in progress’ I believe we should be positive about this one as there was a lot about it that was encouraging. I liked the energy and application – there was little sign that the cue had been placed on the rack – and I believe that players who will be key to next season and beyond can and will improve. I’ve seen some pretty dire QPR surrenders away from home over the years, and this was not one of them.
The points for improvement? We’ve clearly got to do better in the last quarter of the pitch. There is no doubt that all of the midfield five who started on Tuesday have got skill, energy and determination, but their choice of final ball was often poor and the execution indifferent at best. Despite the hurly-burly of the last 20 minutes, at no point did Smith receive a quality cross that he could really attack with his head. Too often balls were fired low into the box into a sea of players, or a high cross wasn’t high enough and hit the first man. Added to this there is often hesitancy where there should be movement, or a safe pass when there is a clear opportunity to make a threatening one.
I fully support Holloway’s decision to start Sylla. There is no question that Smith is a better player at the moment, but with nothing to play for other than pride it is essential he gives Sylla game time if he is to make anything of him. It is evident that the lectures about running have been heeded and on occasions he challenged well. But, he never seems to be in quite the right place to receive the ball and his first touch always gives defenders a chance. Whether these things can be ironed out, only time will tell, but in Matt Smith he has a decent role model.
I do think the passing leaves something to be desired. Football is a game that turns on milli-seconds and the loss of time associated with dealing with the receipt of a pass of the wrong pace or position can mean the difference between opening up a side and giving them chance to defend. Too often the QPR passes were too hard, or too soft, or bobbled over a very smooth pitch. Grant Hall was a particular culprit in all three of these issues. Whilst this gave Freeman plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his consummate skill at gathering in the ball, killing it and moving it on, not everyone else could do the same and moves often lost momentum because of this subtle, but essential element of quality.
Also, we simply have to get the matter of the quality of the final ball ironed out. I actually made the same observation in the same city only a few weeks ago in the very different circumstances of a 4-1 win. At 2-0 and with Birmingham pressing, QPR broke on several occasions but failed to deliver a decent cross. When Wszolek finally got one in the right place it was 3-0 and game over.
And the other key part of a good Championship team is to hoover up the ‘second ball’. This was a key skillset of the 2010-11 side and it’s one that needs more work from this team.
But, we should be content that (a) we are in a decent position with scope to explore these issues without pressure and (b) that what needs to be done in terms of improving the play of the team and the squad itself should be very clear to those much more qualified to deal with the issues than I am.
A mention to the Chief, who defended well, including one crucial tackle to prevent a clear Villa breakaway. But, more importantly, he looked calm and confident in bringing the ball forward, something that has been very absent at other times this season. I thought Sean Goss acquitted himself well and everyone else hitherto not mentioned put in a decent shift. The worst part of these reports is doing the player ratings because (a) I have never really cared about such things, (b) as a consequence I really struggle to do it and (c) it is almost always the case that the first response to over 2,000 words of prose is something like ‘why did you only give a 4 to [insert name of player] – he should have been at least a 6!!’ Overall, I thought this was a very decent team effort that on another day would have earned a point and, with better quality in and around the box, maybe more. Of course, this all has to be seen in the light of the relevance of the game – had we needed the three points to keep clear of relegation I would have had a more critical view of individual performances.
As for Villa, on this showing it is difficult to assess them. Their defence is clearly very sound and in the likes of Jedinak and Lansbury they have a solidity that should play well in a long Championship campaign. Kodjia is obviously class, but I thought he had a quiet night, rather choosing to pace himself than to really go for it. With the money they’ve spent, the infrastructure and history and the capacity to fill the ground if they do start playing well, they should be a force next year. But, it will be a crucial year for them.
So-called ‘big’ clubs that don’t get promoted after two years can start to feel the pinch, with the mood and attendances starting to wane. They can then stick indefinitely, or worse still sink further. And the ground and crowd noise is very much a two-edged weapon – it was clear on Tuesday when the natives didn’t think it was going well, though on this showing they have some way to go to match the Wolves supporters on abuse of their own team. All in all, Villa will be hoping that the ‘top of the form table’ end to his season will be the springboard to automatic promotion next year.
Finally, hats off to the few hundred hardy souls who made the trip. Birmingham is certainly not as grim as portrayed by my vociferous neighbour in the early part of the game, but as I well know from midweek fixtures at HQ, it’s a long way away when the motorways are closed for repair and the trains are sent via Northampton. With that glorious prospect in mind, I will see you all at Loftus Road on Friday night for another stern test of Holloway’s youthful prospects.
Aston Villa: Johnstone 6, Hutton 6, Chester 6, Baker 6, Taylor 6, Jedinak 7, Lansbury 7, Bacuna 6, Adomah 6 (Hogan 77, 6), Amavi 7 (Green 85, -) Kodjia 6 (Elphick 90, -)
Subs not used: Hourihane, Bree, Bunn, Grealish
Goal: Kodjia 5 (assisted Bacuna)
Yellow Card: Kodjia 87 (foul)
QPR: Smithies 6, Bidwell 6, Onouha 6, Hall 5, Furlong 6 (Petrasso 75, 5), Mackie 6, Freeman 7, Luongo 8, Goss 6 (Washington 72, 6) N’Gbakoto 6, Sylla 5 (Smith 64, 6)
Subs not used: Ingram, Wszolek, Perch, Manning
Yellow Card: Mackie 23 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Massimo Luongo 8 I liked Freeman’s skill and creativity but in terms of an all-round shift my vote goes to Massimo Luongo for a display of determination, skill and energy.
Referee – Peter Bankes (Merseyside) 7 I sit near a guy at HQ who only ever comes alive in a game to berate the referee, irrespective of how well or badly QPR are playing or what else has gone on during the game. So, if he is silent for 90 minutes, the ref has done well. After many years, I can sense when a ref would cause him to explode and I’m pleased to say that Mr Bankes did not cross that threshold. Generally unfussy and only two cards in a competitive game. Took at least two opportunities to keep his cards in his pocket in favour of a quiet word in the aftermath of robust, but genuine, challenges.
Attendance 27,154 (500 QPR approx) The QPR fans weren’t noisy but were engaged and very supportive of their team’s efforts. The home fans were quiet for long periods, edgy and restless at times and occasionally very noisy. Large swathes of empty seats, and one area of one stand closed altogether stood testimony to the relevance of this game to both clubs.
The Twitter @colinspeller
Pictures – Action Images
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