Washington, Mackie and a flying start – Knee Jerks
Monday, 7th Aug 2017 14:02 by Antti Heinola
Antti Heinola returns for the new season to reflect on the weekend win against Reading with his six key talking points.
I always say it: don't read anything into the first game of the season. OK, fair enough: when we beat Blackpool 5-0 on the opening day in 2003 having lost the play-off final months before, it was clear we, and new signing Gareth Ainsworth, meant serious business. And, when we lost 4-0 to Bolton and 5-0 to Swansea it was fairly clear long seasons lay ahead.
But still, first games of the season are, by definition, just one game and in any season teams will have days where things go right and things go wrong. Ten games in is the first time conclusions can start to be drawn. Look at the start of last season: 3-0 v Leeds, 2-0 v Cardiff and we dreamed of promotion. Newcastle lost their opening two games. Things went quite differently quite quickly after that. The year Reading won the league with 100 points, they lost their first match to Plymouth.
Still, this was great, wasn't it? I'd say a better all-round performance than against Leeds last year, because Leeds so clearly were about a month behind us in terms of preparation. Ned's mistake excepted, there's almost nothing negative to say. And even that error could generously be put down to Chief deciding Smithies should have to do something to earn his money this week. Pleasingly surprising with a number of very good performances.
Well, having engaged in a little discussion about Washington on here in the last week or so, it was particularly pleasing to see him have such a good game and grab his first brace for the club at long last. Keep this up and simple mental arithmetic tells me that's he on course to net around 92 goals this season, which would certainly, I can tell you, be one in the eye to his critics.
In a game that was full of potential player of the match winners (Scowen, Luongo, Freeman, Mackie, Pav, Washington) he probably edges it for the goals that won the game. I saw a few people here wistfully thinking about how many Austin would've scored on Saturday, and I can understand that. But the Austin days are long gone, and they aren't coming back any time soon unless we get ludicrously lucky or Mel Johnson / Gary Penrice finds us a genius who can score with either foot and his head and is available for £500k. So it's pointless being so wistful. Conor is what we have now, and contrary to many views, nine goals last season (technically it was 11, let's face it) was not an awful total, especially for someone in and out the side and spending a lot of time out wide. What we have here is a player with ability, a willingness to learn, a bit of pace and some strength. If he can get on a scoring streak again, and get his confidence high, he's a very decent striker.
I thought on Saturday he was great and played really well with Mackie. Superb work rate, he showed for the ball, he pulled defenders this way and that and he was in the right place at the right time on four or five occasions. That is a real improvement on last season. It was brave of Ollie to stick him up there with no big man, but he and Mackie more than made up for that with their energy and determination to rough up the Reading back four.
Yes, there was one glaring miss and one shot where he should have done better, but it was a decent header for the first and then he kept his cool impressively when having to wait ages to take his spot kick. Got to say, I wanted Freeman to take it, but I needn't have worried. And Washington *should* be our penalty taker (if Yeni is off the pitch). He's our striker - penalties are easy goals. All strikers should want them. Really glad he took the responsibility and tucked it away so nicely. Let's hope that rib/back/side injury is not serious. He needs to stay in the side now.
Sometimes looked more like a 3-5-2, other times more like a lop-sided 4-1-3-2 or a diamond with Pav going wide one side and no one going wide on the other. But maybe we can get too bogged down in formations. The important thing is that it worked and that the players looked comfortable and all seemed to know what their job was. I think we all raised eyebrows at the omission of Manning, even from the bench, and we all know there's some kind of rule that if Hall doesn't play we probably won't win, and we also all know that Conor up front without a big man definitely does not work - ever. Yet we won. Comfortably. It all worked.
Why? I think a few reasons. One was that the team looked well-prepared and knew their roles. Two was that Reading were not prepared, or able, to deal with the harrying of our front six, who all worked their bollocks off. Three was that we played to our strengths according to the 11 out there. And that was most important. The tiresome high balls to Smith were gone, and instead almost every attack was launched through our fluid midfield. Mackie and Washington ran and found space so our midfield had options. And in the second half in particular, Lynch and Luongo both found Pav on the right wing with superb, game-stretching long balls - good long balls dropped over the fullback, not aimless humps. Against other teams, we might need a battering ram up there, but for now, this was brave management that paid off.
All of a sudden, we have real competition in this area. And it's quite exciting. At the base of the four was Scowen, who had a very good debut I thought. Won a lot of the ball. Seemed to be in places where we had holes last season. Passed it well. Organised well. Him being there released Luongo and Freeman to get forward. I think Luongo spent more time in or near the six-yard box in one game than he did for the whole of last season, and was really unlucky not to score with his cracking first time effort that hit the post and somehow came out. I thought he was outstanding. He looked bigger, stronger, more confident. Excellent on the ball in tight spaces, strong in possession, great range of passing and made several great tackles. Is he about to step it up? It was great to see he, Pav and Freeman all really supporting the front two and not isolating them.
Freeman was allowed to attack, but perhaps didn't get into the box as much as Luongo. Instead, he buzzed around the edge of the box, causing problems, linking play, picking up loose balls and, of course, doing a step over every time he received the ball. He loves a step over. Lovely battle and then clever flick to help set up our first. And then there was Pav, a player Ollie didn't use enough last season, but a player that really is key to us having any chance of getting goals this season. Worked like a demon, covered intelligently when Perch tucked in or went forward, good on the ball, great delivery for the opening goal and won the penalty.
You have to feel for Manning and Cousins and Borysiuk. These four might take some shifting if they can continue that sort of form.
The pace is not quite there anymore but that hasn't dimmed his ludicrous desire to play and win. A bit of a surprise to see him start, but it was an inspired choice. I think he set up four or five chances in the game, never let Reading settle, and was a really annoying bastard until he was substituted to a richly deserved round of applause.
Some people questioned his contract extension. But I doubt he's on a huge wage, and people like Mackie are like gold dust. He won't play every game. He might mainly be a sub. But what he brings is so valuable - determination, encouragement, belief, fire. A few years back, he never would have created that early chance for Conor - he'd have been away from the defender and scored himself. Now, he couldn't muster the speed he needed, but still he was smart enough to play it square and create a very decent chance. Later in the half, when we outnumbered them in the box, he almost had too many options and did choose the wrong one, but we can let him off that. He's Jamie Mackie, not Kevin de Bruyne. And who would take KDB over Mackie? Not me.
How he was not booked by the ref (who I think should take all QPR matches from now on), I will never know. I'm pretty sure he gave him three final warnings. Top work from the official.
Baffling. Reminded me a bit of when Rodgers' Swansea came down when Hughes was manager and we beat them 3-0. They came with a game plan. We picked it apart (Mackie a big part of that too, I seem to remember), and then they just kept on doing the same thing again and again, expecting something to change.
After they survived our initial onslaught on Saturday, they did make some in roads and got in behind our defence two or three times and put some dangerous crosses in. But that was about it. Swift was smothered out of the game. Bodvarsson looked awful (I saw WLS claim he caused Lynch some issues - they must've been at a different game, because he really was terrible and caused zero problems all day) and Reading had no idea what to do when they were behind. They stuck with their compact shape, their banks of four, and allowed Ned and Lynch to pass it between themselves for what seemed like minutes on end at a time when we were 2-0 up. While we harried them all over the pitch, they let us have the ball and allowed us to pick our passes. I know they had a couple of injuries, but so did we, and they had four new signings, who all played. Yes, there was no Grabban, Williams or Kermogant from their play-off team, but I don't think you can use that as an excuse for such an unadventurous display when 2-0 down. Part of that was down to QPR working so hard to unsettle them and give them no time on the ball, but equally, they never really put us under any pressure or threw caution to the wind.
Maybe we just match up well to them, but I expected much better from a team that must be looking for promotion. Plenty were dishing out the negatives based on our friendly games with them, but it goes to show - friendlies never, ever mean anything at all.
Player You Haven't Thought of For Bloody Ages, No. 79: Hassan Kachloul.
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