Close but no cigar for QPR despite leading twice at Boro - Report
Sunday, 17th Sep 2017 20:09 by Clive Whittingham
Injury-ravaged QPR led twice at promotion favourites Middlesbrough on Saturday before succumbing to a blistering spell of two goals in five second half minutes.
For the second time this week Queens Park Rangers contributed to as entertaining a game as you’ll see at Championship level, and for the second time this week they were denied the result they arguably deserved out of it by the woodwork late in the day.
On Tuesday against Millwall a grandstand finish in the teaming rain was denied its glorious conclusion when Luke Freeman’s injury time free kick struck the top of the crossbar and bounced away to safety. Rangers, who’d averaged a shot on goal every three minutes across the game, were forced to settle for a Desmond.
Then on Saturday against promotion favourites Middlesbrough on Teeside, a typically purposeful attack with plenty of men committed forwards for a long throw ended with the ball at the feet of half-time substitute Pawel Wszolek in the right channel of the penalty area four minutes from time. He went for power to the near post, rather than a more conventional shot across goal, beat home keeper Darren Randolph but saw the ball rebound back into play off the post.
That would have made it 3-3 in a frenetic game in which QPR led twice before falling behind and ultimately losing.
Ian Holloway’s men caught their hosts cold with a goal after just two minutes. Luke Freeman, somehow still maintaining his consistently high level of performance regardless of opposition and circumstance, laid the ball on a plate for David Wheeler to slam in his first goal for the club since joining from Exeter on deadline day in this his first full start for the R’s. After a quick check with the linesman to make sure it really was true, he looked absolutely beside himself with excitement.
That was remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, Middlesbrough have used the television money they got in last season’s Premier League, and their parachute money, and £20m+ in player sales to invest heavily in their team and manager this season. In attack alone they’ve added Ashley Fletcher (£6.5m), Britt Assombalonga (£15m), Martin Braithwaite (£9m), Patrick Bamford (£6m) and Rudy Gestede (£6m) since the turn of the year – an embarrassment of riches compared to the sow’s ear Ian Holloway is currently running past silk purse dealerships.
Secondly, as well as further additions in defence and midfield they’ve kept hold of one of the country’s outstanding young centre back prospects Ben Gibson despite relegation and they brought a formidable defensive record into this match. Prior to QPR’s arrival they’d kept four consecutive clean sheets in all competitions, and had won three and drawn one of their four home matches so far without conceding a goal. They’d let in just three goals in their eight matches so far this season and hadn’t conceded more than once at home in a Championship game in 23 outings – just six goals had been shipped in total in those games. Rangers had carved them apart within two minutes.
And thirdly, QPR came into the game beset by injuries. The club’s first choice back three, and two of their replacements, (Nedum Onuoha, James Perch, Joel Lynch, Steven Caulker and Grant Hall) are all medium-to-long-term injured or drunk and unavailable. Further bumps and bruises robbed Holloway of Josh Scowen, a key man in the improvements made so far this season, Conor Washington and several others. The team showed five changes from the Tuesday draw with Millwall and the last men standing at the back were youth team graduate Darnell Furlong, Alex Baptiste who was signed from Boro in the summer as little more than cover, Jack Robinson a recognised left back playing centre half, and Jake Bidwell. Massimo Luongo, so good in a more advanced role this season, had to drop back into Scowen’s position while Ryan Manning, who’s been finding his notoriously difficult second album exactly that this season, came in for a first league start ahead of him. First league start, too, for Kazenga Lua Lua.
And yet there the R’s were, roaring into the lead in the second minute. Not only that, but it could have been 2-0 soon after when Wheeler, again, shot just over after a trademark long throw from Robinson had fallen his way in the area.
Boro were, perhaps unsurprisingly, level by half time. Their two outstanding players on the day, former Oxford man Marvin Johnson and Chelsea loanee Lewis Baker, combined brilliantly with the former surgically cutting through the heart of the QPR team before reversing the ball into the path of the latter who’d been left to run in unchecked and finished beyond Alex Smithies for 1-1.
Britt Assombalonga headed wide, Johnson shot just wide of the post when given a clear sight of goal, Smithies made his weekly extraordinary save flinging himself to the left to deny Baker. But QPR had played well in the first half, particularly Luongo who was having the game of his life in midfield, and Manning who thankfully went back to keeping it simple, charging around the place and niggling opponents as he’d done to such great effect last season. A free kick from fully 40 yards, which Smithies didn’t even bother putting a wall up for, drilled into the nearest QPR player, rather summed up the host’s frustration by half time. QPR were level at the break, and well in the game.
Holloway, nevertheless, made two changes at half time. Kazenga Lua Lua, whose first half spent almost entirely winning free kicks having turned his man had come at some personal cost, was withdrawn injured and replaced by Pawel Wszolek. Jamie Mackie replaced Matt Smith in a tactical change to add more mobility to the attack.
That dramatic change in striker styles caught Boro cold and bore immediate dividends for the visitors when Mackie scored the most Jamie Mackie goal you’ll ever see within five minutes of the restart. Faced with the sort of situation you usually get away with as a defender, the sort of loose ball going back to the keeper most strikers don’t bother with, Gibson and Randolph must have been reasonably confident of escaping little more than a slightly hairy moment as the pair advanced towards each other with the ball in the middle of them just outside the penalty box. But Mackie was having none of that and one typical crash, bang and wallop through the pair of them later he was emerging on the goal side with the ball at his feet and the net unguarded ahead of him. 2-1.
But Garry Monk had changes of his own up his sleeve. The addition of Fletcher alongside Assombalonga, instead of the redundant second defensive midfielder Adam Clayton, was an obvious further headache for QPR’s makeshift defence. The goal also saw Jonny Howson slung on for Grand Leadbitter and the extra bodies committed to the attack sadly overwhelmed QPR’s rickety back line in five minutes around the hour mark.
Manning, for all his improvements, should probably have closed Christie down a little better for the Fletcher goal – a cute header guiding the ball beyond Smithies from an expertly delivered cross for 2-2.
Rangers have a reasonable case that the ball had gone over the dead ball line before the excellent Johnson stood it up for a chance Assombalonga couldn’t miss from five yards out minutes later for 3-2. That looked certain to be 4-2 as the onslaught continued but Smithies saved from Assomablonga and Furlong produced a goalline clearance the likes of which you’ll never see again to keep Fletcher away from the rebound with most of the home crowd already celebrating the goal.
QPR have been good this season. They pose an attacking threat, pass the ball nicely, play through opponents effectively and are good to watch. But even when their first choice defence was playing, they’ve proven vulnerable during those ten minute pleasure windows every team has in a game. Sheff Wed, Norwich, Millwall and now Middlesbrough have stuck five goals through Rangers in the 15 minutes immediately after half time when, ideally, you want to be soaking up anything new the opposition manager has to offer, quietening the crowd back down, working your position back into the game and then setting about playing through the final half hour. An Alex Smithies yellow card for timewasting as early as the fifty second minute betrayed the team’s nervousness with the situation, despite their accomplished performance to that point.
Game retrieved, Boro rather went back into their shells after that – though Assombalonga skied a wonderful chance to make it 4-2 high over the bar and off towards the docks on 72 minutes and Smithies spectacularly tipped over from the impressive Baker. Jamie Mackie’s scrap with Cyrus Christie, for which both players were yellow carded by excellent referee Darren Bond, showed Rangers weren’t done yet and Holloway sent on Idrissa Sylla to add more presence and threat to the attack.
The Guinean scuffed a back post volley from a tight angle as QPR began to press for an equaliser, and Wszolek couldn’t have gone much closer with four minutes left for play. Six minutes of added time offered hope but Middlesbrough, who’d really only played to their full potential for a blistering 15 minute spell in the second half, killed it off expertly.
You sense that until some bodies come back in defence, there’s going to be some high-scoring games at Rangers. They look so technically proficient playing through midfield, particularly Freeman who I just keep waiting to regress slightly from the ridiculously high standards he’s set since arriving in January but who just keeps producing game after game. And nobody in the defence that played on Saturday really did particularly badly – Baptiste is doing excellently considering I thought he was a bit of a clogger when he signed, Jack Robinson is finally (touch all the wood) stringing regular games together and holding his own out of position, Darnell Furlong had a tough time with Johnson and a mixed afternoon but there was as much good as bad, and Jake Bidwell is now the steady 6.5/10 full back we thought we’d signed initially. But against an attack that, through Assombalonga and Fletcher alone, cost north of £20m they were always likely to creak a little bit and so it proved.
The news that Nedum Onuoha is out for three months is a bitter blow. He has his critics – interestingly it’s lots of the same people who bang on about how shit he is who are now saying we’re fucked because he’s injured, anybody would think they just like moaning – but my prediction is you’ll see his importance during his absence over the next few weeks. QPR need to just keep posting points where they can, keep finding a way to get the total ticking over, with games like Burton at home next week particularly important, while they go through what will inevitably be a difficult period thanks to defensive injuries.
Keep their heads up, keep faith in this style of play, keep playing like this with the ball, and they’re still capable of winning plenty of games at this level even if the whole defence is injured. They could easily have got a point on Saturday from one of the, if not the, division’s best teams. But it’s easy for things to slip, for heads to drop, for form to dip, for players to feel a little bit sorry for themselves or use the injuries as an excuse. Crucial period coming up, especially the game at Loftus Road in a week’s time.
Boro: Randolph 5; Christie 6, Fry 6, Gibson 6, Fabio 5; Leadbitter 6 (Howson 56, 6), Clayton 6 (Fletcher 46, 7); Baker 8, Downing 6 (Forshaw 78, 6), Johnson 8; Assombalonga 7
Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Friend, Shotton, Bamford
Goals: Baker 36 (assisted Johnson), Fletcher 55 (assisted Christie), Assombalonga 60 (assisted Johnson)
Yellows: Clayton 34 (foul), Leadbitter 39 (foul), Christie 66 (unsporting), Baker 66 (foul)
QPR: Smithies 7; Furlong 6, Baptiste 6, Robinson 6, Bidwell 6; Luongo 8, Freeman 7, Manning 7; Lua Lua 6 (Wszolek 45, 6), Smith 6 (Mackie 45, 6), Wheeler 6 (Sylla 68, 6)
Subs not used: Borysiuk, Ngbakoto, Lumley, Osayi-Samuel
Goals: Wheeler 2 (assisted Freeman), Mackie 50 (unassisted)
Yellows: Luongo 32 (foul), Wszolek 47 (foul), Smithies 52 (timewasting), Mackie 66 (unsporting)
QPR Star Man – Massimo Luongo 8 The absence of Josh Scowen looked to be a big miss when the team was announced, such has been his impact since signing in the summer from Barnsley and the known importance of that role in front of the defence to QPR’s results under Ian Holloway. But Luongo filled in admirably, turning in a near perfect first half display in particular.
Referee – Darren Bond (Lancashire) 8 A lot of cards (eight) in a game that didn’t really feel like one of those but overall I thought he was excellent, in keeping with the unusually high standard of officiating we’ve had from the Championship officials in our games so far this season. Really contributed to the flow of an enjoyable game.
Attendance – 24,790 (500 QPR approx) A long old slog up to the north east, and not many QPR fans going through the early start and big mileage to support the team which is understandable if, again, a shame given how they’re playing.
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