Goals for the rest of the season? Column
Thursday, 12th Oct 2017 09:48 by Ram Chandra
Columnist Ram Chandra considers QPR’s striking problem, and how it can be solved in an overheated market with FFP considerations.
In 2006, the late NFL coach Denny Green held a press conference after a loss to the Chicago Bears. A journalist asked Green a seemingly harmless question about his opponents that evening, and Green inexplicably went apoplectic, yelling "THE BEARS ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE" before punching the microphone and storming out of the room.
After 11 matches this season, Rangers sit comfortably mid-table: not quite good enough to push for the playoffs, but not quite bad enough to get dragged into a relegation scrap. In other words: "THE R'S ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE".
Sure, there are always the few optimistic fans who dream of promotion after a few positive results at the start of the campaign; conversely, there are always the usual suspects who call for the manager's head and tweet Tony Fernandes to sell the club after a string of bad results. Yet through 11 matches, QPR is where it should be given our squad and striker situation. QPR currently leads the Championship in total crosses, and is fourth in shots and sixth in shots on target; despite this, QPR are only eleventh in goals per match, and have yet to seem threatening in front of net.
There was some discussion a few weeks ago on LoftForWords and the QPR Podcast about what QPR's midfield three should be called: LuScowGo, FreeMasSco, etc. Along these lines, I've wondered what we'd get if Dr Frankenstein created a striker combining the best attributes of our three strikers (Smith's physicality, Washington's pace and work rate and Sylla's clinicality) and excluding their worst qualities (Smith's glacial pace, Washington's strength and Sylla's depraved mental state). Matt Syllangton might be the 20-goal-a-season striker we're crying out for; unfortunately what we currently have is a collection of limited Championship calibre strikers.
In an overheated striker market in which Ashley Fletcher cost £8m, QPR lack both the financial power and the FFP wiggleroom to sign anyone of Matt Syllangton's stature. The exorbitant transfer prices at the top of the Championship will also start to have a trickle-down effect at the lower end of the Championship finance tables, as cash-strapped clubs will increasingly compete to find the next diamond in the rough (think Charlie Austin, Jamie Vardy, Jordan Hugill). Sorry QPR fans, but unless our academy produces a new prospect (and the track record ain't pretty), we're probably stuck with what we have this year. With that said, here are a few discrete thoughts on how QPR can optimise our pretty uninspiring goal-scoring situation. And yes, I promise I will not recommend recalling Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, whose career appears to be going the route of Monarch Airlines.
Suggestion 1: Mix and Match the Strikers
There is a segment of our fan base that believes that if Ollie gives one or two strikers a consistent run of matches, those strikers will suddenly start scoring goals. The way these QPR fans speak of our strikers reminds me of the way the American conservative media defends Donald Trump. Every few weeks, Republican television pundits ask Americans to give Trump another chance to gain his footing and start acting presidential, only to be disappointed by Trump's next (inevitable) Tweet storm. The man is 71 and isn't going to change anytime soon.
Similarly, giving Washington, Smith or Sylla a consistent run of games is not going to tell us anything we don't already know. Washington and Sylla have combined for over 100 Rangers appearances, while Matt Smith has been a Championship mainstay for five years. These guys are known commodities.
For instance, while certain aspects of Conor Washington's overall game have improved since he joined Rangers in January 2016, including a much-improved first touch, Washington still lacks a left foot, hold up play and clinicality in front of net. Matt Smith is an effective, yet highly one-dimensional striker who would probably lose to Jude the Cat in a foot race. Idrissa Sylla is easily our most perplexing striker. Through 39 league appearances, Sylla has netted 11 goals, all of which were scored either in or just outside the six-yard box. Yet despite his impressive strike rate, Sylla has maddened the fan base with his inconsistent work rate, glove-wearing in April, persistent and dramatic falling, attempts at playing physio and general eccentricity. Anyone who remembers Sylla and Yeni's penalty dispute last year against Rotherham knows that the man has a few screws loose.
Giving any of these strikers a regular run of matches is not going to make Washington taller or stronger, make Smith faster or sort out Sylla's mental state. Yet while our strikers are each average, they all have unique playing styles that might be handy in executing a bespoke game plan against specific opposition. For instance, against teams that like to play out of the back, such as Reading, Fulham or Norwich, QPR should partner pacey strikers with high work rates such as Washington and Mackie, to harry defenders in possession and spearhead a high press. To the extent this kind of opposition tries to build through the back and commit extra men to attack, Washington and Mackie provide a counterattacking threat that can run behind and prevent the opposition from creeping forward.
A partnership of Smith as the battering ram and Washington, Mackie or Wheeler playing off him is more effective against hyper-direct long ball outfits such as Millwall or ultra-defensive clubs like Burton Albion. Mackie and Washington's high-pressing skills are meaningless against clubs whose first option is to bypass the midfield entirely through long-balls from the keeper or defence. By contrast, Smith's inability to spearhead a high press is less of a liability against this type of opposition. In addition, Washington and Mackie's ability to run behind a defence are rendered useless against clubs like Burton who sit deep trying to defend. Against both Millwall and Burton, Rangers started with a Mackie and Washington partnership. Unsurprisingly, Rangers were impotent and outmanned in those matches until Holloway brought on Matt Smith. Against squads like these, I'd like to see Ollie test out a Smith-Wheeler partnership. Wheeler, who scored 20 goals for Exeter last season seems handy both in the air and at making late runs to the far post.
Idrissa Sylla could be the main man in a negative QPR set up. When QPR plays top-of-the-table teams away from home, such as Aston Villa or Wolves, Sylla might be handy as a solo striker in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1. Whereas Smith and Washington need another striker to play alongside them, Sylla can lead the line by himself. Sylla, who is effective at controlling long balls with chest, holding up play and drawing fouls, can allow Holloway to commit an extra body to defence against the teams at the top of the division. Sylla's clinicality in the box is also well-suited for pipping a smash-and-grab result.
I suspect a contingent of our fan base won't be happy with this mix-and-match approach to our strike force, still scarred by Ollie's tinkering at the end of last season; I, too, was one of the many critics of Ollie's late season carousel. However, my approach to striker rotation doesn't feel like tinkering. To me, tinkering is starting an out-of-form Ravel Morrison in central midfield against Brighton, waiflike Sean Goss in central midfield in a physical derby at Brentford and Michael Petrasso out of position at right wingback on his season debut against Sheffield Wednesday. In each of these cases, QPR fans were mostly bothered by the seemingly random nature of the squad rotation and the disruption to the squad's spine. This year, however, QPR has a steady spine, led by its formidable midfield trio of Luongo, Scowen and Freeman. Our consistent midfield has created a stable platform which allows Ollie to adjust our frontmen without massively disrupting the team's spine.
We need to remember that Washington, Smith and Sylla are relatively inexpensive Championship strikers precisely because they are so limited. Instead of bemoaning this fact and clamouring to bring in another striker, we should tailor our strike force to our opposition. Until Washington, Smith or Sylla strings together enough performances to warrant a consistent place, this mix-and-match approach seems to be the way forward.
Suggestion 2: Make Conventional Attacking Substitutions
Ollie's hold-nothing-back management style is one of the many reasons he's often popular amongst his players and fans. This aggressive approach regularly manifests itself in Ollie's substitution patterns, particularly when QPR are chasing a game. Ollie has frequently opted for kamikaze tactics to pulling back a goal, playing three or four strikers on the pitch together at the same time, most recently against Fulham and Hull this season, and against Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton late last season.
On occasions, this aggressive approach has been successful, as it was against Hull in August. However, this seems to be the exception rather than the norm.
Against Fulham, for example, QPR played about 10 minutes with Smith, Sylla and Washington all on the pitch together, with no conventional wide man to provide them service. Out of possession, QPR struggled to win the ball back, as the three strikers were unsurprisingly more interested in leading the line than winning the ball back. It was only after Ollie replaced Sylla with Wheeler did QPR seem to resemble a more balanced, potent attacking side.
I'd like to see Ollie opt for more orthodox attacking substitutions within the framework of a conventional formation, rather than committing as many men forward in the 2017 version of Herbert Chapman's W-M formation. Throwing as many forwards on the pitch as is humanly possible seems to be a short-term and unsustainable solution to solving our goal-scoring problems. Every Championship manager knows our Plan B, and will develop game plans to contain it. In the long-run, we will better if we learn how to chase games within a conventional framework.
Suggestion 3: Always Use Your Dragons
The takeaway from Season 7 of Game of Thrones is that you should always use your dragons. How much better would Westeros be if Daenerys crossed the Wall with her dragons in the ill-fated "Catch a White Walker" mission instead of bringing them on as a 68th minute substitution?
And on to Rangers: I've defended Ollie, and think the calls for his job are grossly premature at this point. But for fuck sake, if Ollie doesn't use Jack Robinson for long-throw ins, I may have no choice but to buy the domain for www.HollowayOut.com.
Robinson's long throws are a legitimate weapon. In case you forgot, rewatch the long throw Robinson delivered last season at home to Norwich: a 40 yard, accurate rocket that looked like it was developed in a North Korean laboratory.
I'll admit, this is a very niche point, but it drives me absolutely nuts when Jake Bidwell or Alex Baptiste takes our throw-ins in the opposition half. Robinson needs to be taking more, if not all, throw-ins from attacking positions, particularly when we have the likes of Smith and Wheeler on the pitch. In the latter stages of the Fulham match, Robinson took over the long throw-in duties and created a few real scoring chances. There is no justification for not taking more advantage of this weapon, particularly when we're struggling to score goals.
Suggestion 4: Adjust Your Expectations
This suggestion is more for our fan base, and I'll convey the point through a personal anecdote.
Every few months, I delude myself into thinking I can grow a six-pack if I just start exercising and improving my diet. The pattern is always the same. I temporarily change my habits and lose a few pounds, only to gain it back after a few bad nights out and late-night meals at KFC. After about 10 years of this unsuccessful song-and-dance, I've decided that I'm probably better off just buying bigger shirts.
Similarly, as a fan base, we need to manage our expectations. No one is happy that we sit sixteenth in the table, that we couldn't beat Burton or Fulham at Loftus Road or that we don't have a 15-goal-a-season striker who can consistently lead the line. But this is my sombre reminder that this season is about consolidation. The worst thing for the long-term health of the club is to panic in January and try to bring in an expensive striker; it will not get us promoted this year.
Instead, QPR's goal for this season should be to continue to build on the steady platform created by our midfield trio and Alex Smithies, develop some of our promising young talents (Manning, Osayi-Samuel, Chair, Eze and Shodipo, to name a few) and rid the wage bill of the massive amount of deadweight (I'm looking at you Ariel Borysiuk, Yeni, Michael Petrasso, JET and LuaLua). Then, next season, with a leaner squad and some financial wiggle room, QPR can think about improving its striker lot, perhaps with a veteran, short-term solution (e.g., a Glen Murray type) or a young Premier League loanee (e.g., a Tammy Abraham at Bristol City).
It's hard to be patient in the present, but very easy to be patient when looking at the past with the benefit of hindsight. Many of the fans who criticized QPR for trying to quickly spend their way to success between 2012 and 2014 now seem to want QPR to throw money at its goal-scoring problems. As frustrating as our strikers may be this season, the club should resist the urge to repeat its past mistakes.
Pictures – Action Images
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