The mid-season report – Column
Monday, 8th Jan 2018 11:34 by Ram Chandra
Regular columnist Ram Chandra returns to LFW to assess QPR’s defensive formation, the January transfer window, youth policy and the Ollie question at the halfway point of 2017/18.
I haven't been to many away fixtures this season, and the horror show at Millwall was certainly not a good advertisement for going back - 90 minutes of turgid hoofball and baffling tactics, a soft goal conceded and another away loss in the freezing cold.
After the match, the 1,800 QPR supporters who made it to the match were penned in like prisoners at the Den, only to be let out en masse into a quarter-mile makeshift cage until we reached the dangerously overcrowded South Bermondsey station. I managed to catch the first train to London Bridge, but not before being pushed and shoved by what felt like 30 different people all desperate to get home, and understandably unwilling to wait 20 minutes for the next train. Rush hour commuter trains in Mumbai are less crowded than the one I took, and after exiting the train at London Bridge like a drowning person popping up for air I immediately texted my girlfriend that I needed a new hobby.
But like the guy who vows to never drink again after a bad hangover, only to get pissed the next night, I somehow found myself at Loftus Road the next Monday. A match against promotion-pushing Cardiff when we're in poor form- what could go wrong? But if I've learned anything in the second Ollie era, its Holloway's Third Law of Footballing Physics: for every incredible QPR result (seven points at home against Wolves, Sheffield United and Bristol City), there must be an equal and opposite devastating result (draws against Burton, Bolton and white-walker Sunderland, 4-0 to Forest). No Rangers fan should have been surprised we beat a top four side in Cardiff after a string of crap performances—but the manner in which we did it was truly fairy-tale stuff.
I recently finished a massive project at work, representing the culmination of six months of late nights, ruined weekends and general misery. Completing this project was one of the highlights of my professional career, yet when I finished, I "celebrated" by exchanging a few congratulatory e-mails, turning off my computer and taking the tube home. There were no knee-slides or backflips in the office, no crowd clapping me off as I walked out of my office building, no post-match interview ("So Ram, how does it feel to finish your project?" "I'm delighted, but it's not about me; it's about the working group and us getting the deliverables to our client").
Perhaps this is a terrible reflection on my priorities in life, but I celebrated Paul Smyth's 72nd
As I do on my way out of the ground after every match, I pulled up the league table to see where we stood after the Cardiff match. My elation was somewhat dampened when I realised that despite our victory, we were still somehow only six points from the drop. I don't believe that we will go down, but the next five months are going to be an absolute dogfight. With that, here are my two cents on the "Usual Suspect" talking points: our defensive formation, the January transfer window, youth policy and the Ollie question.
One of the biggest perplexities of the Holloway era has been the underperformance of our defence, which has conceded the eighth most goals in the Championship. More troublingly for a team that struggles to score goals, Ollie's Rangers have managed to only keep seven clean sheets in his 59 matches in charge. Yes, we've had injuries at the back and recent bad luck with penalty decisions, but we still have a number of accomplished defenders with Premier League experience and pedigree, two of the best ball-winning central midfielders in the division and one of the best pure shot-stoppers in the entire Football League. Our defence should not be this leaky.
For starters, if we continue with three centre backs, Grant Hall needs to be slotted in at the centre, with Nedum Onohua to his right and the severely one-footed Jack Robinson to his left. Against Millwall, Ned played the central role, with Grant Hall to his right. Onohua is a very competent and underappreciated centreback, but like clockwork, he is guaranteed to make at least one or two terrible mistakes on the ball each match. By contrast, Grant Hall is our most comfortable centre back in possession with the widest array of passes in the locker. In possession, Hall can creep into deep midfield, allowing Scowen, Luongo and Freeman to push further up the pitch. Ned's pace is better suited to containing runs in the wide areas as a right sided centre back, where he also can have more freedom to make his charging forward runs with less fear of losing the ball in a dangerous area.
But all this talk about tweaking our current defensive system begs the question: why do we play with three centre backs and wingbacks in the first place?
In 2014, QPR tinkered with a wingback system under Harry Redknapp. The experiment was rubbished for good after one poor 45 minute spell against Spurs in August, but not before Redknapp managed to sign Mauricio Isla on loan, sell Premier League champion-in waiting Danny Simpson on the cheap and keep all-around-useless Armand Traore to accommodate the system.
Wingbacks came back in style across England last year when Antonio Conte experienced success with the system at Chelsea. Fair play to Conte, Wenger and Pochettino, who have all dabbled with the system in the past 12 months. Of course, it's a pretty logical system when you have the likes of Marcus Alonso, Hector Bellerin and Danny Rose, who could each be world-class fullbacks, out-and-out wingers or sprinters. Unfortunately for QPR, none of those players are walking through our doors any time soon. We are a Championship team assembled on a diminishing budget. We're lucky enough if our fullbacks can defend and our wingers can cross, let alone they try to do both.
Take Jake Bidwell, for example. Bidwell is a steady leftback who very rarely puts a foot wrong and is at least a 6.5/10 every match. Yet in two years of watching him play, I can't recall him playing a single good cross into the box. This makes sense. If he had a cross to his game, he'd be playing in the Premier League, not with a skint, bottom-half Championship side like us. The fact that we ask our wingbacks (or in the case of Jordan Cousins, a central midfielder) to be versatile enough to manage both the defensive and attacking duties of a wingback seems a bit daft.
I would personally revert to a back four, but I appreciate that Ollie may not be inclined to change the system nearly half way through the season. However, if we are going to persist with the system, Jordan Cousins and Jake Bidwell do not offer enough going forward to justify playing as wingbacks. Instead, why not give Darnell Furlong and Ryan Manning a chance?
Last January, fresh off a successful loan spell at Swindon, Furlong absolutely terrorised Reading down the right flank. Furlong may be low on confidence, has been injured, and needs to improve his final ball, but he is still our best right wingback and his pace and physicality are well-suited for the two-way nature of the position. Ryan Manning regularly played as a makeshift left wingback when chasing matches last season, and more than held his own in the position, displaying decent crossing ability and a very tidy weighted ball down the left channel. The emergence of Manning last year was one of the highlights of the season, and Holloway needs to figure out how to reintegrate him into the team. If we do persist with the wingback system, perhaps this should be his place.
Ultimately, Ollie either needs to play the appropriate personnel for a wingback system, or ditch the system for a conventional back four.
January transfer window
In early August, amidst the QPR Twitter mob's cries for more signings, I published an article on this site praising QPR for its discipline in the summer transfer window and arguing that we actually needed to get rid of more players, rather than bring new ones in. Up until that point, we had only signed Josh Scowen on a free transfer from Barnsley.
After my article was published, QPR acquired Alex Baptiste, David Wheeler, Kazenga LuaLua (WHY?), Bright Osayi-Samuel, and Paul Smyth, while only getting rid of Steven Caulker and El Khayati, and loaning out Ebere Eze, Matt Ingram, Brandon Comley and Alex Finney. Ilias Chair and Aramide Oteh have also since joined the first-team picture.
As we approach the busy January transfer window, our goal should be to continue trimming down our massive squad, as we've done with our sale of Yeni and loan of Goss. In particular, Les Ferdinand and Lee Hoos must be mindful of the fundamental misalignment of incentives between directors of football and football managers when it comes to buying and selling players.
Directors of football and other front-office executives generally have more job stability, and can therefore take a longer term view towards developing a squad. By contrast, English football managers are always two or three bad results away from the sack; as a result, they view the world through a short-term lens (i.e., they are incentivised to make decisions that may be harmful in the long-run if it helps them keep their job today; if their decision fails and there are long-term ramifications, they don't care because they're gone anyways and don't need to deal with the consequences).
This incentive disalignment problem, referred to by economists as "agency costs", is best illustrated through my recent experience babysitting my girlfriend's three-year-old nephew for two hours on Boxing Day. The kid wanted Christmas candy, and basically refused to stop crying until he was given some. I was looking at the problem in the short-term; my incentive was to make him stop crying in the next two hours, and giving him candy was a short-term solution. Whatever happened after two hours was no longer my problem- whether the kid got sick, learned ill-discipline, was zonked out on sugar or unable to go to sleep; that was for the parents to deal with after I was long gone.
This short-term/long-term incentive disalignment rears itself in all aspects of society, from the political administrator that deficit spends to keep voters happy today, while leaving the next administration to foot the bill, to the city trader who makes speculative trades to make a year-end bonus target. In football, though, the issue is magnified by the fact that player contracts are long-term, guaranteed and generally quite difficult to terminate. Just ask Lee Hoos- we've had three managers since Steven Caulker was signed by Harry Redknapp in 2014. Our bloated squad is like an archaeological excavation site, with different players representing the fossilized remains of past regimes (JET from the Ramsey-Ferdinand era, Borysiuk from the JFH-Ferdinand era, Onohua from the Ancient Babylonians).
For all Ollie says about how much he loves QPR, and I don't doubt him, his number one objective is maintaining his job in the short-run. That mindset may lead him to sign aging players or make other short-term decisions that hurt us years from now when he may not be here to fix the mess. Les Ferdinand and Lee Hoos need to make sure this doesn't happen. Just ask Birmingham City fans next year how they feel about paying the exorbitant wages given out by Harry Redknapp in League One .
With that, here's my remaining January wish list: sell or loan Borysiuk, Petrasso, Joel Lynch and JET (if there are any takers); introduce Eze to the first team; acquire no one and fill holes in the squad with academy products; loan out as many academy players who will not feature in the first team this season; put every player in the shop window for the right price, except for Freeman, Luongo and Smithies, who are most vital to us staying up.
Discipline and austerity may be painful in the short-run, but will pay dividends in the long-run. Having said all that, I did give the kid the candy.
At the beginning of the season, Ian Holloway made a number of public statements suggesting that youth players would be given a chance to break into the first team. Up until the match against Preston in early December, Ryan Manning, Darnell Furlong and Bright Osayi-Samuel were the only "young" players to have featured for us in the League, receiving only a few hundred minutes between them. Since then, Ollie has come good on his promise to play young players, giving league debuts to Ilias Chair, Aramide Oteh and Paul Smyth and starting Bright Samuel against Bristol City and Millwall.
As QPR continues the youth movement, Ollie and Les need to be careful in nurturing the academy players' development. I am as delighted as anyone to see Bright Osayi-Samuel get a run-out in the first team, but the young fella should not be deployed as a striker as he was against Bristol City and Millwall. Samuel has made the steep jump from League Two to the Championship, and has yet to prove he can play his natural position of left winger at this level. And yet, for some unknown reason, we're asking a 20-year old with four goals in over 70 appearances and a poor first touch to play as a second striker on a team that struggles to score goals.
Typically, managers develop young strikers by playing them out wide where they only need to take on one fullback rather than two centre backs and there's generally less pressure to score goals (see: Wenger's ten-year experiment with Walcott, Mourinho with Rashford)- not the other way around. Today, Bright Samuel is basically a much faster Jamie Mackie with a worse first touch, limited to no goal-scoring moxie and less leadership and clapping.
Ollie needs to find minutes for the bright lights of our academy where he can—players like Eze, Smyth, Chair, Shodipo and Samuel should be given first-team opportunities, or otherwise loaned out for first-team football elsewhere. But Ollie also should try to accommodate them in their natural positions where they're more likely to succeed and gain confidence.
Ollie and Les also cannot treat the new wave of youth players like they treated last year's crop of Shodipo, Manning and Furlong. Shodipo, one of the most promising players in our first team last year, was strangely brought on a sub against Norwich City in Ollie's debut when we were up 2-0 against ten men. Shodipo undoubtedly shirked his defensive duties on the day, and his failed clearance in the box did lead to Norwich's sole goal and a nervy finish. One public tongue-lashing from the manager later, and Shodipo has become an invisible man in the QPR set-up.
The emergence of Ryan Manning from the depths of the under 23s was one of the best stories of last season. This year, Manning is justifiably behind the midfield three in the pecking order, but his lack of minutes has still been head-scratching. Manning, who has only played 321 minutes this season, started against Bolton, but was subbed off in the 38th minute. Since then, he's only managed to get 93 minutes of playing time. Darnell Furlong has only seen 32(!) minutes of playing time since he was subbed off at half-time against Burton Albion in September.
Young players will always have inconsistency to their game. Managers, coaches and directors of football should encourage them to express themselves and take risks, instead of paralyzing them with the fear of making a mistake and never seeing the first team again. Yes, Furlong, Shodipo and Manning are playing a man's game, and need to deal with the hardships of a professional footballing career. But they are still young players with fragile psyches that need to be managed with care. There is no way that QPR's treatment of them has helped their development.
I just think back to watching Mide Shodipo against Leeds in last year's season opener. I was sitting in the W block, and watched up-close as Shodipo terrorised Leeds' right back Gaetano Berardi- so extensive was Shodipo's annihilation of Berardi that Garry Monk subbed him off in the 22nd minute.
Here was an 18-year-old, who looked like a boy amongst men like Chris Wood and Sol Bamba, making his professional debut in a globally televised match against one of England's largest clubs on the same pitch as a number of international-calibre players. Yet Shodipo played with a totally carefree attitude, seemingly unaware of the magnitude of the stage and his accomplishment. I wrote this paragraph before the Paul Smyth Show against Cardiff, but the same could have easily been written about the Northern Irishmen by just swapping out all the names (other than Sol Bamba, poor sod).
This is how we want our academy pups to play- carefree and with bundles of energy. Ollie and Les need to make sure that the likes of Eze and Smyth are frankly not fucked with like Shodipo, Manning and Furlong have been. Continuing to do so may send a crippling message to all the kids coming through the academy: don't make a mistake if you want to keep your place in the first-team. This must change.
Protecting our cave. Putting pride back in the badge. Players working hard. Good eggs who understand the club's culture. Fight! Passion!
I do believe that Ollie genuinely cares about the club, and that all the talk of passion and the badge is not just some cynical attempt to ingratiate himself to the fan base. Ultimately, however, caring is not enough. Two six-match losing streaks (which might have been three, had it not been for the Brentford miracle), 29 defeats in 59 matches, one away victory from the last 19 matches; we've all seen the same stats. The results have not been pretty, and that is before we even discuss his debatable tactics, squad rotation and substitution patterns.
Under a different set of circumstances, I'd probably call for Ollie to get the sack. However, given our current situation, I just don't see the point. First, Ollie hast 18 months left on a two-and-a-half-year contract; if he gets sacked now, that's at least 18 months of paying two managers' salaries. Second, I'm not sure there's a viable replacement out there whose better than Ollie.
Even if we could afford the likes of Garry Monk or Paul Clement, these "big-name" managers probably fancy a higher-profile job. Up-and-coming managers making a name for themselves in the lower leagues like Paul Hurst are not going to jeopardise their upward trajectory by coming to an unstable club with a terrible recent track record, a bloated squad and a £40 million FFP fine hanging over its head. Remember the up-and-coming manager who got his club promoted to League 1, and then had them in first place in November, only to leave for the greener pastures of the Championship? His name was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Ask him how that worked out for his career. No promising young manager is going to take a sip from our poisoned chalice.
There are a few decent managers available, such as Mark Warburton and Simon Grayson. But most likely, if QPR changed managers this season, we would have to take a punt on someone, either a foreign manager or one with little Championship experience. I personally would rather just get through the end of the season with Ollie, and then reconsider in May. The QPR job currently is not very attractive, particularly in light of the potential FFP fine and the deadweight in our squad eating up our wage budget and blocking new signings. The available pool of managers will be larger in the summer and we'll have more time to do our diligence if we decide to part ways with Ollie.
If QPR does opt to sack Ollie before the end of the season, it cannot be reactionary. We cannot afford to sack Ollie without having a replacement lined up. The manner in which Boro sacked Garry Monk and instantly replaced him with Tony Pulis should be used as roadmap if we follow this course.
Ultimately, I think we just stick with Ollie. There is no magic potion to ensuring our safety this year, be that a new signing or a manager—at least not a potion we can afford. Rangers need to scratch and claw for every last point until we're safe. It may be a grind, but I believe Ollie will keep us up.
Pictures – Action Images
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