QPR fightback floors Fulham - Report
Sunday, 18th Mar 2018 19:41 by Clive Whittingham
QPR continued their March resurgence with a 2-2 draw that could easily have been a win at in-form Fulham on Saturday, despite trailing 2-0 just before half time.
If you’d said post Nottingham Forest debacle that QPR would win two and draw two of their next four, playing superbly at times in the process, and get four points from the impending away trips to Aston Villa and Fulham, they’d have carted you off to the same funny farm they should take Ian Holloway’s tailor to.
Yet here we are, eight points later, scoring five goals and dominating long periods of two away games against two of the league’s better teams.
It’s not entirely inexplicable: a change from the much-maligned wing back system to a back four has brought immediate improvements and seen players like Darnell Furlong and Ryan Manning come in from the cold to good effect and Jake Bidwell, Pawel Wszolek and others suddenly start playing their best football of the season. The emergence of youngsters like Ebere Eze and Paul Smyth has added a youthful, skilful, attacking vitality to a team that previously struggled for goals, particularly away from home. But we can’t pretend we saw this coming – LFW predicted 3-0 defeats in both games this week.
Aston Villa had lost a division-low one home game all season prior to Tuesday, had won ten of their previous 12 and had scored 11 goals in winning three in a row before QPR arrived in town. Fulham’s form was even more formidable – no defeats in 16 league games dating back to the start of December, nine consecutive home wins, six consecutive home clean sheets, and recent victories on this ground against promotion chasing Villa, Wolves and Sheff Utd. Their results at Carven Cottage since Christmas read 4-1, 6-0, 2-0, 2-0, 2-0 and 3-0. Having not won any of their first nine home games, Fulham have turned this picturesque corner of South West London into a footballing abattoir, where visiting teams go for a gruesome death. QPR, as we know, had only won two away games all season before this week, and three since the start of 2017, against poor Birmingham and Burton outfits.
Saturday at the Cottage was very different to Tuesday night at Villa Park. During the week Rangers had dominated from start to finish, taking a commanding 2-0 lead and controlling the game from there in front of a couple of hundred of hardy travelling fans. Against Slavisa Jokanovic’s team, and in front of more than 3,000 Rangers fans, they had to come from behind and eventually settle for a draw after initially looking like they were going to go the way of most other Championship clubs that have come here recently.
QPR won at Craven Cottage last term in, frankly, hilarious circumstances – with the hosts missing penalties at the start and very, very end of the game. But their track record on the other side of Hammersmith Broadway is not good, and in recent times they’ve been 3-0 down by half time on three occasions resulting in a 6-0 loss under Neil Warnock and a 4-0 under Chris Ramsey. In an effort to prevent that happening again they focused on defending in big numbers down both flanks – Pawel Wszolek and Jake Bidwell charged with keeping an eye on marauding full back Ryan Fredericks who’d starred in Fulham’s win at Loftus Road before Christmas, Ryan Manning and Darnell Furlong handed the daunting task of holding onto the coat tails of the outstanding teenager in the country at the moment, Ryan Sessegnon, and his not insignificant partner in crime Matt Targett.
That didn’t go too badly, but it ignored another key problem. Josh Scowen had sadly followed Tuesday night’s spectacular return to form with a bout of appendicitis and without him in the middle, and with Manning utilised wide, there was far too much time and space for Tom Cairney between the lines of the defence and midfield. He’d already drawn one flying save from Smithies after four minutes (Sessegnon scored the rebound but was offside) when he took his time and picked his spot from 25 yards with his left foot on the half hour.
There hadn’t been too much to worry about before that – Nedum Onuoha’s blind panic and near own goal under no pressure after Fredericks had crossed from the right apart – and this didn’t quite have the same feel to it as the blow outs we’ve suffered on this ground previously. But QPR weren’t quite as at it as they had been on Tuesday. Luke Freeman and Massimo Luongo were often guilty of holding the ball too long, and then frequently giving it away when it came to a pass. Fredericks fired right through the goal mouth but wide straight after the Cairney goal, Jake Bidwell produced a goal saving tackle right under the cross bar when the move of the half saw Sessegnon complete two wall passes with team mates and beat Smithies with a cross. When QPR gave possession away wide on the left with too many men committed the wrong side of the ball Fredericks was finally able to free himself of Wszolek’s shackles and cross for Lukas Piazon to calmly make it 2-0.
But things swung back QPR’s way on a couple of incidents. First Ian Holloway shifted Manning infield to clog the space Cairney was running amok in, and although Fulham did subsequently go 2-0 up that worked a treat. Then the home side started to get a little complacent, misplacing hospital passes square across their own half on several occasions – Wszolek seized one, ran forwards and drew the first real save of the game from Marcus Bettinelli in the home goal. And finally, in a third minute of two added to the end of the first half, a goal was pulled back.
Fulham set a ridiculously high defensive line from the set piece 40 yards out allowing Freeman to chip it beyond them, Matt Smith to head down and Massimo Luongo - who’d actually looked like he was going to take the free kick in the first place - to arrive late, control, spin, and volley into the net. Three in five and four in ten now for the Australian after just two in his previous 94 but they have weirdly come at a time when his overall performances haven’t quite hit the heights of pre-Christmas in my opinion. No matter, a game changing moment, very different complexion on the half time break at 2-1 as opposed to 2-0.
Second half was something else entirely.
Fulham, oddly nervous, fell in a hole. Darnell Furlong, who’d done such a sound job on our perennial scourge Albert Adomah during the week, took Sessegnon out of the game to such an extent that Fulham substituted him with ten still to play. Cairney went with him, crowded out by Manning after running the show in the first half. Aleksandar Mitrovic, seven goals in five games prior to kick off, became isolated and frustrated - niggled all day on and off the ball by Onuoha, Joel Lynch and Furlong he eventually lost his rag in injury time when Lynch wrestled him to the floor by the neck to prevent him getting up and getting on the end of a quick free kick – referee Chris Kavanagh booked both players.
With the ball Rangers started to do bits. They pressed Fulham high, played at a quicker tempo, committed men to the attack, and dominated the whole second half. Wszolek and Bidwell were particularly excellent attacking down the left, Freeman started to produce more with the ball, Fulham started to panic and turn the ball over in bad areas… the question was, would the pressure count in the form of an equaliser? Ebere Eze had a shot blocked, Matt Smith volleyed the loose ball over. Smith then ran through on goal onto a great Luongo pass, but Bettinelli rushed from his line and saved a poor finish with the end of his penis. Not the day for one of those, poor bastard. Perhaps Smith should have flicked it up and headed it, given his ratio of headed goals to those he scores with his feet? He moves like a removal man carrying in a fridge when played into open space. He looked much more comfortable attacking a Jake Bidwell cross in the air moments later, Bettinelli was equal to it with a more conventional palmed save this time though.
Any thoughts that it wasn’t going to be our day, that the chance had gone, that we’d had our ten minutes and not scored were banished, in part, by more smart moves from the bench. Jordan Cousins added a leggy, athletic boost to midfield when he replaced Manning with a quarter of an hour to go. The fans, very harshly, booed the decision to remove Ebere Eze despite him not quite hitting the heights of his previous two games, but the introduction of Paul Smyth out wide and the switch of Freeman into the middle worked a treat. Smyth started getting at Targett, taking him to the byline and delivering good final ball again and again. I love his directness, and purpose, and basicness – get the ball and then either get to the byline and get a cross in or get into the penalty box and get a shot away. No pissing about, no flicks and tricks, no inverse winger bullshit, just good old fashioned direct wing play. Targett, apparently less enamoured with his new pest, tried to kill Smyth with a crunching tackle which Kavanagh, perhaps rather generously, deemed only a yellow.
Conor Washington had less impact, and continues to look bereft of confidence. It rather summed up his luck when he appeared to block a goalbound shot from Freeman after Smyth had whipped one back into the midfielder’s path.
Fulham died on their arse. It needed a Furlong header at the back post to stop Mitrovic nodding into an empty net, and Smithies sprang from his line to save one on one with Mitrovic, but they were second best to Rangers and did nothing about it. I said something similar after the Brentford game this season but there’s an occasional smarmy arrogance to teams that play total football style out from the back, with every goal kick going short, and defences always splitting wide to receive a pass and so on. It’s a great way to play, fantastic to watch, the purist form of the game, and very effective for teams like Fulham who’ve perfected it. We’d love QPR to play like this, if they were good enough to do it. I’d watch 1,000 hours of Jokanovic’s Fulham over five minutes of Tony Pulis’s fireball. But it’s not wrong, or beneath you, or an abandonment of your values, to just tighten things up and go back to basics for the final ten minutes of a game you’re winning 2-1 at a crucial time of the season when things have gone slightly pear shaped.
QPR had Fulham’s number, they were forcing errors, causing panic and winning the ball back from Bettinelli and the four defenders in front of him repeatedly in the second half. They’d got away with giving it away while playing out from the back and giving it away when Smith failed to convert his one on one, but like Brentford at Loftus Road they kept going with their holistic, holier than thou attitude and style, continued to throw attacking players on from the bench, continued to chance their arm at the back, and eventually paid the price. While QPR got stronger with each move Ian Holloway made, Fulham got progressively worse with every substitution.
Smyth seemed to have been fouled over by the dugouts as the game entered its last ten minutes but with play continuing, Belgian centre back Denis Odoi once again tried to take liberties in possession when last man. With Wszolek in the sort of mood he was in for this second half you just can’t do that and the Pole seized on a loose touch, removed the ball from Odoi’s possession and skipped away from him with one silky first touch, accelerated to the edge of the area and then finished into the bottom corner before Ream, Odoi and others could convene on him and recover a situation entirely of their own making.
Bedlam in the away end, which had stuck with the team through the first half struggles in stark contrast to previous toxic afternoons here and were rewarded for patience, faith and prolonged vocal support in the second half. God only knows what would have happened had Jake Bidwell’s late cross shot not been saved by Bettinelli, or the rebound been converted by Luke Freeman, but few could have begrudged Rangers a third had the net bulged. They had been outstanding since half time and deserved a point at the bare minimum. This was their eighth game against a team in the top four at the start of play this season and could easily have been a sixth win. Five wins and a draw still puts paid to this begrudging, bitter mumble from those who thought we’d be relegated that we’ve only survived by beating an unusually incompetent bunch of teams at the bottom of the league.
Word of warning… Exactly a year ago, QPR did precisely what they’re doing now. Dire run through the winter recovered by grinding out some niggly wins in January and then suddenly in March it all seemed to click. Rangers won five and drew one of seven games through the end of February and start of March – and the draw was at Elland Road where they completely outplayed Leeds and could easily have won. It seemed a corner had been turned, that Ian Holloway had the team playing as he wanted, and optimism about what may lie ahead in 2017/18 abounded. We all know how that ended, the effect it had on the summer, the way it burnt off all of Holloway’s credit with the supporters, the virulent band of online critics of the manager that came together and persist to this day.
That cannot happen again. QPR have some eminently winnable games among their last eight fixtures having successfully dealt with what looked like a tough group of games. The clocking off, the wild team rotation, the early departure to the beach and the long run of defeats cannot happen again. For the sake of Holloway’s position, for the season ticket sales, for the supporters and for next season it cannot happen again.
Press on, build on this, gain confidence, increase momentum, go flying into this summer and then maybe we can cling to the hope that next year weeks like this will be the norm.
Fulham: Bettinelli 7; Fredericks 7, Odoi 5, Ream 6, Targett 6; McDonald 6, Johansen 6; Piazon 7 (Ayite 68, 6), Cairney 7 (Fonte 79, 5), Sessegnon 6 (Ojo 79, 5); Mitrovic 6
Subs not used: Norwood, Christie, Button, Kamara
Goals: Cairney 32 (unassisted), Piazon 45 (assisted Fredericks)
Bookings: Targett 86 (foul), Mitrovic 90+3 (unsporting)
QPR: Smithies 7; Furlong 8, Onuoha 7, Lynch 7, Bidwell 8; Freeman 6, Manning 6 (Cousins 74, 7), Luongo 6, Wszolek 8; Eze 6 (Smyth 69, 7); Smith 6 (Washington 69, 5)
Subs not used: Ingram, Baptiste, Perch, Osayi-Samuel
Goals: Luongo 40+3 (assisted Freeman/Smith), Wszolek 81 (unassisted)
Bookings: Luongo 49 (foul), Cousins 89 (foul), Lynch 90+3 (unsporting)
QPR Star Man – Pawel Wszolek 8 Possibly at fault for Fulham’s second, but it was the only time the excellent Fredericks got away from him all day and came after QPR had given possession away with several players committed beyond the ball. As at Villa on Tuesday, worked hard, pressed high, key to an excellent second half performance – this time crowned with a goal, skilfully won back and finished. Furlong and Bidwell ran him close.
Referee – Chris Kavanagh (Manchester) 7 Few bits and pieces you could argue with – Fulham will want to know where the extra first half stoppage time came, the tackle on Little Smyth near the end was probably a yellow and a half – but overall not too bad.
Attendance – 23,347 (3,000 QPR approx) QPR fans stuck with the team through a difficult first half rather than getting on their backs and giving it the “we’re fucking shit” routine which has happened here before when we’ve gone under. Great atmosphere in the second half and rewarded with a late equaliser. Fulham seemed quiet, even by Fulham standards, but that’s perhaps understandable given the way their team fell in a hole after half time.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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