Wszolek rebirth and other benefits of back four switch - Knee Jerks
Tuesday, 20th Mar 2018 08:24 by Antti Heinola
Slightly later than usual (apologies) here's Antti Heinola's usual six talking points from QPR's weekend draw at Fulham.
It's been a difficult time for Pav. This time a year ago, there were people on here calling him 'Premier League class' and worrying that we'd lose him to a richer side sooner rather than later. But he was a victim of Ollie's incessant tinkering towards the end of last season, and has had a stop-start season this term. He's probably best suited as wide right in a midfield four, or wide of a three playing further up, but while he has had runs in the side this season, it's been mainly as a wing back, or even as a full back.
He deserves credit for working at his game in those positions (his first time at RWB was genuinely terrifying, with Fleming basically coaching him through it) but it's deprived us of his danger further forward, and it's always seemed a bit of a waste. I've never subscribed to the 'Premier quality' line, but at the same time, I like Pav a lot - because there is a lot to like: determination, strength, ability to keep the ball, energy levels, and the nice cut back he does (if only we had forwards who could take advantage of it). But, he hasn't had the impact this season that we all were hoping for around Jan/Feb last year.
Until Saturday. On TV, Hinchcliffe was heavily critical of him (of course he was, Hinchcliffe's continuing hatred of us continues to baffle) for first not taking on a volley from a Bidwell cross (the problem with too many pundits these days is that they judge everything the prism of Messi or Aguero or Kane - zero allowances made for players that haven't got absolutely perfect technique) and then for not tracking Fredricks for the second goal (although he kind of did, and was blocked by a Fulham player, and he was probably entitled to expect Bidwell to have been a little wider). And yet, in a really poor first half, he was by far our best player. Not only did he work hard at the back, he was also a genuine threat going forward, despite playing in an unfamiliar role on the left. He was the player smart enough (and quick enough) to exploit Fulham's high line and expose a weakness that we attacked better after the break - and particularly once we had the added mobility of Smyth and Washington on the pitch.
After the break, if anything, Pav's effectiveness increased. The rest of the team took their cue from him and we started to win so much of the ball. He put in some great balls, he was a constant menace, he linked up well with Bidwell, he kept the ball well and then, finally, he got the goal his performance deserved. Nicking the ball was good, but the way he flicked it in front of him, leaving Odoi flat-footed. He still had much to do and bravely took it on early with a finish so calm you have to wonder how on earth that was only his second of the season. For me, man of the match, and I'm delighted by that. The change of formation has benefited so many players - and he's one of them, and just a week or so after whether you wondered he may struggle to get back in the side.
Steve McClaren managed to be more insightful in about ten seconds than Hinchcliffe manages in an entire game (Hinch, along with Savage, comes from the school of 'Should've' - ie: when a corner hits the first man: 'should've beaten the first man'; when a shot goes wide: 'should've got it on target' etc. The laziest sort, which tells the viewer absolutely sod all they haven't already seen) when he pointed out that both Fulham's goals would have been prevented had we had the sitting midfielder in front of the centre backs that this formation requires. Spot on. Scowen may not have been in top form over the last couple of months, but I mentioned after the Sunderland game how vital his presence is, how much unsung work he does, how many crucial challenges or interceptions he makes. On Saturday, I'm not sure whose job that was first half - presumably Luongo - but not only was he not doing that job well, neither was anyone else. The space at the back of our midfield was huge and Cairney fully exploited it. The encouraging thing was that Ollie did the necessary at half time and things were miles better after the break, when the lack of a rat was much less pronounced.
It was a really disappointing first half from Luongo - the way he played was a microcosm of the team as a whole. Too slow, too weak, no belief. Giving the ball away cheaply. No zip in the passing. No crunch in the tackles. Indeed, it was his poor ball that led to the first goal. However, one of the chief, and fair, criticisms of Mass has been his lack of goals. Now, though, he has five for the season, which is par for a player in his position. If he could get eight-ten a season, then that is superb. It's what midfielders probably aim for, but few actually get. And this was a class goal. Good free kick, good knock down, but he had loads to do to score - to control with his head and still slam in the volley showed superb technique, and really that goal changed the game. I'm not sure, had we gone in two-down, that the second half would have been the same. It lifted us, gave us belief despite being totally out-played for 45 minutes, and in the end, it should have helped us to three points.
Second half, Luongo again epitomised the team as a whole. Winning more of the ball, using it better, pressing higher, and he as well as Manning, who seemed to come in field to great effect, suddenly took control of the midfield that had been all Fulham before the break.
I worried for him in this game. He has definitely looked so much happier at right back, but this was a huge test against the frequently brilliant Sessegnon. His early touches maybe betrayed his knowledge of this. I think his first three or four contributions were to kick it out, give away possession, or clear the ball to safety. But from there he settled in and Sessegnon never quite had the impact we would have expected. This was a really good sign, and maybe we're even seeing the distant echo of his tough experiences years ago against Sanchez and Bolasie. It won't ever get tougher than that, and so really he has nothing to be scared of. He has all the tools and I've said before I still think he'll in three or four years move into central defence. And, as against Sunderland, he once again here made an absolutely vital clearance with his head and his ability in the air is a real bonus for the back four.
There was a really interesting discussion about Furlong on the board on Saturday about his improvement. I think the fact is that he is one of the big beneficiaries, along with Bidwell, Pav and Eze, of the move to a back four. All season he's been asked to play as a wing back, and when he has we've questioned his positioning. But perhaps that just shows what a bastard of a position that is. I don't blame Ollie for using it early in the season when it was getting results, I just blame him for not changing it sooner when too many teams had spotted how to exploit it. The truth is, we don't even have one proper wing back, because Bidwell, Robinson, Pav, Perch and Furs have all tried, and none have convinced except in odd games. Now back at right back, his positioning has improved. Is it his game has improved, or is it that, as McClaren suggested on the telly, things have been simplified and the back four now know what their jobs are. It's been noticeable in recent games how much less players have been looking to the bench doing the arms out 'what am I supposed to be doing, where should I be' gesture.
He's not the finished article, but hopefully now that spot is his, and hopefully even when he has the inevitable bad game, he won't be immediately dropped and made to wait weeks for another chance.
After a difficult game against Sunderland, and being out the team with an injury while they put in their best performance of the season, he must've been desperate to do well when he came on. It showed. I thought it was a brilliant substitution by Ollie. Pav had shown in the first half they were vulnerable to straight low balls between full backs and central defence, but the problem was neither Eze nor Smith were able to exploit that. The signs were there: once Freeman was played through with a defence-splitting ball, but he didn't have the pace to capitalise, and a second time when he did get one-on-one, he could only blast his shot straight at the keeper.
Smyth and Washington came on and suddenly not only were the midfield harrying a flustered Fulham, but they had to contend with two nippy forwards doing it as well. Undoubtedly the work of Smyth and Washington contributed to Pav's goal indirectly, because Fulham were starting to live on the edge by then. But of the two, once again, Smyth shone, having a similar impact to Shodipo's cameo at the Cottage last season. His directness, willingness to run, and quality of delivery caused them new problems, and he was so unlucky that his smart cut ball back to Freeman didn't yield an equaliser.
Poor old Cousins. Two seasons of injury and misery. And thrown in to a tough game for the excellent Manning. He had a big job on - not only to stop Fulham from extending their lead but also to help us get an equaliser. And here's where momentum and confidence make a difference. With the team playing well, Cousins didn't need to turn the game - he was just needed for added energy. And while Smyth will take the plaudits, I thought this was Cousins' best showing for a while. He looked comfortable, he was effective, he won the ball, his passing was crisp. It would be a huge boon if he can start stepping up.
So, a poor first half, a very good second and things looking up. But is this now the danger? There is a theory being tossed about that Ollie is dangerous when things are going well. Tactical things worked v Villa and second half v Fulham. We're unbeaten in four and few would have predicted eight points out of 12 from those fixtures. We're all but safe, we can begin to look forwards. But, this theory goes, when all is rosy, Ollie starts to think he's Guardiola and he can't leave well enough alone. He over-complicates it, we begin to lose, and he has to find the formula again. I don't know if that's true. I'm not sure how anyone can, but it does have a ring of truth. In his two spells as manager he's had these runs:
Winless runs: 9, 12, 8, 6, 6, 6, 7, 6
Undefeated runs: 10, 13, 9, 7 (wins)
Is that normal? I don't know. There are lots of four-game losing streaks I haven't listed there too. That streakiness is more pronounced over the last year than it was before, but it's always been there. Nine without a win at promotion-chasing Palace in his short spell there. Nine wins, a draw and a loss in 11 at Blackpool. Runs of six and nine with no wins in the Prem with Blackpool. Seven without a win at Leicester. Nine, eight, six and seven match winless runs in just over a year at Millwall. I don't know what the answer to this is, maybe it's typical of all middling managers, but if he can find a way to stop the bust in his boom and bust... that would be handy.
Pictures – Action Images
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