Four star QPR sweep aside Norwich - Report
Wednesday, 4th Apr 2018 08:55 by Clive Whittingham
QPR shrugged aside the disappointment of Friday’s defeat at Reading to return to form in fine style with a 4-1 victory against Norwich at Loftus Road on Easter Monday.
It can be quite tricky to work out what Ian Holloway is on about half the time. Answers to questions buried deep within long, rambling tangents and confusion about which season it was we lost twice to Swindon Town. Often you’re not sure if he addressed the question at all and his team selections and performances on the pitch can, at times, only add to the bemusement.
But at Aston Villa, and the second half at Fulham, and now the second half against Norwich on Easter Monday, perhaps we’ve had a tantalising glimpse of what he’s presumably going for. A strange and exciting world where QPR dominate games, score loads of goals through a fluid midfield, have players from the U23s running rings round senior opponents and Matt Smith ghosts past players with double drag backs. It’s taken a while - these things do, which is why you’re not meant to sack the manager every nine months – and there’s no guarantee it will be maintained, but this is a good side to watch when it clicks.
Not that everything was brilliant right from the off on a typically sodden Bank Holiday Monday at Loftus Road.
Mick McCarthy is surely casting admiring glances at just how mediocre Norwich have made midtable mediocrity this season with a record of 13 wins, 13 draws and 13 defeats for fourteenth position at kick off – they’d drawn seven of their previous nine games. QPR have been good at home and awful away and sat one place and five points behind the Canaries prior to play. You’ll have travel a long way and wait a long time to find a competitive sports match with quite as little riding on it as this one. And, initially, you could tell.
Ian Holloway had made four changes at Reading on Friday and taken a fair bit of justified stick for it following the 1-0 loss. Here he recalled Ebere Eze, Ryan Manning, Massimo Luongo and Matt Smith, essentially putting the team back to how it was (and how it should have been at the Madejski). But it didn’t all fall beautifully back into place to start with. A sort of loose, slack, 4-2-3-1 set up with Josh Scowen deepest of the five, Ryan Manning forward down the right, Eze and ten and Freeman left struggled to settle and Norwich posed threats with the much-scouted James Maddison and Josh Murphy causing issues.
Alex Smithies had a little walk about (I like a walk about) outside his area after two minutes, narrowly averting an appearance on the Own Goals and Gaffs Christmas special, and Maddison cut a twelfth minute ball back to unmarked Vrancic who saw a show blocked. There was one miles over from Nelson Oliveira and a smart save from Smithies from the same player on the half hour when Murphy crossed from the left side. QPR replied with long distance strikes from Josh Scowen and Luke Freeman that visiting keeper Angus Gunn needed a couple of goes at holding, hinting at the trouble to come for him in the soaking wet conditions.
It felt like a couple of films we’d seen before. Either that Nottingham Forest/Middlesbrough/Leeds one, where a Norwich goal sends QPR heads down and before we know it a big score has been run up and people are rummaging through the cupboard under the stairs for their pitchforks and flaming torches. Or the standard end of season Championship one where two teams already on the beach go through the motions at half pace and bore the tits off everybody with a low scoring draw. QPR weren’t quite at it, Norwich weren’t really that fussed, but there was an unease around the place.
Ironically, Norwich realised those fears by opening the scoring just as Rangers did seem to be getting their act together a bit. Matt Smith hit the inside of the post with a towering header that seemed destined to go in, and then Massimo Luongo and others were unlucky not to convert an almighty scramble over a loose ball in the visitors' goal mouth. But from that bunfight Norwich broke away down field at pace with Murphy and Maddison and were able to concoct a bizarre own goal from Ryan Manning who rather seemed to be the fall guy in a too many cooks situation as Rangers charged back in big, panicked numbers.
It hadn’t, to this point, looked like a game QPR would swoop on and fly off into the sunset with, but things swung immediately from the kick off. Now slightly riled, keen to make amends, and playing with a hitherto absent purpose, Rangers quickly worked the ball through midfield thanks to strong ball retention work from Luke Freeman and Massimo Luongo got clear in the area after a one two with Matt Smith before calmly, cutely finishing into the far bottom corner. The Australian has five in 12 now after two in his previous 97 and, ridiculously, could end up as the top scorer for the season if he keeps going at this rate. A turnover as remarkable as it is utterly unfathomable, but a hugely valuable asset to a team that struggles so much for goals from its strikers.
From that point on there was only one team in it. Norwich completely crumbled while Rangers started to play properly. A couple of tweaks to the system at half time, a slightly adjusted role for Ryan Manning who went from lost little boy to key game influencer in the blink of an eye, a much more assertive second half from the mercurial Ebere Eze, and suddenly Rangers were running a sword through their opposition where before they’d been slumbering.
They needed a slight stroke of luck to take the lead ten minutes after half time, although Matt Smith will argue he made his own luck with an afternoon of hard yards and big efforts. The half had begun with a good Jake Bidwell cross which keeper Angus Gunn had to tip over when his own defender Grant Hanley headed it his way. There was then a succession of long throws from Darnell Furlong and Norwich cracked under the pressure when Josh Scowen’s low shot hit Smith, looped up in the air and then the big centre forward beat a weak effort by the keeper to head into the empty net.
With due allowance for the conditions, Gunn had a poor game. He could arguably have done a bit better with all four goals QPR scored, and was definitely at fault for Smith’s. For a kid on loan in the Championship from Man City to be kicking around recent England squads while playing like that, while at the other end Alex Smithies excels for two years and nobody has a sniff of him, does rather sum up the big club bias that exists in the sport in this country. If Gunn had been at Norwich his whole life, or they’d bought him from Rochdale, rather than having Man City’s bloated academy on his CV, he’d be no more in England contention than I am on this evidence. Smithies, meanwhile, fisted a Hanley header away at the other end to preserve the lead.
Rangers really looked good in the second half. Nedum Onuoha, who’d been brilliant in the first half smashing into opponents and keeping QPR strong when his team mates weren’t quite at the races, came into his own after the break as the team improved around him – charging forwards and causing the sort of dog in the school playground havoc he likes to wreak in opponents’ halves every now and again.
Norwich couldn’t live with Eze, who at one stage ghosted round three opponents in that languid, relaxed style of his before being hauled to the ground by Hanley who couldn’t see any other way to stop him. Luke Freeman took that free kick, reversed around the wall, missing the bottom corner by an inch with the keeper beaten. There was the outrageous double drag back from Smith which brought a bigger cheer than the goals, and a third goal as Scowen’s back post cross was nodded down by the excellent Smith for Eze to slide home his second senior goal for the R’s. Sadly that sort of anticipation and finish from the teenager is exactly what’s been lacking from Conor Washington’s game.
Manning made amends for his own goal by adding a fourth with a Lee Cook-style swan-like diving header at the back post from a Jake Bidwell cross – similar to his goal at Villa the other week.
Norwich’s frustration was obvious and a slew of yellow cards, including to Vrancic and Hanley for taking their turns at chopping down Eze, and James Husband for starting on Massimo Luongo while he was laid on the floor – quite why referee James Linington saw fit to book Luongo for that as well only he will know and how Harrison Reed didn't see yellow after an afternoon of niggling and dissent is also a mystery.
They looked a poor side to me, albeit one with nothing to play for late in the season. They hired Stuart Webber from Huddersfield Town and repeated the trick of appointing Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team manager in Daniel Farke, presumably hoping to recreate David Wagner’s magic at Huddersfield, but there were precious few signs of a promotion winning side forming here. Farke’s comments afterwards that QPR hadn’t created any chances (17 shots on goal, seven on target), that the first half had been too easy for them (1-1 at half time) and particularly that QPR had played long ball afternoon smacked of sour grapes. Matt Smith had his best game of the season, and was a great focal point for the team, but QPR’s play through the likes of Freeman, Luongo, Scowen, Eze and Manning was superb in the second half and great to watch. We’ve seen Rangers knock hopeless long balls to Smith all afternoon, like some sort of budget Pulisball, and this was not it. When your players are getting double Cruyff turned by Matt Smith it’s probably best to just shut up and get back on the bus.
It was Maddison that fell victim to that in front of watching Premier League scouts, and the first thing little Paul Smyth did after his late introduction was draw Maddison into a challenge over by the dugouts and nutmeg him before sprinting off down the line with the ball. He’s a cheeky one.
There was some frustration that had this team been picked, and played like this, there’s no way we’d have lost at Reading. But then I’m sure Holloway, Marc Bircham and the club’s sports scientists would tell you that Smith, Luongo, Manning and Eze were only fresh enough to play this well because they’d been left out on Good Friday. QPR’s biggest home win of the season, their biggest win since the 5-1 against Rotherham last term, and the first time we’ve scored more than twice at Loftus Road in a game this campaign.
Of course, in true style, Holloway came straight out afterwards already talking about making another raft of changes for Hull away on Saturday – another very winnable opportunity to improve our dire away form. Not that I’m averse to seeing Ilias Chair and Bright Osayi-Samuel – two more promising kids – get some much needed gametime, but when you’re talking about slinging Alex Baptiste back into a back four that’s just got settled and started to play well that feels a bit gratuitous to me.
When it’s going well, and it is going well at QPR right now, just leave well alone.
QPR: Smithies 6; Furlong 7, Onuoha 8, Lynch 6, Bidwell 6; Luongo 8, Scowen 8, Manning 7, Freeman 7 (Wszolek 81, -), Eze 8 (Smyth 89, -); Smith 8 (Sylla 77, 6)
Subs not used: Cousins, Washington, Ingram, Robinson
Goals: Luongo 39 (assisted Smith), Smith 55 (assisted Scowen), Eze 60 (assisted Smith), Manning 80 (assisted Bidwell)
Bookings: Luongo 41 (unsporting), Lynch 56 (foul)
Norwich: Gunn 4; Pinto 5, Zimmerman 5, Hanley 5, Husband 5 (Lewis 75, 6); Reed 5, Vrancic 5; Hoolahan 6, Maddison 5, Murphy 6; Oliveira 5
Subs not used: Watkins, Klose, Edwards, Tettey, Srbeny, McGovern
Goals: Manning own goal 38 (assisted Murphy)
Bookings: Husband 41 (unsporting), Vrancic 68 (foul), Hanley 77 (foul), Zimmerman 80 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Matt Smith 8 I thought Nedum Onuoha played very well, keeping us in it during a lacklustre first 30 and then excelling in the second half as Rangers took the game over. But a goal, two assists, huge influence on the performance, Norwich’s complete inability to cope with him and a double drag back to boot means it can’t be anybody other than Matt Smith.
Referee – James Linington (Isle of Wight) 8 Very good overall. Luongo can count himself unfortunate to be booked for Husband starting on him before half time – thought a yellow card each way was a bit of a cop out – but no real complaints across the 90 minutes.
Attendance – 14,053 (1,800 Norwich approx) Been a long time since Norwich didn’t fill that end up for a non-midweek game. Relaxed and happy atmosphere in the home end once Rangers started to play.
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