End of Term Report 17/18 - Defenders
Thursday, 31st May 2018 11:40 by Clive Whittingham
Part two of our annual assessment of the QPR squad over the previous season features a defence struck by injuries and problems with its formation throughout 2017/18.
2 – Darnell Furlong B
Ian Holloway was very good at keeping off the field issues affecting his players under wraps, happily fronting up and taking everything on the chin himself when personal circumstances were keeping Steven Caulker, Conor Washington and others off the pitch at various points. So I’m not going to steam in completely on Darnell Furlong’s lack of action in the first half of the season, when it has been suggested that this may have been the case for him, as well as suffering an injury in the autumn. But, overall, I think he’s been underused and I was delighted to see him starting regularly at the back end of the season. Hopefully he’s cemented his place now.
My brother plays football on Saturdays now so rarely sees Rangers play but he was at Leeds on the final day and the first thing he said was “is that Darnell Furlong? He’s bulked up a bit” which was the third or fourth time somebody has said that to me in the closing weeks. His physique and physicality have come on now to such an extent that he didn’t look out of place moved one inside to centre back in the closing games once Jack Robinson had decided he didn’t want to risk his summer move negotiations by playing any more and Joel Lynch had decided another sabbatical was in order. I don’t want that idea that Furlong is now the answer at centre half to persist, we need new players there not sticking plasters and quick fixes, but I’d rather him play there than not play at all.
We’re a much better team with him in it and it was frustrating before Christmas to see him come off the bench in the home win against Sheff Utd, plugging a gap on the right, stopping young David Brooks in his tracks and playing a huge part in winning the game for Rangers, only to then disappear from the first team picture again until January when he came back in and played superbly at Burton away – whatever the reasons were.
A poor game against Burton at Loftus Road was a low point but overall he’s been consistently good and whenever I see us linked with a right back my heart sinks a little bit. Why bother? We have a good and potentially brilliant one here already who comes with added attacking benefits with his long through and prodigious aerial ability that frequently causes opponents problems from corners.
3 - Jake Bidwell C
After giving him a rare rest two thirds of the way through the season, Ian Holloway described Jake Bidwell’s job this season as “the graveyard shift” – traipsing up and down the left flank in a wing back role that suited neither him nor the team. Few players benefitted from the switch to a more traditional back four as much as Jake, both defensively where he had more cover in front of him and less space behind, and oddly offensively too where he was able to quickly score nice goals against Villa and Sheff Wed despite, ostensibly, playing in a more withdrawn role. Three assists were added late on as well, against Villa, Norwich and Sheff Wed bringing an abrupt end to an ongoing WhatsApp game with a fellow hack where we’d name ever increasingly outrageous things we thought would happen in the world before a Jake Bidwell assist.
Overall then, prime evidence for the prosecution that Ian Holloway stuck with the three at the back for too long. Yes, it got the midfield triumvirate of Mass Luongo, Josh Scowen and Luke Freeman in the team together at the same time without having to play any of them out of position on the wing, and yes it may well have worked a lot better had James Perch and Joel Lynch managed to stay fit as they look ideally suited to the right and left centre back roles, but they didn’t and really it suited nobody other than the three midfielders. Pawel Wszolek, who we’ll assess later, had similar struggles in a right wing back role he wasn’t built for. Bidwell made a better fist of things, and felt much more like the steady, reliable, consistent 6/10 player we thought we’d signed from Brentford two years ago than he had done the previous season when he was poor and suffered the nadir of his QPR career so far against Jota on his old stomping ground. That said, his marks do range quite widely with several fours, several eights, and lots of everything in between.
A tough season for him, but by the end of it (in his correct position) he was playing pretty well.
4 - Grant Hall N/A
One start and four sub appearances across the whole season tells its own, disastrous, story for Grant Hall who’s campaign was wrecked by a persistent tendonitis problem. I must say it’s been frustrating as an uneducated observer to watch the pattern repeat for a full calendar year now – relapse, rehab, out on the grass, into the reserves, relapse. During that time we’ve repeatedly been told that the club wanted to avoid surgery at all costs because it could rule him out for up to a year, but he’s been out for a year now anyway and, as far as I’m aware, still not gone under the knife. One can only assume the club’s medical staff and doctors who deal with him every day know what they’re doing, although Tony Fernandes’ repeated barbs about improving that side of the club for next season on his recent podcast appearance suggests I’m not the only one who’s found this, and several other cases, a bit perplexing.
One thing Ian Holloway didn’t get adequate (or, in fact any) credit for was coping with this loss. In 2016 QPR won 13 and drew seven of 34 with Hall, without him they lost nine of 12. His absence from the deep lying midfield position Holloway moved him to, to great effect, was keenly felt in that run of seven defeats from the final eight games of last season. If you’d said at that point that he’d only play once in 2017/18 people would have feared the worse, but the arrival of Josh Scowen negated the impact to a certain extent. Rangers look horribly light at centre back for 2018/19 as it stands and if they try and cover for that by assuming/hoping Hall can become a first team regular again then they may well get their fingers burned.
5 – Nedum Onuoha B
Nedum Onuoha was this season’s Grant Hall, in that QPR gained the majority of their points with him and really struggled to post any without him. We won 13, drew six and lost 12 with him in the side, we won just two (Wolves and Sheff Utd at home), drew five and lost 10 without him (in all comps). That makes replacing him problem number one for Steve McClaren, Les Ferdinand and Gary Penrice this summer because as we now know a combination of wanting to return north, and (like Jack Robinson) being on a historic contract QPR can no longer afford, means he’s leaving this summer after six years, 224 appearances and eight goals (no goals this season, oddly, usually good for one or two off corners).
So how will he be remembered? Probably not as fondly as he really should be. As a centre back who struggled at right back, as a defender prone to panic with the ball at his feet, as a steady Championship player who laboured when any higher than that? Perhaps I’m being harsh, but then I think we all have been throughout his time here. There’s the ‘Chief’ nickname and he got a lovely send off at the Birmingham match but it’s always seemed to me that the QPR fans haven’t taken to Onuoha in the same way they did other similar players in his position and other similar clubmen who’ve given such long service to us. Compare, for instance, the cult status Danny Shittu enjoyed/enjoys despite only really excelling for us in the league below this, with that afforded to Nedum, who has been a mainstay of our team in this division and the one above. I believe this really will be a case of ‘don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ because the record last year speaks for itself and trying to replace a player of that quality and experience on our budget will be difficult.
There are a variety of reasons why that may be. The money, paid for and to him, raised the bar he was expected to reach beyond what he actually is as a player. Not his fault. He’s played in some very poor QPR teams from which nobody is really remembered that fondly and which have exposed the weaknesses in his game. Again, not his fault. He does have a mistake in him, most infamously exemplified in the Gary O’Neil sending off at Wembley but also recurring this season, notably early on at Sheff Wed and Cardiff. He spent August and September playing well for 89 minutes and costing us a goal in the other 60 seconds, but boy did we miss him when he was then injured for the autumn.
And then there’s this insufferable, pig-headed, jingoistic, little Englander horse shit about whether or not he’s a “pwopah leadah” perpetuated by drunk shitgibbons at the back of the stand who believe that unless you’re bleeding from an open wound in your face like Terry Butcher, hacking through the back of excellent young boys Terry Hurlock-style and screaming in the face of terrified team mates in the manner of Malcolm Tucker then you’re not doing the job right. Onuoha has, by common consensus from those who work at the club, those who play with him, those who deal with him every day, been an exemplary captain of Queens Park Rangers and if you can’t hear him from your seat and you think that means they’re all wrong them I’m afraid that’s your problem. At a time when the dressing room is full of young kids making their way in the game, no doubt being pulled this way and that by agents and the trappings of too much money and spare time too young, it’s here that Onuoha’s loss will be felt most keenly.
We have a tendency (that’s we as a society, I labour under no misapprehension that this is a unique QPR thing) to pick fault with things until they’re solved but then instead of crediting the person who solved it or toasting their success, simply moving on to the next problem and bitching and whining about that instead. Onuoha has spoken intelligently and candidly about the dressing room he was parachuted into back in 2012, when supporters talked about wanting players who cared about what they were doing, who cared about playing for the club, who could behave themselves, who treated the club with respect, who tried their best and worked hard. We now have a brilliant dressing room full of players, mostly very young, who are and do all of those things, and he’s played a large part in raising those standards. And yet rather than recognise that, credit him for it, we’ve already moved onto the next demand, the next moan.
As you can probably tell, I love him. Yeh, not crash hot on the ball, and the opposition knows it so let him have it, but a good defender at this level, a fantastic captain and a great influence on the dressing room and the young players in it. Best of luck to him wherever he’s going, and God speed to those charged with finding some sort of replacement. Rather you than me.
6 – Joel Lynch C/D
Not my favourite, as regular readers (hello to both) will probably have realised before now.
Lynch seemed to finally be finding his best form, some 18 months after arriving from Huddersfield, around the turn of the year. He played key roles in much needed victories against Burton, Cardiff, Barnsley and Bolton – scoring a deadlock breaking goal and taking our Man of the Match award in the latter. The back three employed by Ian Holloway for much of the season wasn’t popular, but should have benefited a very left-footed centre back with ability on the ball like Lynch has and for that month of January it seemed he’d found his role and hit his straps in Hoops.
But, as has been the case in nine of the last ten seasons, that followed a period out injured over Christmas. No games played between November 21 and January 1 this time, missed Boxing Day the season before, December 28 the season before, November 30-January 10 the season before that, and so it goes on back and back however far you want to look. It also preceded another injury, picked up early on in the heavy defeat at Hull City, which saw his season end early in mid-April. Heard Dubai is nice that time of year.
Even if you’re willing to ignore the convenient timing of these injuries and shrug it off as an unhappy coincidence, what you can’t deny is he’s not proving to be a centre back QPR can rely on. He’s started 50 of the 92 QPR league games played since he arrived, and that’s not enough. You need your centre backs in particular to be dependable, form a regular partnership, play near enough every match, and Lynch cannot/does not do that.
And if you’re willing to write the injuries off altogether as merely unfortunate, then there’s his continuing shortcomings on the pitch. He was better this year than last, particularly in the second half of the season, but not by much. His tendency to get pulled too high up the field by a player who then spins in behind to the space he’s vacated remains. This was most brutally exposed at home to Fulham where it happened once and resulted in him hacking his man down for a penalty – followed, naturally, by him screaming at Jake Bidwell as if he’d had anything to do with it. Fulham missed, as they often do, which was a massive let off – except that five minutes later he let his man spin in behind him again and set up the second goal anyway.
Lynch was signed to be the commanding, aerially dominant, dependable, left-sided centre half we needed after Clint Hill left. As it stands, I’d still rather the actual Clint Hill was playing in his spot aged 40. Weirdly, his best performances for QPR, such as Ian Holloway’s first game in charge v Norwich and the Wolves home game this year where he set up Matt Smith’s memorable winner beautifully, have come when he’s been shifted to left back.
18 – Jack Robinson B
It’s been an intriguing season, full of surprises, for young Jack and the outcome of it all still isn’t really known as we go to print. Rewind 12 months and he was a bit of a millstone having signed from Liverpool straight after we’d won promotion and still had Harry Redknapp as manager (smell the money coming off that sentence) and been injured pretty much ever since. A bad injury too, one of those muscle tearing away from the bone numbers where the timescale for recovery is determined by dumb luck and witchcraft, if indeed it heals properly at all – Jordan Cousins has suffered something similar, though not as bad.
This time a year ago Ian Holloway would like to have offloaded him to free up funds for somebody who didn’t qualify for Shopmobility, and that’s worth bearing in mind when we now talk about whether he owes QPR any loyalty at the end of his contract – we’d have taken him out into the woods and released him into the wild this time last year if the PFA had allowed it. In addition the injury itself was suffered on a loan spell at Huddersfield which Rangers had bombed Robinson out on immediately after signing him – he never even met the manager that ‘signed’ him at Rangers, which is pretty shoddy and typical of the time. So let’s not get all moral and judgemental if he does decide to head elsewhere this summer.
That he suddenly has options is the result of a very good season indeed, one that must have come at an enormous personal relief to somebody who does seem like a nice lad first and foremost. Given the chance at centre half by an early injury crisis in that position, he excelled and picked up four Man of the Match awards from this site through the tough winter months. He has a tendency to get caught under crosses and beaten for headers – Kemar Roofe’s first at Loftus Road prime example – but he’s ridiculously strong in the tackle and has taken to the position really well. The two goals and Man of the Match award in the first away win of the season at Birmingham an obvious highlight.
Why only a B then? Marks off for his various niggly absences at the end of the season – the children of Fukushima don’t get sick as often as he does – which were pretty obviously linked to what seems like his impending departure. Also, we’re wary of the expectation thing – nobody expected him to even play this season, never mind slot in out of position and excel to the level he has, but he’s not been perfect by any means so we’re trying not to get carried away. And, as previously stated, we don’t want to be handing out too many A’s to a team that finished 16th.
Where next? Robinson feels he’s done enough to potentially get a Premier League deal, and there’s a long standing offer on the table from Fulham that would fit that. Whether Fulham are now adjusting their sights having won promotion we’ll wait and see, but they surely can’t play in the top flight with Denis Odoi pisballing about back there. A more recent offer from Rangers hangs on whether their new manager Steven Gerrard, who played with Robinson at Liverpool, still wants to pursue it. The wage he’s on means that QPR’s ‘offer’, if indeed you could even describe it as that, is a bit of a non-starter at the moment.
20 - Alex Baptiste B/C
There are a few players around that I’m always quite encouraged to see on an opposition team sheet. James Collins, Richard Keogh, Andy Lonergan, Ian Ashbee back in the day. Poor players, accident prone players, players out of their depth, players that will always give you a chance. Alex Baptiste used to be on that list, and the news that we’d signed him on a free transfer last summer brought forward the necking of a bottle of wine we’d been saving for Sunday dinner. A year out with a broken leg and a middling loan spell at Preston gave this the look of a real barrel scraping, and the only silver lining on the whole thing was that if everybody stayed fit he wouldn’t play. Of course, what happened almost immediately was the entire central defensive unit, and all their replacements, got injured at the same time and suddenly Baptiste was emerging from the bench to Mariah Carey’s Hero. Fuck my life.
But then this list isn’t fool proof. I didn’t think much to Clint Hill when he was at Crystal Palace, and criticised Neil Warnock for bombing out Leon Cort (who?) to get Hill in instead. I really didn’t like Shaun Derry either, and wondered what on earth we were doing fetching him in immediately after he’d just been taken apart by Buzsaky and Taarabt at Selhurst Park. But then, who wouldn’t get taken apart by Buszaky and Taarabt in full flight? Both of them turned out to be modern day legends of the club. Baptiste didn’t quite go that far, and his form tailed off towards the back end of the season, but in the dog days of winter he really stood up to be counted and impressed me a lot. He was Man of the Match in the memorable home win against Sheff Utd having also just about held onto Wolves’ array of talent a few days before. With Perch, Onouha, Hall and Lynch all out we relied on him and he never let us down bar one mind blowingly dumb red card after the final whistle at Preston for dissent.
We need better for next season – the thought of going on with the current senior trio of him, Lynch and Hall smells of relegation – but I rate him a lot more than I did and have a lot more respect as well. Very creditable season and a good signing.
24 – James Perch N/A
An excruciating dislocated knee injury, which Perch battled on with for the closing moments of a tight 2-1 win against Hull back in August, restricted the former Newcastle man to just seven appearances in what has turned out to be his final season at Loftus Road. A shame for him personally, but also for the team which had finally adopted a system that seemed to suit him down to the ground as the right sided member of a three centre back formation. Rangers won two and drew one of four league games in August playing like that with Perch on the right side and had he and Joel Lynch been able to stay fit the system may have been more of a success than it eventually turned out to be, even allowing for the lack of personnel able to play the wing back roles. A dire display in a failed comeback at Wolves, when Holloway seemed to be starting with a flat back seven, drags his average for the season down considerably.
He leaves with kind words about his impact on the dressing room, but few happy memories of his time on the pitch at QPR. Signed from Wigan after our Premier League relegation, fresh from winning the Latics’ Player of the Year award, he looked like a very shrewd purchase – experienced at the top level, strong defensively, played in a number of positions that QPR were weak in and so on. But he never once looked comfortable at right back, which is primarily where we’d bought him to play, and his best performances for us came exclusively when he was moved into midfield, the centre of defence, or left back. As successive managers kept flogging away at the idea of him playing right full back he became a liability to the team, both defensively where he was frequently flat footed and overrun, and in his discipline where a murderous hunger for wild, dangerous tackles basically made him a walking card.
Just our luck, and his, that his knee fell apart just as we’d finally come around to the idea that he’s not a right back and find a better position for him. Overall though, across three seasons, a poor signing and big disappointment.
I can’t say I had/have particularly high hopes for Osman Kakay after mixed loan spells in Scotland and at Chesterfield (where he was particularly poor), but he came into the side in very difficult circumstances at Brentford in April and coped admirably with Sergi Canos, earning our Man of the Match award. Less assured a week later against Birmingham and had to be removed and replaced with Nedum Onuoha to stop Jacques Maghoma swinging the game back in the visitors’ favour – worth bearing in mind for next season when there will be no Onuoha for such emergencies.
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