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Is this even the same season? Knee Jerks
Saturday, 27th Oct 2018 14:11 by Antti Heinola

Antti Heinola returns with six talking points from QPR's third win and clean sheet in a week, this time against Aston Villa at a crackling Loftus Road on Friday night.

Special shout out to Dean Smith, who has taken to big club management absolutely perfectly already. Very different game when expectations are so high, Deano. Grealish may have been fouled a lot (deal with it), but the idea his players didn't, as he said, 'tag team' Eze all night is laughable. Watched the Sky after game stuff on TV this morning too, which was interesting stuff, apart from their assessment of the possible pen on McGinn. Two things, lads. One, he ran across Lynch, there was almost zero chance of there not being a collision. Two, he wasn't 'too honest' - the contact was so slight he was able to reach the ball with his stride barely halted and get his cross in. Keith Andrews said 'his side were punished for his honesty.' What? Punished because they failed to take their chance? Idiocy. Anyway.

S-Mac

Ian Holloway had a bit of a gift for turning round hopeless situations. That awful time around the turn of the century (yeah, we can say that now), plus various almost endless winless runs. But I'm not quite sure I've ever seen such a turnaround as this, from consecutive absolute thumpings a few weeks ago, and the abominations at Blackpool and Swansea, to this remarkable run. Three wins in a row, Steve? This is QPR, mate. This is verging on witchcraft.

Perhaps what's most impressive, as many others have noted, is S-Mac's willingness to change - to spot the problems and mistakes and act accordingly, even if it means leaving very good players on the bench. He said on Sky last night that originally he wanted to play a possession game, but realised that wasn't going to work. I wouldn't have blamed him for continuing to plough that furrow, to be honest, hoping that things would improve. But, possibly out of necessity for his livelihood, he took the very brave decision of ripping up his pre-season plans and starting again. It was slow at first, with solidity returning, but finally the switch to 4-2-3-1 and the introduction of Pav has resulted in a system that suits the players we have perfectly.

Earlier this season, there was confusion on the pitch (as there often was last season - I can remember several occasions of Scowen or Freeman having long conversations with the bench during matches as they tried to work out exactly what they were being asked to do). Now, like the last time McClaren was here and also during Warnock's reign, every single player on the pitch knows and understands their job. Of course this is a side now shot through with experience, yet at the same time there a rookie keeper and perhaps our most important player has barely been playing first team football for a year. But it's also work rate. Last season, that was our primary plus - players who worked bloody hard for the team. That has now returned only with, at the moment, a defence far less likely to concede goals.

McClaren has had a really tough time. As Brian McCarthy pointed out, we are not an easy fanbase to please, but last night the crowds were returning and in good voice (especially near the end) and the love is beginning to spread. I still strongly suspect, particularly based on the first 20 minutes of last night, that we'll end up closer to 16th than 6th, and I still think, eventually, it will end in tears for us and McClaren, if only because, or us and McClaren, it seems, it always does. But this is wonderful for now and great fun to watch.

Possession

We now allow the opposition to dominate possession at times, but we don't panic and simply ensure we keep our shape and trust that at some point we will win the ball back. Leo Beenhakker would call it his 'house' - 'give me my house' he would yell. Players in position, areas covered, players knowing their jobs. You could see that last night and on Tuesday, and while it can be uncomfortable to watch at times, even frustrating as we funnel back and allow teams to pass and pass and pass, as the game wore on its effectiveness was undeniable. We ground them down, disallowed them space, harried them, fouled them, stopped them. We don't have the lightning pace of a Jamie Vardy, but it's not a million miles away from Leicester's title-winning style, and as we've seen this week, even with 35% possession, it can be entertaining stuff when done well.

Defence

Last time SM was here, our promotion push was built in the first half of the season and was characterised by two things: a mean defence (just two conceded in the first 10 league games, and 8 consecutive clean sheets) and the goals of Charlie Austin. That all seemed a distant memory after Albion and Bristol, but now it almost feels familiar again. Yet, it's different. That excellent run came in part because other teams saw us as a big challenge with all our big signings, and didn't attack too much, also I remember several games where teams were missing their main goalscorers. Our defence played well, but at the same time, they weren't exactly over-worked. No one can say that about the defence for the last two games. In both they have been put under huge pressure, and in both they have refused to buckle even after three games in six days that must have been sapping their strength.

In goal, Joe Lumley continues to delight and baffle. He'll pluck one cross out the air like Gordon Stewart in his comic strip heyday. The next time he'll come, stop, pause and we'll all gasp for breath. Clive said in his last report that he's not sure if Lumley is good or lucky. I think he's probably both. He's confident, which is half the battle, and he looks beatable, yet he keeps keeping clean sheets. Last night his fortune reached new heights when he waved a Grealish free kick wide with all the confidence in the world, only to see it cannon against the post. Didn't faze him, of course. He can ping a ball out to Bidwell's chest from 50 yards, or he can shank a drop kick straight to an opposing midfielder. A bizarre keeper, but he has all the potential. And I love him.

At right back, I can only think Swansea have some amazing players, because at this level at least Rangel is just getting better and better. Against really tough opponents with pace to burn, he was unruffled, positionally brilliant, and so comfortable in possession. His late tackle to deny what looked a certain goal was only bettered by his Andy Murray-style fist clench of celebration, a reaction that epitomised the determination in this side last night.

At centre back, we have The Wall, as they were dubbed last night. Two players who have been hammered on these pages (I count myself in that, although I've liked Toni from the start - perhaps our scouts do know something after all?) but who have formed a formidable partnership at the back that kept Villa frustrated all night with tackles, fouls and block after block.

And at left back, Bidwell seems to be in the form of his QPR career. Reliable in possession, willing to get forward, strong in the tackle. The bloke even seems to have won over Lynch.

Some incredible work has been done with these five and its a real testament to both the coaching and the hard work of the players that they have been able to turn in performances like this.

Freeman

As others have said, it's almost impossible to pick a man of the match. Eze, Cameron, Rangel, Lynch all have great shouts, but Freeman was right up there too. Some felt he couldn't be as effective out wide, but he's playing really well there. Last night I thought he and Eze combined much more fruitfully than they did on Tuesday, which helped, but Freeman's real value is as an outlet. When we need some pressure off, someone to hold the ball, he can give it to him and he looks after it. OK, sometimes he may look after it a little too long, but overall he does a superb job. Despite not being particularly quick, he does have astonishingly quick feet - one move in particular you see time and again from him is skipping from one challenge and just as you think he'll lose the ball in the follow-up tackle, he gets a toe to it, keeps his balance and zips, with the ball, into space and starts to exploit dangerous areas. Obviously, his ability with the dead ball is great, we almost take that for granted, but at the moment he is working phenomenally hard, doing a great defensive job with Bidwell, while still not limiting himself when we're on the attack. Credit again to McClaren for finding a way to get him and Eze into the same side, and getting good performances out of both of them - even if it is at the expense of Wells.

Subs

I thought both subs were excellent. Both were enforced - Wells for the visibly knackered Hemed, and Scowen for the limping Cameron. Wells was marvellous, giving us vibrancy up front and putting Villa's vulnerable backline under real pressure. Hemed had caused them some problems, but Wells' harried them constantly, forcing them into going backwards or making mistakes. Scowen was also great - McClaren actually had a wealth of choices for that sub - the energy of Cousins might have been tempting, and Hall would probably be the player most similar to Cameron. I worried when Scowen came on, not because I don't think he's a good player (he is), but that we would really be lacking height against a big side. But Scowen gave us a new dimension - his phenomenal work rate and relative pace meant Grealish had less time on the ball, and not only did Scowen win plenty of it, he also played some key passes and had a couple of very decent efforts on goal.

Pav

Pav!

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Rodney added 18:46 - Oct 27
Thanks, Antti, for an interesting article and some well-made points. Good fun at the moment, isn't it?
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Hadders added 21:30 - Oct 27
Brillaint as ever, especially the final jerk. I suspect it won't last, but I think we are all in a bit of a daze!
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Myke added 22:29 - Oct 27
Cheers Antti, we certainly are on a roll and I'm all for living for the moment. You incorporated the seventh (0kay you're only allowed six, so lets call it 6A) jerk in the defence section when you referred to our good fortune. I think luck is a huge ingredient for any sucessful team, especially at the beginning of a run, when confidence and even hope can be fragile. Later, as results improve and confidence increases, you make your own luck, by taking bigger (but not stupid) risks and playing more expansively. Even the big teams sometimes depend on a lucky break to give them a leg up, be it a deflected shot or a referees call in their favour. It has been in short supply since the Warnock era, but there is plenty evidence of it at the moment, long may it continue
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Geoff78 added 14:05 - Oct 28
Great points! We have to enjoy this after all the trials + tribulations we've suffered. Agree completely that S-Mac (is that what we have to call him now?) has done a terrific job with the defence and with Freeman.

I do think we've had our fair share of luck recently, but that may just be evening out when we seemed to have none. One bit of luck is coming up against pretty useless forwards who miss simple chances or shoot straight at Lumley. I fancy a lot of shots + headers have been going straight into his hands. Or could just be excellent positioning!

I think we'll struggle against teams who work out how to get pacy strikers up against Joel + Toni, but that may be difficult to do with Cam + Luongo protecting.

Freeman has been consistently good. Helping out Bidwell (tho' not as much as Pav gets back), acting as a orthodox wide man and cutting inside to link up with Eze, etc.

Lastly, yes Rangel has been superb. I can hardly remember a mistake, although he doesn't get forward too much.
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