Camp returns to haunt wild Rangers - Knee Jerks
Monday, 11th Feb 2019 16:25 by Antti Heinola
Antti Heinola isn't over QPR's extraordinary 4-3 defeat to Birmingham City on Saturday either, but has picked over the wreckage and found six talking points all the same.
Like Clive, I'm not over it, and it's Monday lunchtime. It should have been QPR's third comeback from four down in under 35 years - absolutely heart-breaking that we didn't quite make it.
In the end: confusion. After 90 minutes of schizophrenic action, mainly focused at an increasingly punch drunk Loft End, what did we learn? And if we did learn anything, is any of it even remotely reliable? It was a game that was in some ways a microcosm of a season that is starting to move beyond the realms of comprehension. A team that can be absolutely destroyed by a decent, if hardly all-conquering, West Brom can also completely uncharacteristically deal really quite easily with the cluster bomb attacks of Middlesbrough that would usually have us surrendering quicker than a chicken mistakenly entered into a Royal Rumble for lions. A team that can quite happily wave four goals through at home to Preston is the same one that can rewrite the history books by actually winning at Forest. And the team that can fail to compete at almost any level in around 25 mins of catastrophically poor football can return, inside the same game, to the point where in the end we were unlucky not to win, let alone draw.
You half expect us to run Watford off the pitch on Friday before losing to Newport in the quarters (if Newport weren’t having to play the irresistible City).
So where are we now? All season, 4-2-3-1 was working fairly well, on the whole. Pressed into a need for change, though, S-Mac goes 4-4-2 to squeeze Matt Smith into the side, giving us much-needed height at both ends. That works against Pompey’s patched up team, but comes spectacularly undone against Birmingham (although not Smith’s fault at all, as we’ll see below). So, we switch to 3-5-2, which works a treat. Yet the nagging feeling is 3-5-2, much like the other formations, causes more issues than it solves. As a one-off for 45 minutes, it worked well. Furlong can certainly play as part of a back 3, Hall is comfortable with that too. But Pav is not a wing back, and was exposed there last season. Bidwell is also not a wing back. It means Eze is likely to remain on the bench, and while he certainly has needed a rest, you would want him back in the side soon.
And the fact is, last season, with similar personnel at the back, 3-5-2 saw us continually attacked and destroyed by balls in behind the wing backs, and our season was only really saved when Ollie made a long overdue switch to four at the back.
So what do we do on Tuesday? Or Friday? I have no clue (at least Bristol and Watford won't either), but as exciting as the cup run is, we could quite easily, in nine days time, be out the Cup and be on six league losses in a row going up to Middlesbrough to face Pulisball. Then again, we might win three in a week once more and all will be well with the world. Impossible to predict.
I’ve seen some games when the anger pours down from the stands for a poor performance, but credit to the QPR fans on Saturday for not burning down the stadium after 40 minutes. Maybe we were just all in shock. Or mourning.
I’d agree with McClaren that the first 15 minutes weren’t too bad – in fact, BOS looked dangerous with two eye-catching moment. But from there until our first goal, things were diabolical. Birmingham, for sure, pressed hard, passed very well, and exploited the spaces between our rigid lines beautifully. And they had the game’s outstanding performer Che Adams in clinical form, scoring a fantastic hat trick. But we were dreadful. Dreadful in defence, where we were weak and slow to see danger. Dreadful in midfield where we failed to close down space without the ball and failed to find any space when we did have it and totally failed to back each other up. And worst of all, we were bullied into meek submission.
We are not a bad team. At times this season we’ve been incredibly strong and resourceful. None of that was in evidence on Saturday as we failed even basic tasks like challenging and battling and winning the odd second ball. That we changed that round so incredibly after the break showed tremendous spirit – but it never should have reached that point.
We all love a cliché, me more than most. So let’s run through a few here. He was immense. It was a warrior-like performance. He was a man-mountain. This was an absolute bulldozing bastard of a performance. As bad as we were first half, I would except Smith from the general haranguing the rest of them deserved, because he did work, he did try, he did win balls and, crucially, he scored, giving us the tiniest glimmer of hope.
Second half he was even better and in the end it was almost like a one-on-one fight between him and the inspired Lee Camp, who denied him on at least four occasions – two of them properly excellent saves: the header he clawed out of the top corner, and the hit from the edge of the box that flicked off a defender and looked in until somehow he tipped it over the bar.
It’s a real turnaround for Smith and gives McClaren a real problem. A month ago, with Oteh playing well against Leeds, Smith was seemingly fourth choice striker. Now, with three goals in two games (and he really deserved a hat trick on Saturday), how do you drop him? Maybe, for now, we don’t: we have to stick with what’s most effective and play to those strengths, even if we know Smith certainly won’t be able to manage four 90 minute games in 11 days, which is what this team is facing at the moment. Absolutely brilliant. Tremendous heart.
This was a fascinating response from McClaren. Clive and others have talked in the past about what you do when being heavily beaten at half time. Against Liverpool, with Suarez killing us every time he got the ball, Redknapp shut up shop and kept it respectable. Against Newcastle, while accepting it was 2-0 at half time and the game was theoretically still there, we had been absolutely destroyed, and the truth was the game wasn’t there. JFH bravely went for it and was duly punished. Hard. Sometimes, if he sits down for long periods, he can still feel the wounds of that pulsing on his beleaguered backside. I imagine.
Here, McClaren was very shrewd. At 4-1, there was a tiny chance, but he wasn’t about to chuck on Eze and Hemed and just go for broke. He changed formation, he brought on a central defender for a winger who had impressed going forward, but was caught out running the other way, and swapped one defensive, combative midfielder for another. The instructions were sensible, I suspect: don’t go mad, the next goal is vital. Get it to 4-2 and we have a chance, but don’t over-commit.
It worked brilliantly. Cousins who was booed in some quarters when his name was announced was (nice, lads), apart from one blindingly bad pass, a demon in midfield – a huge improvement on the sadly off-the-pace Scowen. He won loads of it, he passed well, and he topped it by finally scoring his first goal for us – and a beauty too. If there weren’t already echoes of the Port Vale 4-4, that certainly invited the comparison, similar as it was to Andy Impey’s superb finish that day. A really difficult skill to keep that under the bar.
And Leistner, after a poor game at Wigan, returned to give an imperious, captain’s performance here, barely giving Adams a kick, and heading away ball after ball. We’ll need a dollop of that against the powerful Deeney on Friday if we stand any chance.
And then once we were back in, he brought on Pav, who returned to form simply by keeping it simple: get ball, beat man, cross ball. Even that was a brave sub – removing Furlong would have been the obvious choice, but with Lynch out of sorts, he took the decision to trust his young player, and it worked well.
Really clever management from McClaren – but many would argue that the team he put out there was wrong in the beginning. Still, he showed trust in those that performed on Tuesday, and if you don’t do that, it will be hard to get fringe players to perform for you. Leistner arguably deserved to be dropped and while it’s easy to say in hindsight that we needed his strength at the back – come on, Hall and Lynch are not exactly a pair of Little Tom Carrolls. McClaren had every right to expect them not to be bullied to that degree.
And yet, I’d argue that we didn’t actually play brilliantly in the second half. We played well, don’t get me wrong, but what got us back in the game was guts. It was hard work, the willingness to chase, to harry, to battle, to refuse to be beaten. We didn’t play many lovely flowing moves – we made chances through sheer force of will, to playing to Smith’s strengths and absolute bloody-mindedness. All the qualities we missed in the first half. That was admirable, because even when it had been 4-2 for a long time and we started to flag, they kept going, kept fighting, kept believing they could somehow salvage a point. In the end, a point was the least we deserved – in the end, really, we should’ve won.
And one of the main reasons we didn’t was down to our old boy, Lee Camp. He’s not been brilliant in the games we’ve played against him over the years, and he looked mostly awful for Sunderland as he struggled with his back or his knees or both. But without being elegant, he was superb in the second half on Saturday. At the end of the game, having kept out countless shots and headers, and a penalty, it was he the Birmingham players went to: they knew he had saved them from embarrassment.
Much has already been written about the penalty, and it wasn’t great from Wells, but any penalty save is a great one and he denied us with his own incredible fortitude and skill. To top all that, though, he still turned to the Loft at the end and saluted them. He’ll always be special to us as that 20-year-old who came in and steadied our season, then returned and performed heroics in games like Leeds away, but for him, following that ludicrous second half maelstrom, to remember his connection to the club like that, was praiseworthy. Well played, Campy.
Pictures – Action Images
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