|Middlesbrough 2 v 0 Queens Park Rangers|
Saturday, 23rd February 2019 Kick-off 15:00
Seven games in a leaky boat – Report
Sunday, 24th Feb 2019 19:48 by Clive Whittingham
You know when we said we weren’t particularly concerned because the level of performance, effort and commitment was still there despite the trauma of recent results? Well let me tell you about QPR’s Saturday in Middlesbrough.
I’m not sure I actually like watching Queens Park Rangers away from home any more you know. Like a captured bear in a tiny cage, up and down, up and down. Why? Why are you making me watch QPR? Why?
It was 17 hours pillow to pillow on Saturday for the longest away trip of the season to Middlesbrough. Amongst the many, many miles of motorway travel was a brief interlude masquerading as a football match that had very little to commend it to the neutral spectator and absolutely no takeaway at all for the poor unfortunate folk of a QPR persuasion.
During a run of seven straight league defeats and an FA Cup exit QPR have been unlucky, unloved and unfortunate. They’ve been beaten soundly and pipped at the post. They’ve beaten themselves, been bullied by others, and suffered at the hands of match officials. There’s been a string of unlikely events in an unprecedentedly short period of time, during a run of exceedingly difficult fixtures, with key players injured and out of form. It is a perfect storm unlikely to ever occur quite like this again. But then, on Saturday, they were pure, unadulterated, inexcusable, dog shit.
In mitigation, they were once again playing a team chasing promotion. Middlesbrough were fifth at the start of play, with the division’s best defensive record, and a strike force made up of £15m Britt Assombalonga and £6m Ashley Fletcher with £8m Jordan Hugill on loan from West Ham on the bench and £6.5m Rudy Gestede waiting further in the wings. They are every inch a Tony Pulis team – big, physical, uncompromising, tough to play against, difficult to score against, impossible to watch and set to a migraine-inducing, omnipresent soundtrack of an old git in a tracksuit yawping at athletic young men to tackle harder, run faster and kick the ball higher, longer and further. Tony Pulis watching Tony Pulis football, happy as a pig in shit. Go on Jon.
But there is a cheat sheet to Pulisball, one which QPR seemed to be in possession of when they beat a stronger Boro team in better form in fine style not two months ago. For all the intimidation of 24 goals conceded in 33 league games this season, half of those have come from set pieces and the home team went into this game without all-conquering centre half Aden Flint and with Jonny Howson filling in at full back. They are not in good form, particularly at home where only League One Peterborough and bottom side Ipswich have lost in the last nine games and Leeds, Newport (League Two), Millwall (no away wins all season), Sheff Wed, Burton (League One), Blackburn and Villa have all left with a draw or better in that period. During a ridiculous spell of matches in which QPR are playing six of the top eight in the Championship plus a Premier League team in the cup inside a month, this was one of the games they were more likely to be able to do something with.
Rule number one: keep it tight. They’re a team of extraordinary statistics Middlesbrough, and none more so than their record when scoring first. It is 76 Championship matches since they lost having got the opening goal. At home the record is 61 Championship fixtures since it last happened, dating all the way back to 2014 when Bobby Zamora’s freak injury time goal off a bottle top saw Harry Redknapp’s QPR win 3-1 having initially trailed 1-0. So, clearly, mission critical for a QPR team low on confidence, on a dreadful run of results, and feeling rather sorry for itself, was to get into the arm wrestle. Tackle, hassle, harry. Get in shape, be disciplined, disrupt them. Commit fouls if you need to. Slow the game down if you need to. Sit in two banks of four if you need to. Start with a flat back six if you need to. Just get into the fucking game, get it to 20 minutes at 0-0 and then we’ll have another little look about, a bit of a think and an assessment of where we’re at.
Didn’t fancy that.
In fact, in the three minutes it took Middlesbrough to go from kicking the game off to scoring a goal that would have shamed a pub side’s defence I’m not actually convinced QPR had a meaningful touch of the ball. Nobody tackling, nobody engaging opponents, nobody pressing. Passive. Uncompetitive. Just letting it happen. And after three minutes of that insipid nonsense Besic knocked a simple ball in behind a back four that was bent like a dog’s hind leg and Jonny Howson was able to run in unchecked, ride a pitiful bottled challenge from goalkeeper Joe Lumley, and walk the ball into an empty net. I don’t want to get on at Lumley too much because he’s just a kid going through a troubled time but the two goals he conceded here were desperate, and he should have been cleaning Howson straight out for the first one.
Exactly what the plan was after that is anybody’s guess. Steve McClaren had lined up in a 4-4-1-1 set up, pitching a midfield four of Pawel Wszolek, Jordan Cousins, Mass Luongo and Ryan Manning out of position wide on the left against a physically dominant, commanding, tight middle three of George Saville, Jon Obi Mikel and Muhamed Besic. It was no kind of contest. Up front, Ebere Eze looked stung by recent criticism and much more lively and purposeful than he has been. Tomer Hemed, recalled from the start for the first time since October 26, did not.
In fact, while admittedly starved of service, Hemed was one of several players here whose input was so minimal he really may as well not have been there. Looking every inch the 30-something Premier League loan player going through the motions, he would very occasionally have a little jog to his right to hang a leg out at a Daniel Ayala clearance, or a little trot over to his left to make a token effort at beating Ryan Shotton in the air, but not much more than that. McClaren has placed great faith in Hemed, and his other loans, talking in glowing terms about having a “team of men” after they arrived and describing Hemed during the week as “a warrior” whose return would lift the troops. He looked good as a substitute against West Brom sparking hopes that we might see a bit of that against a Boro defence missing its best centre half. Well, all I can say is I doubt any casting director on a future Gladiator remake will be picking up the phone to this warrior any time soon on this audition.
Outnumbered and outfought in midfield, and with all the attacking potency of the Vanuatu Royal Air Force, QPR’s main tactic for this one became very predictable, excruciatingly boring and entirely ineffective. Mainly, it was Toni Leistner passing the ball into midfield to Mass Luongo who would then pass it out to Darnell Furlong who would then pass it back and inside to Leistner who would then pass it backwards to Joe Lumley who would then boot it high and long back towards Furlong and, almost exclusively, straight into touch. Occasionally, when they were feeling really adventurous, they would let Grant Hall pass it to Jordan Cousins and then to Jake Bidwell so that he could pass it back to Grant Hall and he could pass it back to Joe Lumley and he could boot it high and long back towards Bidwell and, almost exclusively, straight into touch.
Lumley’s heat map must have looked like he’d opened a thermal spa back there. The young keeper forced to field pass back after pass back, immediately considered as the first option for a ball by players 50, 60, 70, 80 yards away from his goal. Where am I going with this? Oh, Lumley’s on. Lumley’s on. Lumley’s on. Unless he’s going to start lobbing opposing goalkeepers from 120 yards away exactly what are we trying to achieve by sending all of our possession back to a nervous, out of form, rookie goalkeeper? Middlesbrough, looking a little perplexed, stood in their formation in their half of the pitch, peering down the field at this mind-blowing act of self-immolation and wondered just what in the world was going on. A bloody good question. What in the name of God are we doing?
QPR would finish the half trailing 2-0, and rarely has a team deserved to finish a half trailing 2-0 as much as this. They had one, sort of, shot from Ebere Eze from a narrow angle after five minutes that Darren Randolph saved comfortably, and another at the end of the half when Darnell Furlong cut in onto his left foot prior to realising he doesn’t have a left foot and could only shoot tepidly at the goalkeeper.
Other than that they had one let off when Besic ran 50 yards through three non-existent tackles from Eze, Luongo and Bidwell before unloading a shot wide from the edge of the box with Lumley beaten. Another when the impressive George Saville got in after Cousins and Luongo, again, had been weak in midfield but he was flagged offside when Lumley saved. And a third when Lumley rushed from his line to deny Britt Assombalonga one on one from an acute angle. Any praise the young keeper drew for that was tempered somewhat (quite a lot actually) by him contriving to concede a routine shot from Ashley Fletcher at his near post on the half hour. A first league goal of the season for a poor, poor striker. Furlong, as against West Brom, guilty of backing off too far. I’d have saved the fucking thing myself.
Half time changes, as per. Bright Osayi-Samuel summoned for a fool’s mission, as per. Ryan Manning hooked on 45 after being asked to go into a difficult away game, out of position, in an overrun midfield, after weeks of inaction, as per. Presumably that’s Ryan’s “chance” for the next few weeks done and we’ll see him again for some random cameo at left back around mid-April. Osayi-Samuel, similarly misused this season, had an impressive second half in impossible circumstances and will no doubt be rewarded for that with sporadic bursts of 20-45 minutes here and there as a replacement for one of the “men” over the coming weeks as this situation unravels still further. McClaren’s got enough on his plate right now but sooner or later he is going to realise that these kids he’s treated with varying degrees of indifference this season are going to be all he has come August when finances dictate that the out of contract players are released and his precious loaned “warriors” have all returned home.
There was slightly more purpose, slightly less turning backwards and inside all the time, for having Osayi-Samuel on one wing and Wszolek on the other. The Pole cut a ball back to nobody from the byline two minutes into the second half, and Osayi-Samuel drew a foul and a yellow card for Howson on the hour after turning past him and into the penalty area. Hemed, present in body if not in spirit, did finally stick his head on something after 55 minutes but guided it very lightly back to Randolph before heading off to be replaced by Matt Smith. Memo to kit man, shirt and shorts not requiring a lot of detergent there.
But really this was just 45 minutes of Middlesbrough seeing a game out. Fletcher shot wide from the edge of the area 60 seconds into the half as QPR, again, started nice and strong. Saville, lovely looking player, shot just over from ages away. Assombalonga had one disallowed by fourth official Anthony Blackhouse (on for original referee Andy Madley who had to leave the field at half time suffering the effects of acute boredom) for a foul in back play and was then denied by a leg save from Lumley one on one when QPR were carved apart once more and he really should have scored. Saville had another 20 yarder wide and substitute Stewart Downing also missed the target with a presentable opportunity as time drifted slowly away into a very pleasant north east evening. Pulis yawped at his boys all the way through and QPR looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. They weren’t the only ones.
Backed by a tiny group of incredibly supportive travelling faithful, who sang throughout the second half and applauded the team off at the end, they offered one long range shot from Osayi-Samuel that Randolph had time to have two goes at. Then in the closing seconds when Matt Smith flicked a hopeful long punt on into the path of fellow sub Nahki Wells he struck a firm low shot towards the far corner that Randoplh dived left and kept out. It was, in all seriousness, the first time he’d had to extend himself all afternoon. A 2-0 win that Boro could have punched out in their sleep.
Match Gallery: 31 photos
It is soul destroying that a season which promised so much is quickly descending into another few months of looking over our shoulder at how Reading, Rotherham and Bolton fucking Wanderers are getting on. The circumstances that have made it so are known, understood, and sympathised with, but tolerance will wear very thin very quickly if this hardy group of supporters are expected to continue covering vast distances at great expense and bearing performances as disgustingly inadequate as this with good grace and humour. Just the odd fucking tackle would have been nice.
The maths remains on our side, but we’ll be lucky just to keep afloat playing like this.
Boro: Randolph 6; Howson 7, Ayala 6, Shotton 6, Fry 7; Wing 6, Mikel 8, Besic 8 (Downing 59, 6), Saville 8; Assombalonga 6 (Hugill 78, 6), Fletcher 6 (Tavernier 73, 6)
Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Clayton, McNair, Van La Parra
Goals: Howson 3 (assisted Besic), Fletcher 31 (assisted Besic)
Bookings: Besic 14 (foul), Howson 63 (foul)
QPR: Lumley 3; Furlong 4, Leistner 5, Hall 5, Bidwell 5; Wszolek 5 (Wells 81, -), Luongo 5, Cousins 5, Manning 4 (Osayi-Samuel 46, 6); Eze 6; Hemed 4 (Smith 69, 5)
Subs not used: Ingram, Scowen, Kakay, Lynch
Bookings: Cousins 70 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Bright Osayi-Samuel 6 Posed an attacking threat, which makes him the QPR star man by quite some distance.
Referee – Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire) 6 (Anthony Blackhouse 45, 7) Madley a little pedantic in the first half, popped off at half time presumably bored with an uncompetitive encounter. Blackhouse marginally better second half, again with no tackles being made and therefore nothing to referee.
Attendance – 22,338 (450 QPR approx.) Big crowd in for the visit of Harchester United. Tiny travelling support, as you’d expect given the distance and context. They deserved a hell of a lot more than the players offered them. Sang throughout the second half, a mixture of support and dark humour, and then applauded the players off at the end regardless. It was a privilege to stand among you.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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