|Queens Park Rangers 3 v 1 Wigan Athletic|
Saturday, 24th August 2019 Kick-off 15:00
Storming second half sees QPR rescue Wigan win - Report
Sunday, 25th Aug 2019 20:16 by Clive Whittingham
QPR came from 1-0 down at half time to beat struggling Wigan 3-1 at Loftus Road on Saturday, in a game that included one of the misses of all time from eventual goalscorer Jordan Hugill.
The thing about so-called 'sliding doors moments' in football seasons is you can only really pick them out in hindsight, looking back at the campaign just gone from the cool spring comfort of May with a summer stretching out ahead of you.
King of the genre in recent times at Queens Park Rangers was a pair of unlikely injury time goals to rescue a 2-2 draw from a dire performance away at Derby County at the start of the 2010/11 season. It felt seismic at the time, like something special was happening to our club once more, but few would have come away from that game confidently predicting it to trigger a 19-match unbeaten run to start a title winning season for Neil Warnock’s men.
We’ll know in time exactly how important Saturday’s 3-1 home win against Wigan Athletic was. We could lose our next ten matches, in which context it would become an absolute irrelevance – a lone victory scraped together more because of the poor quality of the opposition than anything QPR had/have about them. But, for now, sitting here reflecting on it 24-hours later, this feels like a potentially important moment in the fledgling reign of new manager Mark Warburton despite Wigan being, fairly obviously, a team destined for a long hard winter.
At half time, QPR were circling the drain. For 45 minutes they had played without presence in attack, conviction in defence, or tempo in their game. They conceded a defensively shambolic goal barely a minute into the match when Cedric Kipre, one of several players left unattended at the first corner of the game, banged in from close range. It could easily have been 2-0 on the quarter hour when Michael Jacobs’ shot was somehow allowed to pass Joe Lumley and strike the post – the goalkeeper’s nervy start to the season continues. Rangers threatened the goal at the other end only very sporadically, and almost exclusively from great distance – Ebere Eze wide of the right hand post from 20 yards with keeper David Marshall covering the shot, Ilias Chair wide of the left hand post from 25 yards with Marshall nowhere near it.
Mark Warburton had made six changes to freshen things up after two defeats earlier in the week to Swansea and Bristol City, but was rewarded with a tepid offering from those given a chance to impress. Angel Rangel, surprisingly replacing Todd Kane at right back, contributing to a lack of speed and urgency with the ball, and a nervous defensive effort without it. Yoann Barbet and Grant Hall looked rattled and uncertain. Corners were an issue all half, with the technique of marking a queue of three giants on the edge of the box with two midgets in Nahki Wells and Rangel curious at best. Lumley finished the half with several botched attempts at creative distribution drawing audible mumbles and grumbles form the crowd for the first time this season. Dominic Ball and Josh Scowen, a new holding midfield combination, like two naughty boys in bottom set maths, never to be allowed to sit together again.
Here we go then. Half time, a real fork in the road. To the right, a home defeat to a Wigan Athletic side that lost 16 times on the road last year and won just twice, the same as bottom-of-the-table Ipswich. A team that came into this game on a run of four straight defeats without scoring a goal. A team robbed of influential attackers Anthony Pilkington and Josh Windass - both so good against Rangers at Wigan in February - and big-money summer capture Kieffer Moore through injury. It would have left Rangers nursing three losses in seven days. All the early optimism built by the style of play, the performance of the team, and the results in the first week of the season would have been gone. All the doubts about Warburton’s style-over-substance reputation, lack of a so-called ‘Plan B’ and wild summer of transfer activity would have started to fester. Dissent about the form of Lumley, Barbet and Scowen – already so bad online that the latter has felt the need to delete a Twitter account used mainly to post pictures of and talk about his beautiful young family, but thankfully yet to permeate those who actually attend the games and support the team – would have increased in volume. We’d be facing a trip to early high-flyers Sheffield Wednesday followed by an international break, firmly ensconced in the early relegation picture, with just a single win to our name, and that coming on the opening day at a team that is propping up the early table and going through something of an internal crisis.
To the left, however, a nourishing comeback. A sign of the confidence, self-belief and fight in the team. A chance for Ebere Eze to continue his big start to the season, a chance for Marc Pugh and Ilias Chair to show why so many fans have been keen for them to get more game time. A chance to keep the supporters onside, keep the Warburton project on track, keep the mood positive and the people smiling. A victory to dispel doubts about the form at Loftus Road, where Rangers lost a club-record 11 times last season and have started this with two draws. And an opportunity, frankly, to have a bloody good time in the sun. It’s meant to be fun this, remember.
Mercifully, QPR turned left.
The first step on that road to recovery was a half time change. Scowen was hooked, continuing a trying personal start to the season, and replaced by German centre back Toni Leistner, with the formation switching to a back three. Odd, on the face of it, to be introducing a big, physical centre half for a midfielder when chasing a game at home to Wigan, but absolutely the right thing to do, and done with enough time on the clock for the situation to still be salvageable. First thing Leistner did, within the first five minutes of the half, was win three big bastarding headers. The third one he had to run 20 yards across the pitch to do it, it was never his ball in a month of sunny Sundays, but this was a powerful statement piece. You know that first half, where we were timid, and passive, and easily bullied? Yeh, well, we’re not doing that any more. You’ll have to think of something else. Out of my way puny boy.
The second step was getting a goal back early, before Wigan could settle down into a ten-behind-the-ball game killing exercise, Rangers took away the lead they’d have been desperate to protect. Ryan Manning, now pushed further forward from left back thanks to the shift in formation, delivered a delicious cross right through the corridor of uncertainty between the defence and goalkeeper. Of course we know from our comeback at Hull City last season that it doesn’t take much to induce uncertainty in goalkeeper David Marshall, waving a shiny piece of paper around in the air is usually sufficient, and having let it drift all the way through his goal mouth to the far post he was then beaten by a first-time Nahki Wells finish from Rangel’s cut back.
Better straight away. More purpose, greater attacking intent, tempo and speed to the play, men in the penalty box, threat. Two players who’d been pushed further forward by the change in system both involved with assists, while the half time sub set a different kind of stall out at the other end. Wigan's impressive looking former Everton left wing-back Antonee Robinson, whose parents could have done with a dictionary, was now being forced back to defend against Rangel playing almost as an auxiliary winger, having spent the first marauding forwards and causing us issues the other way. One in the eye for the theory that Warburton’s plan B is simply to do plan A better. I have, by and large, been impressed with his early, proactive, effective substitutions in the games so far.
Wigan, so comfortable in the first half, were now having a bit of a panic for themselves. Kipre, a human Redwood for the first 45, was starting to sway a bit in the growing storm. A high boot on Ilias Chair – not difficult, to be fair to him – was right on the cusp of the penalty box but drew only a free kick from newbie referee Matt Donohue. Rangers protested, as well they might, they haven’t scored a direct free kick since Yeni Ngbakoto did so at Birmingham City in February 2017 and have spent the early rounds of 2019/20 hopelessly punting one attempt after another into the base of the wall. Not, it should be said, that we’ve been a lot better with penalties recently either. All runs come to an end eventually though and with two QPR men allowed to stand on the end of the Wigan wall (thought there was a new rule about that this season?) Ebere Eze was able to cutely pick his spot to the left of the defenders, and the keeper, but not so far that the ball couldn’t neatly beautifully in the side-netting for 2-1. We have choreographed handshakes now too, just in case any Spurs scouts are in the house.
The Latics’ response was non-existent, despite a flurry of changes from their increasingly exasperated manager Paul Cook. QPR suddenly looked in the mood to cut loose. Chair dragged Kipre out into some deep water and drowned him with a slick turn – a foul and a yellow card the defender’s only option. A beautiful flowing move with the excellent trio of Eze, Chair and Pugh at its heart ended with a powerful shot agonisingly wide of the post by Wells. You don’t mind paying to see football played like that, nor the similarly free-styling attack Rangers strung together brilliantly three minutes later only for Jordan Hugill to bring back horrifying memories of Dean Coney at Portsmouth with one of the worst misses you’re ever likely to see at a football game, over the bar from a yard out with the keeper nowhere to be seen. It was harder to miss. One of those moments you get sometimes when something so extraordinary happens in a game, the crowd makes a weird noise you don’t usually hear. A weird noise, and then a stunned silence.
Were those doors a sliding again? Would Rangers look back in anger at their chance to put the game to bed? When Hall allowed a long punt to bounce and got into a battle on the edge of the box with Joe Garner, a dangerous Wigan free kick was awarded and a scuffle ensued. Hall booked for his stupidity, Garner carded for being Garner. The ball, thankfully, booted straight at Lumley who saved calmly.
Nerves were finally settled ten minutes from time. If Hugill had channelled Coney for his miss, then Eze had been on the Adel Taarabt highlights reel for his assist. From almost the same blade of grass that the magical Moroccan had once used the outside of his boot to send Wayne Routledge screaming in for a crucial late winner against Coventry City, Eze played a near identical pass that took the visiting defence completely out of the game, drew the nervous Marshall from his line far enough to make Hugill’s mind up for him but nowhere near an area he could do anything about the finish, and created a game-sealing third that was lobbed perfectly into the far corner via a smooch with the post. How you score that like that and miss the earlier one is anybody’s guess.
Eze has started the season in pure form. Two goals already, having scored just four in the whole of 2018/19, and much more well-rounded, complete, professional performances. Twice against Swansea during the week he was back in his own penalty area covering with clearances against an advancing full back. His critics of last season will wonder what's changed, and go looking for managers or coaches to credit or changes in style and system to point to but the fact is Eze is now into his third season as a senior professional playing regularly. He's now got 70 starts and a further 20 substitute appearances to his name, more than double what he had this time a year ago. He's growing and maturing as a player as he learns how to play men's football in a tough league. It's why you're patient with kids who've only started 30 games in their entire lives, not in a rush to write them off as a lazy waster.
It should have been four, or more. Five from time a brave header from Hugill on halfway sprang Wells and Chair clean through on the Wigan goal. The former got the pass slightly wrong, and Chair subsequently tried to take too much time and be too clever, allowing Marshall to save. Mind you, had he succeeded in deceiving the keeper and slalomed round him into the empty net as he intended the whole place would have looked like an explosion in a paint factory. Another what if moment, but thanks to what had gone before in the second half not one that’ll be keeping anybody awake at night. As the sun set over the beer garden of the Crown and Sceptre later on Saturday evening, few cared.
QPR: Lumley 5; Rangel 5, Hall 6, Barbet 6, Manning 6; Scowen 5 (Leistner, 46 7), Ball 5 (Smith 71, 6); Eze 8, Chair 7, Pugh 7 (Hugill 68, 6); Wells 6
Subs not used: Kane, Osayi-Samuel, Owens, Kelly
Goals: Wells 48 (assisted Rangel, pre-assist Manning), Eze 61 (direct free kick, won Chair), Hugill 81 (assisted Eze)
Bookings: Char 45+2 (diving), Hall 78 (unsporting)
Wigan: Marshall 4; Kipre 6 (Massey 78, 6), Dunkley 5, Fox 5; Byrne 6, Robinson 7; Morsy 5, Evans 5, Jacobs 5 (Naismith 56, 5); Lowe 6 (Lang 59, 5), Garner 5
Subs not used: MacLeod, Mulgrew, Roberts, Jones
Goals: Kipre 2 (assisted Fox)
Bookings: Dunkley 58 (foul), Kipre 65 (foul), Robinson 76 (foul), Garner 78 (unsporting)
QPR Man of the Match – Ebere Eze 8 Continuing a fine personal start to the season with QPR’s first goal direct from a free kick in more than two and a half years, an assist worthy of Adel Taarabt with the outside of his boot, and a second man of the match performance of the week. Goal and assist to nudge him ahead of Chair and, in particular, Marc Pugh who I thought was excellent.
Referee – Matt Donohue (Manchester) 7 Lot of bookings, but all justified. Maybe could have done more to stop Joe Garner being Joe Garner before it finally boiled over into a spat with Hall for which both were yellow carded but everything else pretty spot on and game management was fine.
Attendance – 11,921 (200 Wigan approx.) Bank Holiday, sun shining, team playing attractive football, ticket offers on – am I wrong to be slightly disappointed with this turn out, albeit with a miniscule away following?
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