QPR stop the rot at Luton - Report
Wednesday, 15th Jul 2020 16:52 by Clive Whittingham
QPR staged a recovery of sorts from their dire weekend showing against Sheff Wed with an improved performance and 1-1 draw with Luton on Tuesday night.
This was better, though it could scarcely have got any worse. A response to Saturday’s debacle against Sheff Wed, asked for by manager Mark Warburton and demanded by an embarrassed support, was delivered to a certain extent. There was a long overdue grilling for a ropey full back from Bright Osayi-Samuel, some action for Ebere Eze in areas of the field he can actually hurt teams, something sort of resembling defence and competent goalkeeping, an actual goal from somebody other than Jordan Hugill, and a full point to pop on the league ladder and take Queens Park Rangers to 54 for the campaign.
Compared to the disgusting omnishambles of the weekend it was night and day, but in the context of the season and the league table it was what it was. At the start of play Luton Town had lost more games than anybody else in the league (23), conceded more goals than anybody else in the league (79) and with this result could find themselves four points adrift of safety with only six left to play for should Charlton win at out-of-form Birmingham tonight. One defeat in eight prior to this hinted at some sort of late season revival, with former manager Nathan Jones called back in during lockdown as a returning hero rescue mission, but five of those games had been drawn and the loss was by five goals to nil on this ground against one of the division’s also-rans, Reading. Despite their desperate situation at the bottom of the table, they seemed happy to sit in and limit the damage against their beleaguered opponents for much of this match until a late flurry of attacking substitutions. They could, nevertheless, easily have won the game but for a good late save from Joe Lumley. For it all, QPR could only draw the match.
An improvement? Certainly, in every possible way and every part of the team. A reaction? Absolutely. A rot stopper just when a rot stopper was needed. But a draw, and nothing more, against a poor team. You can keep the bunting order on hold.
At least the reason for not winning here was a known problem the team and its manager could do little about. On Saturday it was about attitude, application, effort, concentration, basics – unforgiveable stuff. Here Rangers would have won the game with any kind of recognised striker up front.
They made a tactical switch from the back three that started against Sheff Wed, returning to a four with Osman Kakay at centre half with Yoann Barbet and Geoff Cameron mercifully moved back into midfield with Dom Ball and Luke Amos. Ebere Eze, Bright Osayi-Samuel and Ilias Chair were sent up to try and form a strikeforce between them, with Chair more often than not the man through the middle – a 5ft 1in Moroccan to snap at the ankle joints of Cameron Carter-Vickers and walking tattoo parlour Sonny Bradley.
It worked ok, certainly better than what they’d been trying before, but at times the lack of a centre forward was painfully palpable. On four occasions Osman Kakay delivered brilliant service from wide right, only to see his crosses sail through the penalty box untouched, gagging to be knocked into the net. Hugill may well have done his lean back and reach for the skies routine on a few of them, but such was the quality of the service even he might have knocked at least one in. Luke Amos came closest to doing so, heading a thirtieth minute centre up in the air, and Eze brought another Kakay ball under control and shot wide via a deflection three minutes later.
It was as comfortable as I’d seen Kakay with the ball going forwards, after a couple of strong defensive performances in recent weeks, but sadly the only reason he was there to bomb down the right side was a really worrying looking injury to the recalled Angel Rangel after just nine minutes. With nobody near him he jumped sharply up in the air and fell to the ground clutching his ankle – the sort of snapped-elastic-band, bullet-to-the-heel sort of injury we see that always suggests a snapped Achilles. If that is the diagnosis then at 37-years-old and out of contract you would think that would be the end of his career, a case in point for the other out of contract players who refused to play these fixtures and a really sorry end to somebody who’s done a very steady job for QPR, using experience, attitude and ability to help steer a young team through a difficult period. Even while being strapped up on the touchline and placed on a stretcher he seemed more bothered about the game and his team mates than what was being done to his foot. Our very best wishes to him, a great pro. Kakay moved to right back, Conor Masterson stepped up from the bench.
There were other opportunities you couldn’t help think a proper striker would have made more of too. Manning’s well flighted cross to the back post on 50 minutes found a queue of Rangers waiting to convert but they made such a mess of it the ball actually ended up travelling further away from the goal. It’s the white thing with the net hanging off the back of it lads.
And then there was the Luton goalkeeper Simon Sluga, a £1.3m club record signing last summer and a problem child for the Hatters ever since.
I was reminded not only of the story of George Weah’s cousin getting onto the field at Southampton, and Ademola Bankole’s half hour reign of terror for QPR against Tranmere, but also a chapter in the excellent Miracle of Castel Di Sangro where an actor is paid to play the part of a new signing and makes it onto the field for an exhibition match. Faced with criticism for not spending money, sending a perfectly reasonable potential signing, Joseph Addo, away because of his colour, and seeking publicity to further the CEO’s bid for higher office in Italian football, Castel Di Sangro staged a press conference to announce the signing of Nigerian Robert Raku Ponnick from Leicester. They went so deep into this pretence that their existing striker, Giacomo Galli, was told he was being released to pay for and clear squad space for the new player. Distraught, he took his seat in the main stand for an exhibition match attended by thousands, to open the club’s redeveloped stadium and showcase Ponnick’s talents. In the farce that ensued Ponnick fought with opponents, team mates, the referee and did several things with the ball that suggested he’d never seen one before let alone kicked it. Eventually a questionable penalty was awarded, which he demanded he take. Ball on the spot, he then collapsed to the ground claiming he’d been hit by an object from the crowd only to then, as the goalkeeper advanced towards him to check on his health, spring up and kick the ball into the empty net. A melee ensued during which Ponnick stole the red and yellow cards from the referee and started flashing them around. He spat in a team mate’s face, was shoved to the ground, and sent off, at which point the players from both sides lined up on the touchline and took their bow. The match had been a charade, the opponents a theatre troop, Ponnick an actor.
The more I watched Sluga on Tuesday night, the more I considered the possibility that something similar was afoot. Certainly this was no professional goalkeeper. A friend of the real Simon Sluga perhaps, a Croatian goalkeeper with two senior caps who belatedly found out where Luton is and what Luton looks like after signing his deal and decided to send a body double instead. Perhaps it was the real Sluga but a year of the Dunstable High Road had driven him to heavy, uncontrollable drinking and substance abuse. Maybe he’s standing there, I pondered, racked with regret for leaving behind Croatia’s historic cities, glorious weather and pristine beaches for a winter of relegation fight at Kenilworth Road, staving off the self loathing with a heady cocktail of narcotics and hard liquor, desperately scrounging any pill, powder or opioid he can lay his hands on to take the edge of the mental torment of ending up in this shithole, now trying to concentrate and focus on the task of Championship goalkeeping through a foggy haze.
Whatever it may be, his contributions verged on the strange. Ilias Chair had a shot from three quarters of a mile away just after the halfhour that induced a rectum-clenching mishandle from him on the goal line. QPR’s second half pressure brought fumbles under high balls, needless corner concession, and outright panic. Yoann Barbet’s 15 yard header straight at him from a Ryan Manning free kick was flamboyantly, needlessly, palmed high up into the air with two hands when he could have caught it in his teeth. At one point he came for a cross, bumped straight into his defensive midfielder Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu and not only dropped the ball but dropped it and directed it back towards his own net. Luke Amos and Ebere Eze were so stunned by this they did nothing about it, passing up the opportunity for a one-yard tap in. Sluga hit the deck and crawled towards the ball, eventually spaffing it wide with a desperate flappy hand. He then appealed to the referee for a free kick, for the foul by Ruddock-Mpanzu, who was on the same team.
Again, you couldn’t help but think a proper striker might have profited from this circus act. But, again, QPR didn’t win this game, and could easily have lost it.
They trailed from the twentieth minute, Ryan Manning with a dumb challenge from the wrong position with the wrong foot on James Bree to concede a penalty. And so the tried and tested post-Alex Smithies penalty concession routine began. Referee Steve Martin was pursued around the area for a bit, Manning desperate to explain why this blatant penalty wasn’t in fact a blatant penalty at all. All the while goalkeeper Joe Lumley was faffing around with the ball, refusing to return it, sledging Luton players he thought might be taking it, delaying the taking of the kick, refusing to retreat, moving the ball off the spot, arguing with the referee, jiggling the crossbar around a bit, standing behind the line in the back of the net for a while, shouting a few things at taker James Collins. On and on and on these histrionics go, every bloody time, and then when it finally comes to the taking of the kick he dives good, strong and early in one very obvious direction presenting the opposite side of the goal for the striker to role the ball into.
This is the tenth penalty QPR have conceded this season and nine have been scored. The one that was missed was actually saved, by Liam Kelly against Leeds, but as it was Bam Bam taking it I’m not sure it really counts. Last season we gave away 11 spot kicks and conceded from ten of them – the only miss coming on the final day of the season when Fernando Forestieri popped one over the bar. That’s one save from 21 penalties faced. I know we were spoilt with Alex Smithies, who was an absolute machine, but that feels like a rank return to me and without wishing to castigate Lumley too much, given how steady he’s been since his recent recall, the grumpy old man within would prefer a few fewer histrionics and a few more dives in the correct direction.
To be fair Lumley had sprung from his line early to defuse a dangerous cross, and saved strongly from Collins in first half stoppage time to prevent it being 2-0 and game over at half time. He was perhaps fortunate that referee Steve Martin was quite so adamant a shepherd on him from the first corner of the second half was exactly that and not simply him making a bad defensive read – Potts’ firm header into the net disallowed, QPR’s set up at defensive corners once again absolutely atrocious.
The equaliser, when it finally came, actually owed a debt to Ruddock-Mpanzu who, along with Carter Vickers and Collins I thought had probably been the pick of a distinctly mediocre Luton bunch. He got rinsed in midfield by Bright Osayi-Samuel on the hour and grabbed hold of the former Blackpool man with two hands to prevent him running away and causing a problem. Bright objected to this vehemently, whirling around and grabbing hold of the Luton man himself. Mercifully, he resisted the urge to stick one on him, so stayed on the pitch while his opponent was booked.
Now Bright was angry, and it turns out Angry Bright looks a hell of a lot like the Bright we were enjoying before the lockdown, the Bright other teams wanted to buy, rather than the pale imitation we’ve seen since the restart. Now we had Bright terrorising full backs again, and getting to the byline again, and creating danger from impossible situations again. Now Bright was unplayable again and, as exhilarating as it was, you couldn’t help but wonder where this has been for the last month and get kind of annoyed about it. Anger subsided into a mild grumble when he skinned Bree then took Carter Vickers to the byline and stole his soul before pulling back the perfect ball for a line of QPR players. Dominic Ball, of all people, was third in line at the meat counter and when his number was called by a pair of stepovers from team mates he remained composed, got his head over the ball, and finished well from 15 yards into the bottom corner.
Apparently this is the second goal of his 155-appearance career, the first coming for Peterborough against Shrewsbury in League One while there on loan in 2017. I’d want to see video footage before committing to that to be honest. Just rewards for his season as a whole, if not the last couple of weeks, though he certainly hasn’t been alone in underperforming of late. It clearly meant a lot to him, and his team mates, and it was nice to see that sort of spirit and camaraderie after the weekend shitshow.
Luton had been almost as strange as their goalkeeper. Wigan’s remarkable 8-0 win earlier in the day and Charlton’s game against a chronically out of form Birmingham on Werdnesday night surely made a win here against a QPR team apparently already on the beach a necessity. And yet they sat back, showing zero ambition, apparently happy to hold onto their point, for all but the final nine minutes of the game when they suddenly slung George Moncur, Danny Hylton and one-time QPR lardarse Kazenga LuaLua from the bench. Prior to that their only threat had come from Harry Cornick getting into the left channel but shooting well wide.
They could, nevertheless, have won the game. Ryan Manning, not for the first time in his hapless summer season, was rightly penalised for an obvious foul throw. Luton chucked the ball quickly down the line, Hilton sent in a low cross, and suddenly the whole thing opened up for marauding left back Dan Potts. Unmarked and with a clear sight of goal he focused on placement rather than power, but still sent a dangerous shot towards the bottom corner, and Joe Lumley did brilliantly to get all the way from near post to far and then get down quickly enough to make a strong save down by the post.
That would have been enough to set QPR up for a win in a stingy four minutes of time added on at the end of the game had Ilias Chair’s low curled shot found the far bottom corner when it seemed certain to. Sluga, completely unsighted and unable to see the ball, somehow dived far enough, quickly enough to his right to produce a splendid save. I bet even he was surprised. A dog having its day, which, in the context of QPR’s form so far this summer, was exactly what this was for them.
Two to go.
Luton: Sluga 4; Bree 5, Carter-Vickers 6, Bradley 6, Potts 6; Ruddock-Mpanzu 6; Shinnie 6 (Moncur 83, -), Berry 6, Lee 6 (Cranie 67, 6), Cornick 6 (LuaLua 83, -); Collins 6 (Hylton 82, -)
Subs not used: Tunnicliffe, McManaman, Butterfield, Kioso, Shea
Goals: Collins 20 (penalty, won Bree)
Bookings: Ruddock-Mpanzu 58 (foul)
QPR: Lumley 7; Rangel – (Masterson 11, 6), Kakay 7, Barbet 6, Manning 5; Amos 6 (Oteh 81, -), Cameron 6, Ball 6; Osayi-Samuel 7 (Shodipo 81, -), Eze 6, Chair 6
Subs not used: Kane, Wallace, Bettache, Kelly, Gubbins, Clarke
Goals: Ball 65 (assisted Osayi-Samuel)
QPR Star Man – Bright Osayi-Samuel 7 Got angry after being deliberately dragged back by Ruddock-Mpanzu and as a result stepped back up to the level he’d been at before the lockdown, playing mostly down the left for a change and tearing into James Bree for a prolonged spell which eventually brought the equaliser with a fine assist. As with the other few bits of good play QPR have produced during the lockdown period, in a way it only served to heighten the frustration that we haven’t seen more of it. When Bright’s like he was in the second half here few can cope with him, but where has it been for the last six weeks?
Referee – Steve Martin (Hollywood) 6 No arguments with the penalty, thought we maybe got away with one for their disallowed goal though keepers do usually get those, and not too bad overall but one or two odd calls and overall we didn’t seem to get a lot out of him. Four minutes onto a second half with five substitutions, a water break, and injuries to Bright Osayi-Samuel and others once more called into question the standard of time keeping among Championship referees.
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