Right man. Right time? – Column
Monday, 30th Oct 2023 22:25 by Clive Whittingham
A year later than planned, Marti Cifuentes is the new QPR manager with the Spaniard’s arrival confirmed late tonight – but this is a very different club and team to a year ago, and this is a herculean task in front an idealist coach.
The Seventeenth Annual Farewell Tour
For a moment there, the stage seemed set. What better venue for the Christmas dates of The Seventeenth Annual Farewell Tour than the theatre that hosted the ninth and twelfth versions?
The return of Neil Warnock. Exactly the sort of yank on the emergency nostalgia lever our owners go for time and again when they’ve got themselves into the shit and the crowd are starting to mass at the gates. Not only that, but with Queens Park Rangers on a six game losing run, and already six points adrift of Championship safety, it’s also a move several other clubs at this level would consider – unlike appointing Gareth Ainsworth, for instance, or Ian Holloway. Huddersfield did so last year and survived against all the odds with six wins and two draws from the last nine games and a squad almost as terrible as the one we’re labouring with currently. They, too, had a chronic dearth of goals – Championship status secured with three players, including a centre back, tied for top scorer on a paltry total of five.
You could see him standing down there in the colours, with Ronnie Jepson or Kevin Blackwell or whichever of his favourite old soaks wasn’t doing much at the time. You could see the Tweets, from Clint, and Dezza, and Ale, welcoming back "the gaffer". You could hear Jamie Mackie on Soccer Saturday. The roar of the crowd as he emerged from the tunnel for the first time. “Ooooh I’m like Red Adair me,” he’d say to Paul Morrissey, before detailing how QPR was always his favourite, whatever he may or may not have said about all those other favourites. With fans on top of you. And tackles. And Adel.
You knew exactly what he’d do with the team as well. “He's a lovely lad Chrissy. I tried to sign him you know, at Middlesbrough, and you buggers wouldn't let me have him. But I've got him now and he's a smashing player. I said ‘come on Chrissy lad let’s get us bikes out and go round Richmond Park’. He said ‘gaffer I don't have a bike’. I couldn't believe that, me. Young lad without a bike. This day and age I suppose. Anyway he borrowed our William's and we just set off through t'woods and talked it all through. I've told him I'm going to start the next 25 games regardless.”
How close it came to being, only Warnock and the club will know. The Sunday Telegraph went hot and heavy on the appointment straight away, but there are a couple of journalists on the circuit at the moment who basically link Warnock with every job that comes up. Martin Samuel used to do this for Harry Redknapp. Keeping an old mate, and more importantly source, sweet and in the news. “Interested Neil?” “Oh aye yeh love to” = story.
Sabri Lamouchi got linked. Mick Beale - pur-lease. Nathan Jones, who hates us almost as much as we hate him - I mean why not link Big Racist John and be done with it? Gary Rowett, who left another London club literally a week ago saying it had come to the point he wanted to spend more time at home with his family in the Midlands. The standards of modern journalism are in the bin anyway, but there’s a particularly lamentable attitude in football that you can heave any old shit you like at the wall to try and increase your clout, and nobody cares or remembers how much of it turns out to be true because a) it’s only football and b) mouth breathing morons like hearing rumours about their team regardless of whether it's complete bollocks or not. I say again, listen to Sky’s Dave Jones speak to Luke Moore in the Football Ramble’s long-listen series and admit, during his time on Sky Sports News, if an agent told them his client was going somewhere or doing something, they’d report it immediately, single sourced, without checking, because that was classed as a viable source – no question or editorial judgement applied on why exactly that agent might be wanting his out-of-work client’s name out and about in the footballing consciousness. I’d like these clickbait merchants to be held to greater account, but instead it’s so lucrative and popular you have pubescent virgins sitting in their mum’s back bedroom pretending to be “freelance journalists” chucking CHARLIE KELMAN SIGNS FOR ORIENT "exclusives" out onto Twitter under the pretence of having an imaginary friend at the training ground.
There was definitely some substance to a Warnock return this time, but QPR are in a position of weakness both on the field and financially, while Warnock can basically pick and choose the jobs he likes. He can dictate terms, safe in the knowledge any club in the bottom six of this league sacking their manager at the moment is going to have him front and centre of their thoughts. He’s already been linked with the vacancy at Millwall. He’s looking for a large bonus if he keeps the team up, and a budget to spend in January to give him the best chance of achieving that. Neither regular reader needs me to explain why that’s an issue for us.
Even this site - which consistently bangs on about making coherent, long term appointments based around a clear understanding of what sort of team you want to be - might have been able to get on board with a short term rescue job at this stage. Leave Uncle Neil to do Uncle Neil things while you all sort your shit out upstairs, clear the mountains of drek currently staffing the place, get some fresh ideas into the leadership, get your thorough recruitment of a director of football done and right, and then hit the ground next summer with a progressive head coach appointment and crystal clear picture of who we are and where we’re going.
Of course it’s very QPR indeed – a club that specialises in short term, populist, quick fix appointments – to suddenly decide, having allowed Gareth the summer and what was left of the budget to try and build Wycombe 2.0, now’s the time to give it to some 25-year-old who's just led the University of Stockholm Seconds into the sixth tier of Swedish professional football using a 2-3-5 formation with the goalkeeper as a third centre half.
Once you know this club well, you know when they’re about to do something like this. You’ve got to love them.
What kept you?
Marti Cifuentes is who QPR wanted a year ago. Perhaps he’s been travelling here via Avanti West Coast?
The 41-year-old Spaniard had been identified by the data, analysis and recruitment arm of the club, led by Andy Belk, in the process that eventually got won over by Mick Beale’s PowerPoint presentation. That interest was then rekindled when Honest Mick was busy “showing his support” to Gio Van Bronckhorst via Instagram from the Ibrox director’s box. Miguel Beale - his non-union Spanish equivalent.
At that stage, however, Cifuentes had time to run on a contract that contained a hefty release clause and Hammarby were not keen to speak, so it was basically a non-starter for a club in our FFP position. Neil Critchley, who’d also figured in the summer thinking, was suddenly freely available and ready to come after Steven Gerrard’s sacking at Villa. Now, with the Swedish season nearly up and only a year left on Cifuentes’ contract, it’s become more of a possibility despite our even more financially straightened position.
Cifuentes has been around for a relatively young man. Like many of the progressive, modern coaches he had no real playing career to speak of and started coaching early. He worked in the youth departments at Ajax (aged just 26) and Millwall – lovely contrast – and had early stints in charge of Sant Andreu and L’Hospitalet in the regionalised third tier of Spanish football. At the time he was the youngest head coach working in Spain and then, in 2018, he had a stint in charge of the second string and academy at AIK in Sweden. There's a very decent interview conducted by Adam Bate on the Sky Sports website about this early part of his career, his philosophy, and his adaptation as he's bounced around different clubs, countries and cultures.
His first major gig came at Sandefjord, a club struggling to stay in the top tier of Norwegian football when he took over midway through the summer-based 2018 season. He did stem their bleeding to the tune of only losing six of the last 18 games, but they were still relegated. In his first full season, however, they were promoted straight back to in second place, and he then led them to an eleventh placed finish the following year which was their best performance for a decade.
That was enough for Denmark’s AaB to take a chance on him, but he only lasted 37 games before Hammarby, in Sweden, agreed to meet his release clause with AaB lying fourth in the Danish Superliga. He joined Hammarby ahead of their 2022 season in which they finished third, lost in the cup final to Malmo, and qualified for the UEFA Conference League. He’s won 39 and lost 16 of his 79 games in charge there, and leaves them two games shy of the end of the 2023 campaign with the team sixth in the table, eliminated from Europe by Holland’s Twente, and with one defeat in their last 12 games. More importantly for us, perhaps, he's negotiated that tricky second album at Hammarby despite losing eight of his 11 starters from the first season and the club signing players who were "not the best, according to the way that I would like to play football," he told Sky. "But, as a coach, you have to adapt or die."
Cifuentes, a Cruyff acolyte who speaks perfect English, has long attracted attention and been something of a darling of the new online craze for analytics and the intricacies of football tactics and systems. He’s been linked with a host of jobs. If you want to know how he sets his teams up and plays then you can basically tick off all of the current trends as you make your way through this deep dive which frankly makes LFW look like Zapp Brannigan’s Big Book of War. I understood a liquid 12% of this piece, but the fact I would understand 100% of the same article on Gareth Ainsworth's 'philosophy' is really rather the point.
The key takeaways are a preference for a 4-3-3 and inverted full backs, which is what Mick Beale preached as well and you would think suits Kenneth Paal and Reggie Cannon a lot - while making Osman Kakay’s brain literally explode. He wants the ball, unlike Ainsworth, with an average possession north of 56%, in excess of 400 passes a game, and 83% accuracy on those. He presses high and aggressively to get that. Basically, take our game at West Brom last Tuesday and ask everybody involved in it to do the exact opposite of everything they just did. There’s a priority placed on deeper build up from the goalkeeper, so Asmir Begovic is probably going to have to stop launching it into the sixth row of the Ellerslie Road side of the ground – might actually need to go back to school at this late stage of his career, luckily I know a guy who’s running one.
There’s a lot of talk about the new hot trend for 2-3-5 in possession. I was taken by this line: “Regarding variations in the deeper build-up, Martí Cifuentes made his team dynamic and capable of confusing the pressing schemes and inviting the pressure to penetrate it by implementing rotations through the principles of the positional play.” Up to now the only confusion being caused by QPR is what the fuck are we doing? Mind you, "pressing in a confusing way" is basically the only verified skill on Sinclair Armstrong's LinkedIn page.
Hammarby have a 6ft winger who’s 19 and averaging a goal every other game. That’d be nice. Stick him in the corner we’ll have him. The average age in the starting XI in his final game this evening was 21.7; the average age of their whole squad this season is 24.7; the front three tonight were aged 18, 19 and 19.
Neil Banks, a QPR fan in Sweden some of you will know, has had a season ticket at Hammarby for the last two seasons. He writes: “Firstly, Cifuentes likes to have his teams playing tiki-taka football. Playing and passing almost quite literally from own goal line. Expect many scary moments as you see our 36-year-old goalkeeper trying to play sweeper. A lot of the ball going backwards when you're crying out for it go forwards, but then that through ball pass that makes you realise why it was taking so long to pass the bloody thing....
“Can it work in the Championship? With the correct type of players, yes. He prefers to play 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 formations. Though this mid-season (Swedish season finishes in two weeks’ time) he changed to a successful 3-5-1-1, but in past two weeks gone back to 4-3-3. Willock, and especially Chair, will certainly like playing for him. They'll be deployed behind a solid centre forward/target man, in QPR's case Dykes or Armstrong. But not target man in the sense of let's boot high to him and see what he can do with it, it'll be 95% of the time to him on the ground.
“He is very methodical. Gets his players so well drilled, they know exactly where they are expected to be on the pitch, know where each player will be when a pass is made. This may sound like common sense, but only when seeing it in action you sometimes see players playing a pass like they were blindfolded knowing that the pass will reach its intended target. Very quick counter attacking too - from opposing teams’ corners for example.”
It does, of course, mean QPR are doing that other very QPR thing indeed of flipping from one type of manager to his complete, polar opposite again. You cannot thrash about like this. I thought Redknapp to Ramsey, Hasselbaink to Holloway, Holloway to McClaren were extreme changes, but this is like setting off for a holiday at Butlins Bognor and ending up at a party at Elton John’s House, on the moon. You’ve decided to ditch all the analytics, player development and progressive thinking and hand the keys over to Captain Hoof and the Warriors, only to veer back to the absolute extreme the other way again with the bloke the tacticos wank themselves to death over. Compare Gareth’s interviews – “I believe we can achieve this season, and when I say achieve I mean achieve more than people think we can achieve, and that would be a hell of an achievement” – with this fucking podcast with Cifuentes. Even the title, “principles of counter pressing”, is absolutely hysterical to a club whose manager lost twice at home to Blackburn by an aggregate score of 7-1 and responded to it with “I want to see more intensity from the lads”.
A quote from our Les Ferdinand exit piece, written June 18, if you’ll allow me to dick swing for a moment: “This absolutely screams of Ainsworth being sacked in October/November amidst a hail of criticism about the way the team is playing, to be replaced by a mob-placating pendulum swing in the opposite direction and we end up with Marti Cifuentes/Ajax Youth Bot 3.2 trying to explain four-box-two to Josh Scowen.”
We’re going from Leeds away, where our two plans were to try and keep the score within arm’s reach until the last ten minutes so we can chuck stuff at them from any corner we might win accidentally, and pump channel balls to Sinclair Armstrong in the meantime, to… this. Best case scenario, the dalliance with Ainsworth is just down to one of our board’s frequent aberrations. Following McClaren, Warburton, Beale (and Critchley) with Cifuentes would have been the sort of coherent lineage that I bang on about all the time. I suspect we’d all like to forget Ainsworth’s 28 games in charge for a variety of reasons and if this works then we can just pretend it never happened. If it doesn’t it again looks the sort of wildly out of control supermarket trolley veering about that QPR are all too prone to.
The job of jobs
This is, needless to say, not the job it was a year ago. Talking about inverted full backs to Osman Kakay, false nines to Sincs and Dykesy, is going to require some finger puppets. Jimmy Dunne’s up now watching back episodes of Narcos to try and impress on new man’s day one. We have said for the last few weeks it's clear people like Field, Colback and Cook are outwardly fed up and frustrated playing as they've been asked to by Ainsworth. But the Championship has swallowed up appointments like this before – remember Wolves being so sick of Mick McCarthy they gave progressive Norwegian Stale Stolbakken the task of getting them back to the Premier League? They ended up relegated, again, to League One in 2012/13. Still, Cifuentes' arrival will at least have re-affirmed Reggie Cannon’s belief in the power of prayer.
There is hope to be found in these comments from the Sky piece: "In Sweden, when I arrived, most of the clubs were still under the influence of Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton from the 1970s. It was 4-4-2, high pressing and long balls. Extremely different from what I knew. But it was a good learning curve for me. Norway does not have this same British influence. The main influence there was Nils Arne Eggen, the legendary former Rosenborg head coach, so a lot of clubs there, maybe 80 per cent of them, played 4-3-3 in a very Norwegian way with runners in midfield. Denmark was totally different. In my childhood, I had grown up with Michael Laudrup, so I had this idea that it would be technical but it was the most physical of the three. I learned a lot. It was very physical with lots of man-marking and individual duels."
To put it mildly, there are not many raw materials here to work with and mould into Cifuentes’ philosophy and style. Before we start considering whether he’s going to be playing with a single or double pivot, let’s remember this is a team that recently committed three foul throws in the same football match. He has no FFP headroom to do anything about that in January. And – already six points adrift, our biggest game of the season so far is four days away at Rotherham – he has no time. But he knows that. He managed his final game at Hammarby tonight, the club announced the appointment straight after full time, and he’s flying to London to try and take training tomorrow (assuming all clearances are in place).
Cannon is one of the areas he can exploit. Absolutely perfectly suited to his very trendy and modern taste for inverting full backs in a 4-3-3 system. That’s basically what Beale had set about trying to build here with this team a year ago, seen to great effect when Paal and Laird ran amok at Watford at the end of August, before he had his head turned and we ended up doing things like 4-4-2 with Sam Field at right wing, or Ziyad Larkeche at right back.
There are other gains to be had too – not marginal ones either, full on fucking gains. Getting Chris Willock and Ilias Chair back playing together, back in form, and back creating and scoring goals, as they were spectacularly for Beale, you would think is job one of any manager inheriting this squad. Any new manager coming into a situation like this is going to talk about a “clean slate” for everybody and in Willock (and, who knows, perhaps even Taylor Richards), QPR have two of their supposedly better players, and certainly two of their higher earners, currently not even in the team.
Revitalising the centre of the midfield, too, could help alleviate the team’s biggest problem, which is none of its strikers can, or do, score goals. Andre Dozzell’s strike on Saturday against Leicester is exactly the sort of goal he should be capable of scoring with his technical ability, arriving late in the box in the second phase of attack, but he’s only scored twice in two and a half years here and one of those was a freak of nature. He should be bagging half a dozen of those a season, and Sam Field’s return for a player of his ability on the ground and in the air is pathetic as well. Goals from the centre of midfield, bar a hot streak from Luke Amos a two springs back, has been a chronic problem for this team for a long time and it could be a relatively easy way to help work towards remedying the obvious lack of goals from the front line. At Hammarby he has a 32-year-old midfielder, Nahir Besara, who is his captain and has contributed eight goals and 12 assists in 28 games this season.
Speaking more broadly, and less specifically about individual players, QPR don't know what sort of a team they are, or want to be. Gareth Ainsworth seemed persistently torn between the values that had served him well for ten years at Wycombe (playing up the underdog status, giving up the ball, sitting deep and narrow, shithousing through games) and trying to be more open, attractive and attacking as per the values QPR fans like to think their club should still aspire to. Everything he spent the entire summer working on, and several players who'd done big minutes in pre-season, were jettisoned immediately for a complete about-face and change of style after the Watford debacle. That was, at least, enough to catch Cardiff by surprise, but we'd often go from one approach, at home to Blackburn, to another, away at West Brom, within the same week. Less than a fortnight ago Lee Hoos was praising him for his "adaptability" in an article with The Athletic, but this isn't adaptability. This is a manager firing a gun into the air, and a team without an identity. You set that first of all - What sort of team are we? What sort of team do we want to be? - and then every team selection, tactic, signing and substitution flows from there. None of that flows for us at the moment, because we don't know.
QPR haven’t disclosed the length of Cifuentes' contract. He has, once before, failed to keep a team up but then rebuilt it in the tier below and secured it back in the division he found it, and in a much better state too. Having turned their back on the generic Warnock-style operation and gone for an apparently long term appointment, I’d be interested know whether we – and he – see him sticking around for a League One rebuild if that is what’s required. I have my doubts, he’s clearly on a Beale-like career trajectory in his own mind in which Loftus Road will be a staging post. I doubt he’s coming here with Pizza Trophy games in mind, but it will be a herculean task to rescue a team that doesn’t have a goal in it from what looks, to me, a near certain relegation. Making a progressive, long term appointment and then parting ways if the short term salvage job to we need now fails would also, sadly, be very typical of us. If he’s here regardless of whether we stay up or not then I’m a lot more invested.
Neil Banks again: "Before this evening's game I was asked quite a few times by Hammarby supporters what I thought. I said I would be happy to see him to go to QPR but ONLY if he was given time. QPR don't have that much time, or do we? Will the players respond quickly to someone who actually wants to play tiki-taka football, will the adapt to his ideas quickly enough? I hope he realises what he's put himself into here. This is potential awful debut in the English league, with feck all spending money. This, though, could also be just what QPR need after a very unsuccessful run of a British style of management."
In his final game with Hammarby tonight his team took a 2-0 lead at home and turned it into a 2-2 draw. He sounds like an Oakland A already. Conceded goals after 92 and 95. Absolutely perfect. No notes.
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Knees-up Mother Brown #12 by wessex_exile
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