|Rotherham United 1 v 1 Queens Park Rangers|
Saturday, 4th November 2023 Kick-off 15:00
Chair's brilliance starts Cifuentes off with a point - Report
Sunday, 5th Nov 2023 15:58 by Clive Whittingham
A brilliant first goal of the season from Ilias Chair looked like it might start Marti Cifuentes off with a win at Rotherham on Saturday, but QPR's chronic lack of goal scorers haunted them once more and they were forced to settle for a point.
Under a South Yorkshire sky as black as sackcloth, Queens Park Rangers bade welcome to Marti Cifuentes - their fourth continental coach, their fourth manager since the beginning of last season, and a man in a hurry. This mid-season takeover from his absolute polar opposite, Gareth Ainsworth, will need to be revolution rather than evolution.
Firstly, because there is little time to lose. Osvaldo Jaconi will tell you the season is long, and hard, but QPR have already chewed 15 games out of it and won only two. That, and a six-point gap to Huddersfield who occupy the last safety spot, isn’t necessarily terminal with more than five months and 31 games left play – the Terriers themselves survived last year by winning seven of their last nine games having only won seven of their previous 37. But, in all likelihood, QPR are going to need to win at least a dozen of their remaining games, better than one in three, having only won ten of their previous 52, worse than one in five. A team that has been consistently losing for two years now – 19 wins from 87 games, 46 defeats – is pretty shortly going to have to start winning more than it doesn’t.
Secondly, because Rangers had become almost completely unwatchable. It’s very easy to get all high and mighty and start talking about the club of Bowles, Marsh and Francis, or Wilkins, Wegerle and Taarabt, but I’ve seen a QPR team with a back four of Malcolm, Rehman, Stewart and Barker at least trying to play the odd bit of football. I’m not sure the way this team has been playing would have been palatable to its long-suffering supporters even if it had been winning, but that’s a moot point because it’s 2023 and if your plan A, B and C is a channel ball for Sinclair Armstrong to chase then you’re not going to win many games this side of the Isthmian League. We have been getting up every Saturday morning to watch a team we knew were going to lose the game, and look bloody dreadful doing it. No way to live.
Allowing Gareth Ainsworth your pre-season and what remains of the transfer budget to try and build Wycombe 2.0 only to sack him in October, amidst a hail of criticism about his style of play, and then completely pivot to Ajax Youth Bot 3.6 to try and teach a four-box-two system to Josh Scowen is such an obviously QPR course of action to take it is, literally word-for-word, what we put in our preview prediction for FourFourTwo – which we had to write way back in June. It’s not a particularly impressive dick swing either – once you know, and love, QPR you know what they’re going to do and how they’re going to behave. They had to do something though. The thought of another long journey north, in what is already feeling like a wretched British winter in store, to watch Gareth Ainsworth’s QPR, against a Rotherham side with only two victories of its own, in some sort of desperate El Crapico, was unutterably bleak. Even allowing for the obvious restrictions Ainsworth faced here, he had to do better than this.
The switch to Hammarby’s Marti Cifuentes is perhaps not as drastic as the complete contrast between him and Ainsworth may make it seem. He’s been on Rangers’ radar some time – a contender for the job when both Mick Beale and Neil Critchley were appointed instead – and had he arrived a year ago he’d have been a very tidy and coherent progression from both Mark Warburton and Beale. One of the biggest criticisms of Ainsworth this season has been playing a style of football unsuited to the players he has at his disposal. Jack Colback, Steve Cook and others don’t want to spend the twilight of their careers thumping channel balls for a raw youth team striker to chase after. Ilias Chair and Chris Willock have been turned from one of the division’s premier partnerships into a couple of waifs. Sure it’s going to be fairly terrifying watching the short goal kick routines between Begovic, Cook and Dunne, which began in earnest and from the off at Rotherham, but Begovic has only been planting most of his long clearances into the stand anyway, and it’ll suit Jake Clarke-Salter on the four or five occasions we get to see him between now and May.
On Saturday, despite playing conditions that began at biblical and tailed away from there, QPR tried to play football, they tried to score goals, and they looked like they had some semblance of plan as to how they might go about doing both of those things. That automatically made it a million times better than the gruelling 90 minutes the travelling faithful recently suffered through in this part of the world against Leeds and Huddersfield. It was a blessed relief to see us at least trying to move the ball up and around the field by passing it ten yards to a team mate, and then moving into space to receive it back. Almost all the players looked immediately more at home doing it this way.
As expected, the team switched into something resembling Cifuentes’ preferred 4-3-3, and while a back four with these players usually results in us being exposed and overwhelmed that didn’t happen on this occasion. As many suspected, the whole thing immediately benefitted Reggie Cannon and Kenneth Paal as the full backs, well involved in the play out from the back – one raking crossfield pass from Cannon in the first half, which Ilias Chair took on for a 20 yard shot past the post, was worth the admission fee by itself - though the American did seem to be labouring under injury for much of this game. Chris Willock was another predictable re-introduction to the team and, while he was rusty at times, the presence of another body in attack, let alone one with some actual football ability, opened up so many more possibilities for us than in any of our recent games.
No real surprise to see Ilias Chair, with extra support and defenders unable to double up, having his best game of the season, and scoring his first goal – cutting in from the left onto a brilliantly disguised pass from Paal and arrowing a gorgeous dipping effort into the far top corner for one nil. In from the moment it left his boot, an outpouring of joy and relief from the soggy masses watching it fly towards them behind the goal. It is, I believe, by about half a foot, his first goal from inside the penalty box since Huddersfield away Easter 2022 – six goals and 65 appearances ago.
The change in shape, along with the suspensions to Dozzell and Colback, also allowed development squad prospect Elijah Dixon-Bonner to make his first ever league start for the club in a midfield and style that suited him, rather than trying to influence things with the ball whizzing around over his head. He acquitted himself very well in ever-worsening conditions and showed promise for the future – the first time for a while a player has been able to step out of QPR’s second string into a first team league game and not look wildly out of their depth. Probably the pick of the QPR players other than Chair, given he’s trying to get the ball down and play in a congested midfield, on a disintegrating playing surface, in a monsoon.
Dixon-Bonner was, however, one of several QPR players who didn’t score when they might have done. A prolonged spell of pressure after Chair’s opener, with the former Liverpool academy player at its heart, culminated with Reggie Cannon brilliantly finding him free in the penalty box with a low cut back. He snatched at the chance, and Johansson in the home goal was able to keep the ball out, possibly with some help from the post.
This is going to be more of a problem for Cifuentes than simply trying to get this lot playing football. There are no goals in this team. Immediately after the Dixon-Bonner chance Paul Smyth whipped over a cross from the right that would have had David Bardsley reaching for a moist towel, but Lyndon Dykes missed it completely at the near post and Chair was beaten to it at the far. Dykes was one of those who didn’t look suited to this new style at all, and when you talk about our apparent lack of service to the Scottish international what on earth does he want more than a cross like that?
From the other side, late, Chair brilliantly tricked his way into space and smashed a low cross into the six-yard box where sub Charlie Kelman, once again seen on the training videos this week producing outrageous finishes for fun, hit the goalkeeper’s shins from close range. On the rebound, from exactly the same spot and with an identical sort of chance to Andre Dozzell’s goal a week ago against Leicester, Sam Field shot wide when he surely must hit the target. He needs to score more goals. Jimmy Dunne slid in on a back post cross from a cleared corner and, with his whole arse hanging out the back of his shorts, also shot wide.
Viktor Johansson is the best goalkeeper in this league for my money, and was excellent again here under both shot and high ball. But QPR’s goalscoring problem is chronic. We haven’t scored three goals in a game in 48 attempts going back more than a year. We have scored more than one in a game only five times in our last 46 attempts. The last time we came from behind to win was against Reading at home on October 7 last year, 50 games ago – since then we have recovered just three points from losing positions. We are since winless in 29 games when conceding the first goal. We can keep adding one to these numbers, but not to the scoreboard, and it’s always going to leave you susceptible at the other end, where only Norwich have conceded more than our 27 goals, and we’re nursing a record of only two clean sheets.
Rotherham, for whom Onyedimna impressed wide right, Hugill crawled over and clattered through centre backs as we know he does, and Lembikisa turned in a curate’s egg performance – petrified of Chair without the ball, terrifying to us when he had it himself – duly found their equaliser.
Cifuentes had felt emboldened enough by our lead to bring on #TeeRichStarrrr from the bench, but he once again just looked wholly unsuited to the task. With the ball, the little flashes of class we know are buried within somewhere. Without it, a total liability. With a lead to protect, and Dykes among the unmarked options ahead of him ready to receive a pass, he inexplicably planted a firm header back into his own half, past the QPR midfield, and straight to George Kelly, now in on the back four with supporting runners. I’m not sure Sam Field really needed to foul him, but we should never have been put in that position by Richards in the first place. Up to now he’s just not looked like a serious footballer this guy. It constantly looks like he’s down at PlayFootball with his mates of a Wednesday eve – yes, the occasional nice pass or flick, but also pulling out of challenges weighted 70:30 in his favour in case he gets hurt, tossing sloppy nonsense like that header back into dangerous areas like it doesn’t really matter, chugging around the place at half pace. Maybe we could coin a new company and sponsor his kit as our latest FFP workaround – Malazyarse. Bramall’s delivery from the free kick was deep to the far post, and perhaps QPR thought it had gone far enough not to be a threat, but Kelly manipulated Field and wrapped his leg round the ball brilliantly to burst the roof of the net with an equaliser. Argue about whether that’s a foul or not if you like, I thought it was great centre forward play and a terrific finish from their point of view, horribly soft and preventable from ours.
There were many positives to take, but this was a low-quality game and another two points left on the table. It could easily have been a defeat as much as it could have been a victory and we shouldn’t get carried away because, relatively, it was better than the beer shits we had been serving up. It was refreshing to hear Cifuentes post-match talking more in that manner, turning down chances to gaslight and blow smoke about how hard the boys battled and instead focusing on the immediate need for improvement and victories – “the other teams will not wait for us”.
Had Tiehi’s improvised shot in the first half squeezed inside the post rather than taking a finger wide from Begovic, or Begovic’s parry of Oneydimna’s shot back into traffic not eluded Cafu right in front of him, or Cafu scored with a glancing header from another terrific Bramall cross when he surely should have done just before the goal, or Odoffin’s thumping header found the top corner rather than the face of the goalframe when it seemed certain he’d scored, then Rotherham would have won the game and QPR, for all of their obvious improvement, would have lost to one of the teams they’re desperately hoping might finish below them in this table come May.
All of that is a product of us being unable to take our chances when they’re presented to us, and that’s going to be Cifuentes’ biggest hurdle to clear as he moulds the team to his principles and desires. Ilias Chair’s one match ban for five yellow cards, the final one of which was for stupidly kicking the ball away in the first half, will not help in next week’s game against Bristol City.
Whether we’re too far gone already, too devoid of quality, too short of goals, to claw our way out of the hole we’ve worked ourselves into, we’ll only find out in time. I think we’ve got big problems and will be lucky to survive, others have been suitably imbued with confidence and belief by the new man to think we might be alright after all.
What we can all agree on is, whatever the outcome, we’d surely far rather QPR do it like this.
Rotherham: Johansson 7; Lembikisa 6, Morrison 5 (Ayala 87, -), Odoffin 6, Bramall 6; Cafu 6, Tiehi 5, Rathbone 6; Onyedinma 7 (Eaves 87, -), Hugill 6 (Nombe 71, 5), Clucas 5 (Kelly 61, 7)
Subs not used: Phillips, Revan, Appiah, McGuckin
Goals: Kelly 70 (assisted Bramall)
Bookings: Bramall 21 (foul), Clucas 37 (foul)
QPR: Begovic 5; Cannon 6 (Kakay 90, -), Dunne 5, Cook 6, Paal 6; Field 5, Dixon-Bonner 7, Smyth 5 (Richards 63, 4); Willock 6 (Armstrong 80, -), Dykes 4 (Adomah 80, - (Kelman 90, -)), Chair 7
Subs not used: Archer, Larkeche, Duke-McKenna, Drewe
Goals: Chair 50 (assisted Paal)
Bookings: Chair 19 (kicking ball away)
QPR Star Man – Ilias Chair 7 Despite the mindless booking, which now means an unwelcome one-game ban, Chair was the outstanding player on the pitch for either team, and crowned that with a spectacular first goal of the season.
Referee – Sam Barrott (West Riding) 7 Rotherham seemed bitterly unhappy but I thought he was very decent. Some slight, niggling inconsistency with the Chair booking (which was correct, however petty) not then being followed up with cards for players, say, running off with the ball up their shirt and dropping it 20 yards away so QPR can’t take a quick free kick. Seven minutes added to the end felt very skinny given the goals, injuries, substitutions, and a prolonged faff about with their communication system. But these are minor first world problems, compared to some of the Championship officiating we’ve seen this season this guy was a dream.
Attendance – 10,199 (1,171 QPR) Remarkable support all things considered, on another long trip to the north in dire weather. Best mood and atmosphere there has been in an away end for sometime as well – just need a win or two to build some momentum now. Enjoyed the jobsworth steward outside calling a supervisor to rule on whether a lad’s Spanish flag should be confiscated, presumably for fear of Catalans separatists infiltrating Rotherham v QPR to make their latest stand for independence. Bloody daft country this at the moment.
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