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Norwich City 1 v 0 Queens Park Rangers
SkyBet Championship
Saturday, 25th November 2023 Kick-off 15:00
Cifuentes influence undermined by familiar failings - Report
Sunday, 26th Nov 2023 23:40 by Clive Whittingham

The difference and improvements in QPR's style and approach were there for all to see against Norwich at Carrow Road on Saturday - but sadly so were the three chronic problems that hole this team below the waterline.

There was a Queens Park Rangers move early in this game, around the third minute, that would have graced any team in this league and several in the one above. QPR, playing left to right through first Kenneth Paal, then out from the back through Steve Cook, and away down the flank with Elijah Dixon Bonner via a delightful infield flick from Chris Willock.

The beginning to this game, the energy and confidence QPR played with, the style and tempo of the football, and the size and mood of the travelling support, belied the club’s league position (second bottom) and recent run of results (11 games and now almost three months since a victory). Rangers were able to play through the thirds, pass between the lines, build triangles up the field, and all of that other modern jazz that, until a fortnight or so ago, everybody else was doing but us. Players running off the ball, into space to receive, in pre-planned moves, knowing where they should be at any given time, and likewise knowing where their teammates would be in that situation. Basics, to most football teams in this day and age; sorcery, to the class of 2023 at the Shepherd’s Bush School for the Gifted. We looked energised, and confident.

It was no surprise to see Dixon-Bonner at the heart of that move and several others. Barely even an unused substitute under the previous regime, when the ‘style of play’ was very much spit-on-it-in-lieu-of-foreplay, he’s exactly the sort of technical little academy boy who’s spent his whole adult life to this point being schooled in these more modern ways of playing football during his time at Chelsea and Liverpool. To play Cifuentes’ ‘Cryuffian football’ you need to be brave in showing for the ball in tight spaces, adjust the body position to take it on the half-turn and move it forward quickly on most occasions. Dixon-Bonner does all three while our other midfielders can barely do one between them. He could consider himself unfortunate to be dropped after a decent outing in Cifuentes’ first game at Rotherham and, given how things went without him against Bristol City, it was little shock to see him back in the side here. Rangers had struggled to make inroads into the final third against the Robins, with too much backwards and sideways stuff from Sam Field and Jack Colback, and Andre Dozzell back to floating around like Patrick Swayze looking for Whoopi Goldberg.

Cifuentes has undoubtedly made immediate changes for the better and improvements to this team, and it absolutely did not look like a relegation-haunted side in the first instance. However, from that bright beginning of probing passes and an energetic high press, several chronic problems with this group of players resurfaced and manifested.

The first, most obviously, is the lack of goals. They neither scored, nor looked like scoring for the vast majority of this game. The start was encouraging, but it brought only one half chance for Ilias Chair, cutting in from the left and shooting at home keeper George Long from range after being freed by Willock. That move – Chair cutting in onto his right foot for a shot – is QPR’s plan A, B, C and D for scoring a goal. It’s the only goal they’ve managed in the new manager’s three games in charge so far, and here Chair tried it approximately 56 times on the afternoon with one shitpinger a foot over the bar with Long stranded in the second half as close as he came to success. It makes him, and us, incredibly predictable.

The only other serious chance we created in 90+ minutes of football came in injury time right at the end, when Chair’s delightful backheel got Jimmy Dunne, of all people, into clear space behind Jack Stacey and his low cut back was met on the run by Sam Field who shot wide with his unfavoured right foot from exactly the same position he’d missed with his left in identical circumstances after more Chair brilliance at Rotherham. In both cases he not only has to be hitting the target, but he really should be scoring as well. We need him to score. Somebody. Anybody.

That really was it. Rangers had more than 60% of the ball - and for long periods looked like the better side against a nervous host that only recently snapped its own run of seven defeats in nine with a surprise win at Cardiff and spent a weirdly large amount of time in this game kicking the ball out of play - but rarely threatened. Long held a low cross from Kakay with Dykes waiting, Dykes headed a Paal corner wide, Dixon-Bonner appealed for the sort of penalty you might get with VAR but not without after Long had spilled, Paal cut a cross shot right through the six-yard box with nobody on hand to get a touch. Did Long really have a serious shot to save? Not that I can recall. Lyndon Dykes was, I’m sorry to say, once again, fairly hopeless, and also seemed to pick up an Achilles injury in a poor tackle by Shane Duffy.

The R’s have now scored a pathetic 11 goals in 17 league games. We haven’t scored three goals in a game in 50 attempts going back more than a year. We have scored more than one in a game only five times in our last 48 attempts. And the worst bit of it now is we know it too. When we concede a goal, which we inevitably will do with this defence, our heart drops out of our arse. Even when dominating the early stages Rangers had required Steve Cook to execute an acrobatic diving header on the line to keep out a well-flighted chip over the stranded Asmir Begovic by Jack Stacey. A short while later one long ball up and over QPR’s high defensive line sent South Korean international Ui-jo Hwang away into space for a well taken finish past Begovic into the far corner. It was a ball Norwich played a lot, so clearly something they’d seen and liked. The home team grateful they’d decided their striker could play after a week spent being investigated by the police in his homeland for having his Hwang out where it wasn’t wanted; QPR left to stop, stand and stare at the static and stranded Jimmy Dunne and ask the Irish centre back to talk us through his thought process.

The last time we came from behind to win was against Reading at home on October 7 last year, 52 games ago – since then we have recovered just three points from losing positions and are winless in now 30 games when conceding the first goal. The second Norwich scored the belief noticeably drained, the play became more laboured, and so much of what we did took place in front of the opposition rather than behind it. Not, it should be said, against a very good team either – the silence of the home fans and monotony of the game broken only by murmurings of frustration from those around us in yellow. Theirs is a manager on borrowed time.

We will improve plenty for the return of Reggie Cannon at right back instead of Osman Kakay, who had all on with Onel Hernandez here. Our chances would increase exponentially if Jake Clarke-Salter, perfectly suited to this style, could ever get fit to play left centre back – although, given his record, that’s like saying your life would be improved exponentially by having Jennifer Lawrence queef in your face every now and again. Neither very likely to happen, are they?

However, neither Cannon nor Clarke-Salter address the second key reason for our struggles, and another problem it’s going to be difficult for Cifuentes, or anybody else, to fix without new recruits: we are painfully slow. I’ve had queries move through HMRC’s call centre quicker than we can get up and down the pitch. Chris Willock, nice touches and clever passes here and there, still doesn’t look like he trusts his body, pulling back from every stretch or sprint requirement. In an hour of need David Wagner was able to go with all the experienced players he could muster – Norwich’s team had an average age of 29.8, the highest of any starting 11 in the division this season, and classy midfielder Gabriel Sara was their youngest at 24 – safe in the knowledge QPR didn’t have anybody, anywhere, who could torch one of their oldies for pace. What’s the one thing every footballer always says they hate playing against? Pace. What’s one of the main reasons we’re so easy to play against? We’re slow as rust.

When Sinclair Armstrong did, belatedly, enter the fray I was looking forward to seeing him get a run at either of their crusty centre backs, Danny Batth or Shane Duffy, but it never really happened. His only impact was to be penalised by referee Steve Martin for his tiny contribution to Batth and Long colliding with each other on the edge of the Norwich box.

There were other niggles with the referee. One Norwich tactic, not uncommon by any means, was to commit a foul to stop the game and reset their shape every time they gave the ball away. I get that, Man Utd built a dynasty on it in the 1990s, and I also understand how hard it is for a referee to police when it’s being shared around the team adequately. Here, though, it wasn’t: Jack Stacey fouls 22, 28, 36, 69 – no yellow; Ashley Barnes fouls 2, 58, 70, 81 – no yellow. Norwich committed 18 fouls in this game, the most by any team in any QPR game so far this season. I’m all for letting stuff go and keeping cards in pockets, but you’ve got to be wiser to what was a pretty blatant, deliberate tactic than this. Chris Willock did later see yellow for a shirt pull interrupting a Norwich break and he and we can have absolutely no complaints about that at all, but when he turned Giannoulis on halfway half an hour into the game and was pulled back himself no card was shown.

More irritating, on a disciplinary front, were the mindless yellows picked up by Jack Colback and Steve Cook who, lest we forget, were brought here as ‘culture guardians’ to be the experienced heads we so desperately needed. Colback gave the referee a spray in the first half and then, having got away with it, went back for a second go in case he hadn’t heard him the first time – he’d been playing okay to that point but thereafter had to keep pulling out of tackles we needed him to make. He’s already been suspended for four matches and needs only four more yellows for another two. His last two bookings have been for dissent and nine of the yellow cards we’ve picked up as a team so far have been for backchatting the referee, including Paul Smyth’s last three hence his absence with a ban here. Steve Cook, deep into injury time and losing 1-0, fouled a player going nowhere by the corner flag allowing Norwich to waste another minute of time, then booted the ball at him for an inevitable and wholly avoidable booking – his three yellows so far this season have been for dissent, dissent and then this. When I’ve said QPR are too nice, too quiet, regularly talked and refereed out of games, I was thinking more the Ashley Barnes approach to solving that. He basically refereed this game for the home team - in the official’s ear from first to last, committing multiple fouls, shithousing the opposition, delaying the taking of free kicks - and only very eventually saw yellow deep into injury time by which point his job was done as the big broad smile on his face indicated.

The third and final problem the new manager faces is the lack of anything really in depth on his bench to significantly change what he has. Sinclair Armstrong we’ve talked about, Charlie Kelman and Aaron Drewe came on and barely touched the ball, Andre Dozzell had half an hour in which he gave the ball away every other time he had it (57% passing accuracy) and stuck a foul in on Giannoulis which, with Martin and half the Norwich players rushing to the scene, looked for one minute like it might bring his second red card in three outings. #TeeeeRichStarrrr an unused sub – he’s clearly doing big bits in training as per.

I’m enjoying watching us a lot more than I was, I can at least stand there and tell what the plan is and how we’re going about it. I’m more optimistic about our survival chances, but then I previously rated our survival chances at nought. Getting Cannon and Clarke-Salter back in this team would be a massive boost. I don’t, however, see how Marti Cifuentes solves those three key issues with the team – the lack of goal threat, pace, and options to change games from the bench – without the sort of significant January surgery we did in 2021, and that would appear to be beyond our FFP headroom this time.

Links >>> Ratings and Reports >>> Message Board Match Thread

Norwich: Long 5; Stacey 6, Duffy 5, Batth 6, Giannoulis 5; McLean 6, Sara 7; Fassnacht 5 (McCallum 90+4, -), Barnes 6, Hernandez 6 (Hainz 78, 6); Ui-Jo 7 (Idah 64, 5)

Subs not used: Gibbs, Nunez, Fisher, Reyes, Springett, Warner

Goals: Hwang Ui-jo 21 (assisted Sara)

Bookings: Sara 77 (foul), Fassnacht 84 (foul), McLean 90 (foul), Barnes 90+5 (delaying restart)

QPR: Begovic 5; Kakay 5 (Drewe 81, -), Cook 6, Dunne 4, Paal 6; Dixon-Bonner 6 (Dozzell 63, 4), Field 5, Colback 5; Willock 5 (Kelman 82, -), Dykes 4 (Armstrong 63, 5), Chair 6

Subs not used: Clarke-Salter, Archer, Richards, Larkeche, Duke-McKenna

Bookings: Colback 48 (dissent), Willock 72 (foul), Dozzell 80 (foul), Cook 90+3 (retaliation)

QPR Star Man – Kenneth Paal 6 Corners, almost exclusively spaffed straight into the defender at the near post, notwithstanding, I thought he was maybe our best player along with Dixon-Bonner, until he tired, and Chair, bar the predictable cut inside and collection of poor shots. Difficult choice though – it’s another defeat, to nil, against mediocre opposition.

Referee – Steve Martin (Hollywood) 5 Allowed himself to be played. Ashley Barnes basically had a hand up his back, pulling the skin on the back of his neck to animate the features while doing a silly voice. Didn’t recognise or clamp down on Norwich’s tactical fouls in the first half, or that it was mostly the same two players doing them, and thereafter got tied up with inconsistency about what was and wasn’t a yellow card. Nothing major wrong, but not good game management.

Attendance 25,650 (1,535 QPR) Remarkable travelling support given the circumstances, and the atmosphere and response to the team in the away end was positive and vocal right through to the final whistle and afterwards. My fear is if Cifuentes cannot solve those three problems – goals, pace, options to change from the bench – and results don’t markedly improve then all the same people giving it large about paella and Estrella on the early morning trains will be the first to turn on the manager, criticise his style and start demanding a Neil Warnock-type change after all. That really won’t take as long as you think, but Cifuentes should be viewed as a long-term appointment who has inherited myriad problems not of his making that may take a great deal of time and money to fix.

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FrankRightguard added 00:16 - Nov 27
Colback is in charge of the yoghurts

Geoff78 added 09:36 - Nov 27
How do other clubs find 12-15 goals a season strikers? There are players in this league who will score goals but aren't great goal scorers or natural strikers. Isn't that a matter of coaching?

denhamhoop2 added 09:56 - Nov 27
It always amazes me that people think a team not scoring goals is totally down to the strikers now in no way am I saying Dykes and Armstrong are the best forwards in the league but by and large forwards are only as good as their service. For me we are so predictable in feed the ball to Chair and hope he can cut inside and curl one into the top corner. Maybe once or twice try going down the line and drilling the ball across with his swinger left foot you just never know a defender might slash it into his own net

Northernr added 10:34 - Nov 27
Denham - and, as I've been saying for weeks, just the very odd occasional goal from central midfield wouldn't go amiss. Field should have scored here and at Rotherham - four extra points straight away.

denhamhoop2 added 11:29 - Nov 27
Norf couldn't agree more it's a horrendous miss just find it staggering so many of our squad are so one footed that would be one of my things if I was coaching those players would be made to play in slippers on their good foot and a boot on the swinger to help train them to learn to kick with their wrong foot. Chair is our second most talented player(Behind Willock who should be a potential star in this division) and he just doesn't trust crossing the ball with his left foot the difference it would make to him and the team if he did it just a few times a game. The opposition wouldn't be able to double up on him coming inside

Myke added 13:17 - Nov 27
Does Chair not trust his left foot, or does he not trust Dykes? Either issue needs to be sorted on the training ground. Not scoring or really looking like scoring against the second leakiest defence in the division doesn't bode well. The last three games were an excellent opportunity to pick up 4-7 points - but then we don't do new manager bounce.

stainrodnee added 15:39 - Nov 27
Thanks for another excellent report Clive.

Re the lack of pace, I’d like to see Smyth given a go on the left with Armstrong on the right. From what I’ve seen so far I don’t think Armstrong is a striker, think he’d be more effective as a winger.

Denham is spot on about our one footed players. I think it’s unforgivable that they can get so far as a pro and be incapable of using their weaker foot. If their other foot is that bad they should be paid half as much.

extratimeR added 11:01 - Nov 28
Yes, exactly how I saw it Clive, started well good to watch, but the pace thing is going to kill us if we dont find someone urgently, Chair worked his socks off, Willock continues to improve, Dixon Bonnar is now a must pick, big difference when he plays
Thanks Clive, great report.

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