Cracks starting to appear? Leeds head pack after QPR’s second defeat – full match report
Monday, 20th Dec 2010 23:14 by Clive Whittingham
Leeds United moved to within three points of QPR at the top of the Npower Championship with a comfortable 2-0 victory over the R’s at Elland Road on Saturday.
After several taxis inexplicably refused their service to us on Elland Road on Saturday evening there was plenty of time for reflection among the Northern R’s as we embarked on the long, tortuous walk back to the city centre across motorways and open parkland. Feet feezing, darkness closing in, frozen fog clinging to the skin like glue in the air, I couldn’t help but recall an overheard conversation from just over a year ago as we trooped away from Doncaster Rovers in the pouring rain after a 2-0 defeat. “They turned up in gloves and played like tarts” was the forthright opinion of a Rovers supporter that day, as the rain started to soak through to my skin and QPR’s promotion charge buckled under the weight of loan signings and Jim Magilton’s flawed personality. Leeds fans aren’t noted for their humbleness, and the spent a good five minutes of the second half on Saturday swinging their scarves around and singing about being ‘Champions of Europe’ just to emphasise that point, but there were plenty of similar remarks to be heard from the home fans as we trudged away from an ageing Elland Road after this one.
It’s certainly worth pointing out that while we were half heartedly succumbing to a weak defeat in South Yorkshire last season Newcastle United were reeling from consecutive defeats at Nottingham Forest and Scunthorpe which came on the back of two draws – two points from a possible 12. We know what happened to the Magpies last season and hopefully we can go on to lift the title, or win promotion, this season regardless of the mini-blip we have experienced this week.
But I have to confess to some concerns for the first time this season. QPR were well in the game right up until half time but just didn’t look as keen, confident and committed as their hosts. After the break they looked like a team happy to play out time and get back on the bus. They looked like QPR teams always have during the winter when playing away in the north – cold, disinterested, and about as likely to win the game as fly to the moon.
“We keep going right to the end,” said Neil Warnock after the last gasp draw at Portsmouth earlier this season. They didn’t here. In fact I don’t think it would be unfair to say we packed in altogether before the hour mark. Second half substitutions weakened an already spent force and a comeback similar to the one we produced from two goals down in stoppage time at Derby back in August never looked either likely or possible. QPR didn’t show the same desire and commitment to win back and retain possession as they have done previously this season and that is a concern.
Following the first defeat of the season against Watford last weekend there were changes made to the team. Alejandro Faurlin was ill while Rob Hulse had recovered from the bug that restricted him to a substitute role against the Hornets. That meant a move into midfield for Kyle Walker and a recall at right back for Bradley Orr. Walker partnered Shaun Derry while the rest of the defence comprised Kaspars Gorkss, Matt Connolly, ClintHill and Paddy Kenny in goal. Hulse led the attack with support from Adel Taarabt, Jamie Mackie and Tommy Smith.
Leeds started with top scorer Luciano Becchio in attack on the day it was announced he would be signing a new contract at Elland Road, but the Whites were without loan defender Andy O’Brien for the second week running because of a thigh strain. They started with Alex Bruce and Neill Collins at centre half instead, a porous partnership if ever I saw one, but that barely lasted ten minutes as injury forced an early change on manager Simon Grayson.
QPR started very brightly indeed. After three minutes Tommy Smith ran in behind Rob Hulse as he flicked a Paddy Kenny clearance on into the area and although he cleared Kasper Shmeichel with his lobbed effort, he couldn’t bring the ball down under the bar so the chance went begging. A minute later Kyle Walker was tripped by Paul Connolly giving Adel Taarabt a chance to stand a rare decent free kick up to the back post where Rob Hulse headed for goal but Schmeichel saved well.
Then the change, ten minutes in, and it was terribly bad news for QPR. Alex Bruce, Leeds’ accident prone centre half, left the field with an injury and was replaced by Leigh Bromby. I always think Bruce gives you at least one excellent chance to score in a game and only really plays at this level at all because of who his father it. I was bitterly disappointed to see him withdrawn so early and while Grayson will point to Leeds’ win despite the early change as a triumph over adversity the injury was probably the best thing that could have happened to the home team.
Leeds gave a threat of what was to come later in the half in the thirteenth minute when a deep cross from the right flank was met at the back post by Becchio and Kenny was forced into a full stretch, one handed tip over the bar which was as good a save as you will see this season. From the Leeds corner QPR counter attacked with Jamie Mackie running at speed at the heart of the Leeds defence and winning a free kick ten yards outside the penalty area. Taarabt took the set piece which was headed behind for a corner which the Moroccan wasted – and so began another face tearingly frustrating afternoon of dreadful delivery from corners and free kicks.
Taarabt was in rather better form on the quarter hour, carrying the ball to the edge of the area on a typically swashbuckling run before beating Schmeichel all ends up with a low drive that flashed half a foot wide of the bottom corner with many of the QPR fans high in the cheese wedge jumping up ready to celebrate what looked a certain goal from the moment it left the Moroccan’s foot. That came from a tidy passing move through midfield, a rarity from QPR on Saturday and worth both coaches and players alike taking note of – it was certainly more effective and incisive than the long punt forward to Hulse that we resorted to most of the rest of the time.
Leeds responded in kind within a minute when a swift attack ended with Becchio teeing up Bradley Johnson and his low shot flew fractionally wide of the post from an identical distance and in a similar fashion to Taarabt’s effort a moment earlier.
But as the half wore on QPR started to be penned back more and more. Too often they took the lazy option of looking long to Hulse rather than trying to get people like Tommy Smith on the ball while at the other end I lost count of the amount of times defensive headers dropped around the QPR penalty area straight to a Leeds man with time and space. Both with and without possession the centre of our midfield was almost non-existant and never once even threatened to get the team a foothold in the game across the centre of the pitch. Leeds, like Watford a week previously, dominated and swamped Derry and his partner at the base of the midfield.
Only a superb last ditch sliding tackle from Kaspars Gorkss on the edge of the area denied Max Gradel a clear run on goal – mistimed and it was certainly a penalty, missed altogether and Gradel would have been hard pushed not to score.
This was a temporary reprieve though. Within a minute another cross from the right was headed down by Becchio at the back post and Gradel reacted first with a powerful low shot under Kenny and into the net from close range.
QPR initially responded well to this set back. Within a couple of minutes the R’s won a corner which was intelligently held up in the six yard box by Jamie Mackie who waited what seemed like an age before picking the right pass back to Rob Hulse and he should have done better than fire wide from close range. That was QPR’s best chance of the game.
In the next attack Hulse intelligently nodded down for Tommy Smith who was rushing through the middle of the park but the former Watford man just couldn’t bring the ball under control and it ran comfortably though to Schmeichel who would have been badly exposed had Smith’s control not let him down. Smith drilled wide of the goal with a low shot when QPR poured forward again.
The first card of the game came ten minutes before half time and left a bitter taste in the mouth. Bradley Orr put a challenge in on Max Gradel tight to the touchline and upended the Leeds man – the home side continued to attack despite this so play was waved on but as they went in search of a second goal Gradel embarked on a series of exaggerated rolls, screams and spasms on the floor in the technical area. It was play acting of the lowest order, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Gradel as everybody was able to clearly see when he picked himself up, dusted himself off and then raced into the penalty area to get on the end of a low cross from Snodgrass and screw his shot wide of the post. Despite the child-like reaction from Gradel referee Scott Mathieson did indeed to return to book Orr once the play had come to a halt.
There was no card for George McCartney though five minutes before the break when he again upended Taarabt on the edge of the area – and there was no reward from the free kick for QPR either as Taarabt again disappointed with a weak effort that sailed harmlessly over the bar. As good as Taarabt is and as much as I love him, he really should be taken off set piece duty as soon as possible because his delivery and shots from corners and free kicks is abject at the moment.
The injury to Bruce and subsequent substitution contributed to four minutes of injury time at the end of the first half and the extra period turned out to be a dramatic one. First Jamie Mackie appeared to be badly fouled on the halfway line and stayed on the ground motionless as the referee inexplicably waved play on. QPR encouraged Leeds to kick the ball out of play and when they refused to do so the inevitable happened – Clint Hill hacked into Paul Connolly for a clear Leeds free kick that sparked a minor fracas in front of Leeds’ giant, and half full, West Stand. The upshot off all of this was a booking for both Hill and Connolly although the referee may reflect upon reviewing his performance that he caused the whole situation with a bad decision in the first place.
There was more to come from Mathieson before the half time piss and pies – Adel Taarabt embarked on a Roy Wegerle like run from the halfway line that carried him past three Leeds players to the edge of the area where he appeared to be clearly chopped down in full flight. Matheison waved play on for a second time and the QPR players held lengthy conversations with the match officials as they left the field at half time.
Neil Warnock made a change during the break, although it wasn’t the one I thought he would make. On a booking and playing poorly Clint Hill was an obvious candidate for withdrawal and the best thing, in my opinion, to have done would have been to put Walker to left back and add Martin Rowlands to the centre of midfield. Instead Warnock brought on Fitz Hall, moving Connolly forward into midfield.
Straight away QPR went on the attack with Orr feeding Smith into the right channel and the former Watford man cutting the ball back for Taarabt whose crisp half volley looked destined for the back of the net as soon as he’d hit it but the ball struck Neil Collins and flew over the bar for a corner that was, yet again, wasted.
This was a false dawn though. Within two minutes Luciano Becchio had broken in behind the QPR defence after being given the benefit of substantial doubt by the linesman and his low shot across the face of the goal was just about scrambled wide of the post by Kenny at full stretch.
This rather set the tone for a second half where the Leeds attacks came in waves, testing the visitors with increasing regularity and eroding the meagre defences Rangers had assembled in their path. Kyle Walker attempted to breathe some life and fire into the QPR performance with one of his speedy runs from left back ten minutes after half time but conceded possession on the halfway line leaving his team badly exposed. Max Gradel collected possession but indulged in three too many touches and two too many dance moves on the edge of the area and was crowded out as team mates waited forlornly for a pass that never came. The Leeds fans howled with derision, berating their own man for his selfishness – this would all be forgotten shortly.
Gradel bagged Leeds’ second goal of the game 20 minutes from time. QPR had threatened moments earlier, when Orr’s cross sparked panic in the Leeds area as Schmeichel raced from his line but failed to claim, but the right back was left badly exposed in the next Leeds attack. Faced with three white shirted opponents moving towards him Orr was in an impossible situation and after committing to one of them the ball was simply knocked into the space behind him for Gradel to run on to. Fitz Hall faced him up, but only in the same way Zesh Rehman used to face up opponents, and he simply backed off and backed off and backed off some more allowing Gradel free passage into the penalty area where he unloaded a low shot that Paddy Kenny will have been disappointed to be beaten by on his near post.
All previous selfishness forgiven, the Leeds fans saluted their new hero as he danced around the corner flag like a Lilt lady. Warnock responded by introducing Heidar Helguson and Hogan Ephraim for Rob Hulse and Tommy Smith but these looked more like the acts of a corner throwing the towel in than a coach rallying his fighter for one last round. Leeds for their part replaced Gradel with Lloyd Sam an QPR were absolutely abject for the remainder of the game and fortunate not to lose by more.
Gradel was something of an enigma on Saturday, almost like Leeds’ own version of Adel Taarabt. He scored twice, infuriated team mates and fans alike by holding on too long in other situations, and got Bradley Orr booked with some wild play acting in the first half. Overall though his job was a well done one by the time he left the field – the game was all sewn up at 2-0 with both goals to his name.
The chances for Leeds came and went with monotonous regularity thereafter as their fans twirled scarves in the air and sang about being the Champions of Europe – which they’re not, and never have been. Neil Kilkenny fired over with a quarter of an hour left after QPR failed to clear a free kick, then less than a minute later possession was yet again conceded in midfield by the R’s and Johnny Howson drew a spectacular save from Paddy Kenny with a powerful effort from the edge of the box.
Seven minutes from time Snodgrass rampaged forward and hit a low shot towards goal from distance that Kenny turned behind for a corner – from the set piece Becchio planted a firm header over the cross bar.
Leeds were utterly dominant by this stage and despite playing against a defence that has shipped a league worst 20 goals at home this season Rangers never once looked like scoring in the second half once Taarabt’s early effort had been blocked over the bar.
I thought QPR were terribly one dimensional in this game. We looked at our most threatening as a team, and this is the case in general, when we got Taarabt, Mackie, Walker and Tommy Smith running at Leeds with the ball at their feet. Sadly we didn’t do this enough, Smith in particular was completely starved of possession, and too often we just knocked a long ball up to Rob Hulse. The former Derby man, to his credit, won a huge amount of those aerial balls but the second major failing of QPR on the day, having decided to go down this route, was not getting enough bodies around Hulse to look for the flick ons.
Neither goal was particularly good defensively, however I didn’t feel the back four did a huge amount wrong. The problem was the protection from midfield. For the second game running I thought Shaun Derry was quite poor, and QPR were frequently outnumbered in midfield. I lost count of the amount of times Leeds were able to pour forward unmarked midfield players, the best example of which came with the second goal. We have also developed an unwanted knack of planting clearing defensive headers into space in front of our back four with no midfielders around to pick them up. This concedes possession deep in our own half, puts us on the back foot and means opposition attacks are starting far too close to our own goal. In the win against Cardiff we were superb at picking up the second balls as they fell at either end of the field, in two games since then I can count the second balls we have won on the fingers of one hand and so much of the Championship is based around winning the 50/50s and second balls as the fall.
A massive problem in both the Watford and Leeds games has been our ball retention. By losing the second ball more often than not, and not effectively picking up Hulse’s flick ons, we’re simply giving the ball away far too often. We were still in this game at half time on Saturday but just continuously gave the ball away over and over again. Even in this division teams will occasionally hurt you if you keep allowing them to have the ball, and you’ll be able to do little to them without it - our ball retention simply must improve.
I wondered if quite a few of these problems may have been improved by the presence of Martin Rowlands. The former captain has done little to endear himself to the management, and Warnock must be allowed to control and pick the team as he sees fit, but I wondered on Saturday with Kyle Walker and then Matt Connolly both ineffective and overrun in the middle of midfield whether Warnock may be cutting off his nose to spit his face by not selecting Rowlands. Leeds swarmed around the ball and looked like a really confident team while QPR looked tired and, certainly in the final half an hour, disinterested and I couldn’t help but think that a fired up Rowlands with a point to prove may have made a real difference alongside Derry in midfield.
The main positive is that we seem to be getting away with what is an inevitable dip in form at the moment. We are still top, with a home game to come on Boxing Day and a three point gap between us and the nearest challenger. Cardiff have one win in seven and had their game postponed on Saturday, Swansea who we face on Sunday contrived to lose at Sheffield United on Saturday, so we’ve been propped up by the lousy form of others while clocking up a couple of defeats this week. This will not continue, and we have to be much more aggressive, assertive and on our game against Swansea on Boxing Day.
Leeds: Schmeichel 6, Connolly 6, Bruce - (Bromby 11, 7), Collins 7, McCartney 6, Kilkenny 7, Howson 7, Johnson 7, Gradel 7 (Sam 76, 7),Becchio 8 (Paynter 90, -), Snodgrass 7
Subs Not Used: Higgs, Faye, Somma, McCormack
Booked: Connolly (fighting)
Goals: Gradel 25 (assisted Becchio), 70 (unassisted)
QPR Kenny 7, Orr 6, Gorkss 6, Connolly 5, Hill 4 (Hall 46, 5), Derry 5, Walker 5, Mackie 6, Smith 6 (Ephraim 75, 5), Taarabt 6, Hulse 6 (Helguson 75, 5)
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Clarke, Rowlands, Tofas
Booked: Orr (foul), Hill (foul)
Referee – Scott Mathieson (Stockport) 6 Had a bit of a mad 15 minutes at the end of the first half which culminated in the scuffle in injury time and the bookings for Connolly and Hill. That whole incident was a direct result of a foul not being given in favour of Jamie Mackie when he was clearly felled and the whole thing had been simmering through a quarter of an hour of odd decisions. Apart from that though he was his usual self – allowing players to get on with it and largely keeping his cards to himself. I have to be honest, the clip of him giving some back to Warnock after the match did make me laugh because for the QPR manager to be giving the referee any grief, and attaching any blame for the defeat to him, at all was unfounded and unjustified and it was nice to see a referee give a bit back.
QPR Star Man – Paddy Kenny 7 I could pretty much just copy and paste what I wrote after the Watford game here – the best of a poor bunch, made an impressive variety of saves to keep the score down.
Attendance: 29,426 (1,500 QPR approx) Leeds must be doing well, last time we came here they were about to be relegated and 10,000 less people turned up and sat quietly as we forced a draw. “You should have gone Christmas shopping,” raised a laugh as a chant, but mostly they specialise in posturing, proclaiming themselves the champions of things they’re not, marching on together and bellowing “Yorkshire” repeatedly. Not for the first time this season the vocal support from the QPR fans was almost completely non-existant.
Photo: Action Images
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