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A tactical take on the great escape – tactics
A tactical take on the great escape – tactics
Wednesday, 16th May 2012 23:00 by Neil Dejyothin

For the final time this season Neil Dejyothin casts a tactical eye across the weekend action, and turns thoughts to where the team can be strengthened this summer.

What worked well?

The park the bus mentality was a little bit crazy in terms of seeing us revert into that shell after literally ten seconds, but you have to admire the players for keeping disciplined and sticking to their jobs throughout.

They were much more compact than against Chelsea, this time with Djibril Cissé and Bobby Zamora dropping behind their midfield too, which really made it very hard for City to penetrate no matter what they tried.

I was a bit surprised that they never really worked out that they could have had more success with long range strikes, which is what Manchester United realised in the end and eventually scored through Paul Scholes and hit the post through Michael Carrick. It's here you see City still lack that nous needed at the next level, so they've some way to go yet before that can compete properly say in the Champions League.

They got the ball wide to Pablo Zabeleta and Gael Clichy well and they kept firing in crosses, but that played to our strengths and the likes of Anton Ferdinand and Clint Hill are always going to be favourites against the height of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero. It looked like they were going to go for a percentage and just hope one of them fell, but we had so many bodies back that it was difficult for them.

We maintained excellent shape throughout, both with eleven and ten players and never got dragged out of position, particularly when they tried to stretch play. Clichy provided a lot of width down the left but Rangers were clearly happy to let him have it and even force City to pass it there by leaving him completely unmarked. It was the correct tactic to leave him free and only engage until the ball went out wide to him. We doubled up everywhere really well and to the letter too.

The amount of players in those congested areas around our penalty box meant that for all the intricate play their dangerous players tried, they just eventually came unstuck by way of numbers we had back and behind the ball. Make no mistake, we defended very well in open play and dealt with the majority of their corners too, which is a plus considering just how many we conceded to them.

Then of course, we hit them brilliantly on the counter attack and managed to score two excellent goals. The first was just what we wanted, Cissé ready and waiting to pounce on any sign of a mistake and it was a great finish, but that Jamie Mackie goal will live with me forever.

Armand Traore did a marvellous job breaking away down the wing and I spoke about City's vulnerability from wide positions with players flanking on the counter attack in my last piece, and as soon as Traore managed to get in control of himself we always had a chance. It was a cracking cross but a really, really, courageous header from Mackie and a sublime goal. I'm not sure I will ever experience a better goal in the circumstances, it was unbelievable.

Shaun Wright-Phillips was excellent defensively and particularly early on. He tracked several dangerous runs from midfielders into the penalty box and deserves a lot of credit for that. I felt the game would be too close to home for him and while I think he was a bit withdrawn when going forward, he still played a part in Cissé's goal and did a job.

After we went down to ten men after the ridiculous antics of Joey Barton, the players showed tremendous character to hold City until injury time. I always felt comfortable, because it focused them better and we were far better when not in possession than in possession, because sadly we were a danger to ourselves whenever we were on the ball, such was our inability to shift from ultra defensive to something more adventurous, not counting the two goals we scored of course.

And you can't argue that when we went toe-to-toe with them we did it at exactly the right moments and we can only be thrilled with them for giving it a real good go.

The plan

Against City Rangers were happy to tuck in deep and narrow, leaving both City full backs free in wide areas. City more often than not fell into the trap of passing to those two unmarked players who then crossed into the box where Ferdinand and Hill were always likely to win headers against Tevez and Aguero who were both ineffective for much of the game. Bobby Zamora dropped deep to further crowd the midfield area and restrict the space City's talented players had to operate in. Compare this to the wide open spaces QPR afforded Chelsea in dangerous areas and the difference is stark. At Stamford Bridge Cisse and Mackie often defended on the outside first in a positional sense, rather than the inside, whereas against City we defended their wide players inside first, showing them on the outside. Lessons were learnt.

What didn't work?

I know it was a really admirable peformance in terms of backs-to-the-wall, but we didn't play very well in other areas and we need to address that in the future.

As discussed were absolutely fine defensively, but we were so defensive that it was very difficult for us to break out of that mentality and for all the good work we did the three goals we conceded were terribly soft and made that hard work redundant in the end.

Goals aside, I actually thought we were terrible when in possession of the ball, simply because a lot of the players struggled to even control their bodies, get proper technical execution and just hacked, thrashed and lashed out at the ball in an attempt to get it away.

Nedum Onuoha and Shaun Wright-Phillips suffered from this the most, but there were others too and it was galling to see the players just kicking the ball aimlessly down the pitch to Joe Hart or into the channels so early on.

That is a really dangerous game to play and it's hard for any side to hold out for so long when doing that. Just before the game went to 2-2 however, we actually passed and moved it for the first time and looked like we could easily hold the ball and see the game out down by their corner flag, but we switched off from that and paid the price.

The other area, or the one area defensively that we took risks with was the intricate passes just inside the penalty box. City had a habit of getting David Silva, Tevez, Nasri and Agüero into those positions with their backs to goal, and the feeders always found their feet with relative ease, allowing them to twist and turn and try little lay offs.

It's important in those situations that the man in front, who is pressing the ball, shuts down that channel so they can't just pass straight through. That's my only real complaint defensively, though on this occasion that danger didn't actually manifest into a goal

The first goal we conceded was also littered with basic mistakes. Bobby Zamora made the mistake of fouling someone when he didn't need to higher up the pitch and that caused everybody to switch off momentarily and for the style of City attack to alter just a little, making it different from the norm and how we were set up and defending in open play. Suddenly they moved the ball down the pitch and across and before we'd re-adjusted ourselves we had players (possibly Taiwo) not tracking Zabeleta and then Paddy Kenny probably could have done a bit better with the initial shot as well. But there we saw the value of a Man City full back driving into the danger area himself, rather than throwing a cross in as they had done for the previous half hour.

The second was a disappointing one to concede from a corner, but you suspect had Edin Dzeko been on the pitch earlier we may have had more problems from the crosses we let them fire in from the wings. Yaya Toure's loss was also a bonus in this respect, because he showed back at Loftus Road that he's got the height and power to get on the end of things.

And the third was entirely the bench's fault for celebrating Stoke's draw with Bolton and completely distracting the players. I was disappointed about that, and don't really blame the players. It was an innocent reaction from our side but costly and I don't think we should be sentimental to anybody and always try to do our job properly. It cost another side the title and we wouldn't want something like that to ever happen to us, even if it was an astonishing and incredible end to what was a stunningly dramatic game.

And next season?

Wow, what a question. The answer is quite a lot. If we look at the way we've played since Mark Hughes got here, there are still only a couple of performances that I came away satisfied with our overall display both in a defensive and attacking sense.

It's important to be honest about this, because some of the wonderful wins had a lot of fortune about them too and we relied often on unusual scenarios outside of normal open play to win some of those matches.

We've not created enough in open play for my liking and that needs to be resolved if we are to push on. Many of our goals came from set pieces, free kicks or mistakes and we need to do a little bit more in open play to add to that.

Similarly in defence, we're still too soft from set plays ourselves and momentary lapses of concentration. A lot of the goals we've conceded this season haven't been too clever and further work is required to solve those issues.

I still think the defence needs a lot of work as our ball retention and recycling of possession is often quite poor for a Premier League side and it all stems from the back, as does how you attack and open teams up.

There needs to be a little less emphasis on one or two players that are key to the system. In some parts of the season, Joey Barton's poor form was causing the whole team to structure of the side to collapse, such was the amount funnelling through him, whereas in Adel Taarabt, we have another player who really holds all the keys to our success. If he's playing well and can produce those individual moments, then suddenly we look like a team that can do damage and if not, we look one that is short of ideas.

That all comes with work on the training pitch and developing a style of play. That's what Mark Hughes now has the time to sit down this summer and address. Find a system, find a formation and find the players to do it.

I think we need another top class centre back, at least one wide man and another central midfielder, and we're set, and I expect that we ought to fare much better next time, especially if at least one or two of those have experience. It's key to solving some of our issues when playing away from home as the temperament and mentality is still too naive and just needs a little help to continue progressing it to something more positive.

I might sound a bit negative after writing all that, I'm not, I don't think we're too far away at all, but I do want to see it done with a solid strategy in mind.

Thank you though for what was quite an amazing season, full of unbelievable highs and lows that only Rangers can conjure up. There's no other club quite like us and I love them for it.

Tweet @loftforwords, @neildejyothin

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N12Hoop added 23:38 - May 16
I agree with your assessments. We need to work on being more fluid and effective when breaking out of defence. It's been the undoing of us a fair few times this season yet we struggle to do it ourselves because those taking the ball out of defence don;t know what to do once they reach the half way line and tend to wait, allowing the opposition to get back. Many opportunities missed.
We also know that in this division retaining the ball is important and we struggle to do that, many of our players looking extremely nervous when in possession and always looking for the safe route backwards. We have also lost the ball carelessly deep in the oppoistion half and 10 seconds later found ourselves picking theball out of the net or defending a set piece.
Finally, yes some of our wins had a degree of good fortune, but some of our draws and defeats had a touch of poor fortune (eg against West Brom at home we should have been 2 up and would probably have held on, against Wolves we would never have lost had we kept 11 on the pitch etc). Over the course of the season it has gone both ways, but at least Hughes has a summer to work with the squad, bring in his own players and hopefully next year we'll see a Premiership team that can hold its own and develop year on year. The future's bright, the future's blue and white!
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ozexile added 02:04 - May 17
Neil,
Great article and can't argue with any of it. I was suprised that city didn't try to get to the by line more for their crosses. They were crossing from the edge of our penalty area. Totally agree about our possesion although Faurlin will make a huge difference when he comes back. He'll be able to hit Zamora to his feet or over the top into space to Cisse. Exciting times ahead.
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SonofNorfolt added 02:07 - May 17
Tell Clive to give you a bit of his trophy!
Traore should play a regular role in midfield with his pace.
Yaya is their Vieira, & they looked lost without him, & I agree that Hughes realised that they often drive through the middle & the superb Clint Hill gobbled up any loose cross.
I shall come back to Joey Barton soon.
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SterlingArcher added 05:56 - May 17
Nice to see some thought regarding tactics Neil. I ,too, analyse every game I go
to and must get on peoples nerves offering incessant comment on the state of
play. I even get on my own nerves and should shut up sometimes ! I think we've
got away with a lot of our play for the last two years - lack of pace throughout
the team, headless chicken syndrome, defenders lack of skill etc, but we've got
away with it due to a combination of having a few players with skill or a brain.
I know it takes a combination of skills for a team to succeed and we survived
this season by the skin of our teeth with Mark Hughes spotting the teams lack
of athleticism as a main contributing factor to our lack of decent results.
Neil Warnock might have spotted the same thing, but suffered by not
acquiring this type of player pre season. Obviously not having a transfer budget
hindered his plans, but he did sign some dross that he didn't need to.
We need a bit of quality at the back as a main priority in my opinion as our
defenders are all a bit similar. I don't think we have one that is truly
comfortable on the ball and I long a signing of Glen Roeders, Terry Fenwicks,
Dave Bardsleys, Clive Wilson or Kenny Sansoms class class controlling the defence.
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isawqpratwcity added 05:56 - May 17
Excellent stuff, Neil. I find your columns marvellously instructive.

Thought you were a bit tough on their third goal. Agreed it was an unprofessional distraction for the players on the pitch and, no, we wouldn't want to happen to us, and dammit!, I thought we deserved something from the game; but really, is there anybody but manure supporters wanted them to get the title? A manure mate promised me French Champagne if we did the business for them and I'm not regretting missing out for a moment! They may think we threw the game (we didn't) but they have to learn sometime what it is to go through a season without a trophy.

Frankly, after some of Hughes' seriously deficient game plans this season, I was surprised that he got this one so right. Thanks again for explaining how it worked.
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loftboy added 06:20 - May 17
I'm sure with a full pre-season and a couple of additions Hughes will sort out the frailties.
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BrianMcCarthy added 07:07 - May 17
I've really enjoyed these pieces, Neil. Thanks a million. Always very sensible, perceptive, and well written.
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Neil_SI added 07:45 - May 17
N12Hoop - that's a fair point, there have been games we haven't won that we probably were a tad unlucky with or probably should have got something.

I think the key thing for me is that for a lot of the matches, there really wasn't a lot between them in terms of the quality between the sides.

I saw a lot of the lower to mid-table clubs playing what I can only describe as safe, systematic and effective football. I didn't really see any progressive or expansive play that I thought I would from the majority.
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Neil_SI added 07:46 - May 17
Oops...hit reply too early by mistake. :)

...In the early part of the campaign, because we were so random and free when we tried to attack, we were actually very refreshing to watch and surprised teams because we didn't play by the rules. But over time, we got more and more sucked into playing a certain way that might yield results and that left very little to pick from in terms of which way a match might swing.
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Neil_SI added 07:46 - May 17
ozexile -
Thanks and yeah, having Faurlin back will be a huge bonus, although we still have to be mindful and see how he goes as you never know how such an injury can impact on a player and we ought to cover all eventualities in our planning.

We've done remarkably well considering that we lost arguably our two best players for the second half of the season in Faurlin and Helguson.
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Neil_SI added 07:47 - May 17
SonofNorfolt/Mel -
Heh, I'm not sure about that, I think he's deserved it over a long period of time and am so pleased for him. There are certainly a lot of people out there who warrant the award too, not just for all the games they go to, but for the other little things (such as you putting on coaches, etc). We've got great fans who go that little bit more and I'm sure there's more than a few who are just as worthy as Clive. :)
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Neil_SI added 07:48 - May 17
SterlingArcher -
Thanks, it's hard for me, I can't switch off from thinking about the game in the way I do. I've learned to enjoy them a little more over the past couple of seasons, but I used to be very obsessive about all the little details (and still am to some degree I suppose).

Fair points on the signings as well.
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Neil_SI added 07:48 - May 17
isawqprawcity -
Thanks, that's very kind.

I was annoyed and irritated initially but generally just very relieved and happy with the outcome now. I try to look at each match on its own accord, it was just a natural instinctive response and it's easy to forget just how much pressure the players and staff would have been under. It's no surprise to hear the staff say that the last four months have felt like four years.
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Neil_SI added 07:48 - May 17
Eek, keep hitting reply too early! *tired*

I'm with you though that sometimes the tactical execution in some games have been way off. It's difficult to know at this point whether it's a Hughes thing or whether the players just haven't been able to carry out what he wants. Now that he has more time to put it together rather than being dropped right in the deep end, we'll find out for sure.
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Neil_SI added 07:48 - May 17
BrianMcCarthy -
Thanks Brian, very kind. Hopefully I'll continue doing some more for LFW next season.
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parker64 added 08:04 - May 17
Some great results this season but I've found it hard going watching the football under Hughes. As you say he's got some time now so look forward to something more expansive next season. If not I think I'll be giving the away games a miss.
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DesertBoot added 09:25 - May 17
Considering the horrible pre-season and all the changes in personnel, I think we did remarkably well to stay up.
To win five home games in a row was a fantastic achievement and it's nice to have a worry-free summer with an eagerly awaited and perhaps somewhat expectant pre-season too.
Thankyou Neil and Clive for all your input on LFW.
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QPRski added 09:50 - May 17
Neil -thanks for the good analysis.The team certainly exceeded my expectations by both being able to "park the bus" and actually taking the lead (an effective "Plan B"?) after going down to 1-0 and to 10 men. I only watched the match on TV but had the impression that our players were not aware of the score after the 3rd City goal (judged by the anquish and pain on their face).

I agree with your thoughts for next season and hope you will continue thought provoking analyses next season.
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Neil_SI added 16:17 - May 17
DesertBoot -
Thanks and I wholeheartedly agree. We took an awful lot of risks this year that would have made survival all the more difficult, so it's somewhat remarkable we stayed up and really on reflection is a fantastic achievement.

QPRski -
Cheers and yeah, they were just distracted, it's possible they just weren't too sure for a fraction and whether Stoke v Bolton had ended favourably or whether it was Sunderland who might have scored against Manchester United.
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TacticalR added 16:28 - May 17
Thanks Neil.

I am still trying to make sense of that match!

The first goal looked soft, but Kenny got an injury to his hand beforehand in his save from David Silva. Kenny was shown on TV taping up his fingers, so it's possible he had dislocated a finger. Taiwo lost his man for a second and Zaboletta was through.

I agree with your praise for Mackie's goal. Given the occasion, it was out of this world. And some praise is due to Zamora for drawing City's players towards him as Mackie raced in behind.

It's surprising how few in the media have noticed QPR's contribution to the match. But I am happy for us to remain under the radar if it enables us to spring further surprises on some of the larger clubs next season.

Given that we were up against the cream of world football, and the magnitude of the occasion, we did astonishly well. My main wish was fulfilled, because I wanted the match to be a contest, and that was one hell of a contest.

What did you think of the decision to leave out Taarabt?
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francisbowles added 23:13 - May 17
Thanks very much Neil everything you say makes sense to me.

I think we should definitely try and sign Taiwo and Diakite. Hopefully, Onuoha will benefit from the experience since January, a rest and then a preseason with Hughes and the squad which will make him more alert, commanding and consistent. I'm not sure what his best position is but Hughes and many others obviously see great potential in him. It could be his position next season will depend on who we manage to sign to boost the defence ie a right back or centre back. I wonder about the Chris Samba move to Russia and whether he did that just to get away from Blackburn. Could there be a possibility of a move back for him?

I agree that Traore should be utilised more but if he goes wide left then where do we play Tarabt (assuming he stays, which I sincerely hope he does)

I would like to think that the park the bus has been a temporary measure due to the huge hole that we had dug for ourselves and that with Cisse, Tarbt, Traore etc we could be more attacking. However, I believe that Hughes is naturally cautious and that defend first and counter will be the order of the day.

I believe that Hughes and his staff are very thorough and tactically aware but the players took a while to adjust to his methods and were initially, at least, not capable of carrying out his game plan. Also, in my opinion, it is extremely difficult to play defensively and not make the odd mistake.

I look forward to some signings, next season and more analysis from you.

Have a great summer!
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Neil_SI added 23:57 - May 17
TacticalR -
Regarding the Taarabt question, wow that's a tough one to answer and I'll try my best, but with the benefit of hindsight it's always easier to provide some kind of answer.

There were rumours he wasn't 100% fit, but let's say that he was and everything was fine. My take on it is that you have to pick your best team and best eleven for games like these, and does Adel Taarabt fit into my best eleven? Without a shadow of a doubt.

When I reflect on the game I can see the pros and cons of why he might or might not be included, I'm not sure if the coaching staff's thoughts would be the same as mine, but here goes...

The way we played, and how defensive we were, I think Taarabt could have done a job for us at the top end, because he has the skills and ability to be a nuisance when he's on his game and would have caused them problems. That's if we found him with clearances or passes in space, and, if he was on his game.

But, there is a flipside of course, because he can have those games where he doesn't perform and gives it away more than he doesn't. If he had one of those kind of games, then maybe it wouldn't really have mattered because we hoofed the ball a lot anyway and deliberately conceded possesion.

So maybe in that sense it wouldn't have mattered. That leads you onto the next two points. Is Taarabt good enough to keep his disicipline and shape on the day and is, even if he is good enough on the ball and is able to hold it up and hog it for a bit, providing restbite, is that benefit still a detriment?

You have to consider here that even if he held onto the ball well and did good things with it, it may unintentionally cause the defensive units to be less cautious and advance forward, so inadverdently cause you to be more open if you did indeed lose the ball, whether through Taarabt directly or through the move breaking down.

Ultimately the margin was so fine, we were two minutes away from being proved it was the right decision to losing the game where you could argue it was the wrong one.

I think I would have started him, but once we decided we weren't and how the game panned out with the Barton sending off, I can totally see why he wasn't brought on even if it disappointed me that he wasn't involved in such a match.

Sometimes you need to be brave and give those players the opportunity to learn from such experiences, but with so much at stake, maybe, just maybe, it was the right thing to do from Hughes on this occasion. I'm really not sure. Personally I still think I would have played him, but I'm not going to cry wolf with Hughes that he didn't.
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Neil_SI added 00:02 - May 18
francisbowles -
Thanks :)

I didn't really mention Taiwo and Diakité, but my comments are based on the assumption we will try to sign them permanently and I think we should.

Samba would have been a good signing, but who knows in the future? Maybe we'll get him in on loan if it doesn't work out, because that's a possibility.

I agree that Onuoha could possibly go into defence and he really just needed to ride the season out and regroup for next season. He has all the necessary physical attributes to be a good defender and perhaps just needs a bit more physical and mental resolve, which hopefully can be fine tuned during a solid pre-season.

It's hard to be critical of Hughes and his team given the circumstances. They've only been with us for four months or so and in any other job, that'd probably still fall under a probationary period where people are still learning and getting up to speed. Add to that that they were pretty much dropped in the deep end, it's no wonder some of them are saying four months feels like four years.

I hope they can mould it better now that they have the time.
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TacticalR added 01:37 - May 18
Regarding Taarabt, as you say it could have gone either way. In the Arsenal match Taarabt tied up a number of Arsenal players quite effectively, but in other matches (Everton at home) he's been caught dwelling on the ball at just the wrong moment. I wonder if he was left out because Hughes thought that he just would not fit into a remorsely defensive game plan?

In the end the Hughes plan worked quite effectively (even if we didn't get the win), especially when you consider we didn't have Diakité, so hopefully this bodes well for next season.
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