A stirring end, and lessons learnt, but another defeat – Report
Sunday, 9th Apr 2017 20:51 by Clive Whittingham
Brighton inflicted QPR's third defeat in seven days at Loftus Road on Friday evening, with the R's once more dominating the final half hour without being able to find the key goal.
Season all but over, Queens Park Rangers’ remaining games are about learning things for next term and trying to enjoy themselves and entertain a little bit at the fag end of another tough campaign for the long-suffering die hards to endure. Friday night’s home game with Brighton and Hove Albion, certain to be promoted to the Premier League, was two thirds the former and one third the latter.
The enjoyment came in the final half hour. Three second half substitutions saw serious numbers committed to the attack with Idrissa Sylla and Yeni Ngbakoto joining starting pair Conor Washington and Matt Smith. Most importantly though, Luke Freeman stepped off the bench to provide guile, panache, creativity, intent and direction to the midfield.
With Ryan Manning marauding forward from left wing back, Rangers laid siege to the Albion goal. Matt Smith scored a flying header from a Freeman corner having missed a much easier headed chance just a moment before. Freeman lashed over after a scramble in the area, Sylla somehow failed to tap home at the near post after Manning had skipped round his man on the byline and put it on a plate for the Guinean. Smith nodded a long ball down and Washington volleyed wide. Ngbkaoto did likewise in stoppage time. Marc Bircham stepped out of the dugout to get involved in a touchline dispute.
It was exhilarating, the crowd were into it, you couldn’t take your eyes off it, QPR desperately unlucky not to score a second and despite the defeat the team were applauded off at the end, which they deserved. A test of character passed, and at a time in the season where teams in similar positions are starting to look, feel and play like they’re already on the beach a great sign for the sort of bunch we’ve got at the club at the moment.
Brighton’s reaction at full time, and flagrant time wasting before it, had plenty to do with their situation at the top of the league, but also the difficulty they had keeping Rangers out. They celebrated a crucial victory raucously in front of a huge travelling support in the School End – Anthony Knockaert flinging his arms in the air and sprinting down the pitch as soon as the final whistle sounded. These points were as hard-fought as they were crucial to Albion.
Sadly, the away side were two nil up before this onslaught began.
Glenn Murray scored just before the hour when Nedum Onuoha was caught trying to be too fancy with some loose possession on halfway and Joel Lynch, in moment of inexplicable laziness, decided to take two steps back up the field and play Murray offside, when he clearly wasn’t, rather than run back with the man. The result was a clear path to Alex Smithies’ goal and Murray doesn’t spurn gifts like that too often.
Within minutes Lynch had fouled Murray on the corner of the penalty area and Albion’s Belgian left back Sebastien Pocognoli whipped an unstoppable free kick over the wall and into the top corner off the underside of the bar. Plenty of debate about whether it was a foul – Murray went down easily under minimal content, apparently stepping on the ball. Whether you think that’s him being clever or him cheating isn’t really relevant, he’s going to the Premier League. What does matter is whether Joel Lynch is a man we can rely on next season – decision making in the first goal, tackle he didn’t need to make for the second, he continues to blot hours of steady centre half play with acts of stupidity.
Huddersfield’s second, Rotherham’s first, and now this – Rangers are developing a habit of conceding goals of such exceptional quality you can’t help but applaud. This, however, in true QPR style, was Pocognoli’s first goal for seven years – his last was for Standard Liege three clubs ago and he’d made 37 appearances in this country for Brighton and West Brom without scoring to this point. You’d never have known it to look at the goal, but then we said that about John Jensen, Lloyd Doyley, Jon Stead and all the rest of them.
Those goals were the culmination of the ‘learning’ two thirds of the game.
QPR would like Jack Robinson to recover his fitness after a horrific three years spent mostly on the physio’s slab so took the opportunity afforded by him remaining upright for a whole week of training to start him at left wing back. Against a winger as good as Anthony Knockaert and with little protection afforded by the formation ahead of him that was always likely to be a tall order and, on his first appearance since December 1, he looked rusty.
The other surprise selection was a rare start for Ravel Morrison – I’d say in midfield, but it was hard to tell. Holloway could scarcely have done any more for him here, giving him a central position, in an entirely free roll, from the start, in a televised game, against a great team. Ollie even stationed Massimo Luongo and Ryan Manning either side of him to do the donkey work and the pair of them were magnificent in the first half, tearing around the midfield, winning the ball back, playing it forwards with purpose – doing their own work and that of their team mate. What more do you want? Show us what you’ve got.
Their reward, Holloway’s reward, was a 66 minute performance from Morrison that could kindly be described as odd, and more accurately as absolute crap. One moment in the second half, where the former Man Utd man had finally made it far enough up the field to occupy an attacking position, he slalomed past a would-be tackler 30 yards from goal and fashioned a shooting chance and you wondered whether this was the moment the magic would happen. It wasn’t, nor did it really look likely to be. Patently not fit enough to get up and down the field, Morrison hung too far back in the midfield, treading on the toes of Luongo and Manning to their obvious frustration – Manning, in particular, was involved in plenty of heated dialogue and exchanges of exaggerated shoulder shrugging throughout Morrison’s time on the pitch. Fair enough as well, the Irish youth international was absolutely tireless. Morrison, by contrast, simply tiresome.
Any suggestion that this ambling around the base of midfield getting in the way was simply Morrison showing he could be a good team player by remaining disciplined in an unfamiliar, assigned position within the system was blown out of the water by Ian Holloway’s post match comments: “I can see his passing and his movement and his brain, he just tired very quickly because the standard at this level is pretty immense compared to what he’s been doing at Lazio. He’ll have a good future, whether he’ll be as good as Alex Ferguson said he might be is a huge thing to carry around, I’ve been talking to him about forgetting all of that. He lasted 62 minutes against a good team live on the telly, I don’t know what more he would want me to do for him. In the end, his job in the team was to be a bit higher up and he couldn’t do that. He took it in good grace, the substitutions made a big difference.”
During the height of their first half dominance Brighton had two goals disallowed for offside – the first, from Murray, fairly clear, the second, from Hemed, tight as a mouse’s waistcoat – before they found the net with two legitimate ones. Onuoha headed wide of his own near post under pressure, Robinson headed another dangerous cross clear at the back post. The idea that QPR were struggling to hang onto the coat tails of their visitors furthered by James Perch’s latest disgusting, hideous lunge on an opponent in first half stoppage time that should have been a red card but, unbelievably, drew only a stern word from referee Simon Hooper.
There were chances for QPR. Conor Washington streaked away into space from halfway and fired over, Manning curled a shot towards the far corner and Stockdale saved, Washington had a shot blocked when a long throw fell his way, Perch also saw an effort blocked before it reached goal. Lewis Dunk - like Lynch an apparently very good Championship centre half but prone to moments of brain fart potent enough to clear a room – deflected a bouncing ball in the penalty away with his upper arm for a very decent penalty shout which Hooper ignored.
Three defeats in a week, all framed by an inability to take chances when on top, raises further questions about whether Washington and others can provide the extra cutting edge Rangers need next season, and if not how we can correct that on our budget. It was entertaining, and QPR were well in it, but Brighton were obviously better and deserved their lead.
Once Freeman had come on it was a different story and the Hoops took over the game entirely. Freeman is just a year older than Morrison but with 279 senior appearances to his 93 and 32 goals to his 14. A proper footballer, capable of getting up and down, posing and attacking threat as well as defending stoutly. Morrison, bizarrely, gets a free pass from so many QPR fans based on a couple of goals and lively performances in some meaningless games at the end of 2013/14. Freeman did more in his first 45 seconds on the field here.
So, Ian Holloway got the team selection wrong then, sending QPR out with personnel and system incapable of overcoming Brighton, later correcting that and giving it a good go but only once two goals had been shipped and the game was all but lost? Well, yes and no.
Yes as in yes, he did. But no as in now is exactly the right time to be trying things out. If you want to ignore the fact we’ve had three, very difficult, games in seven days with associated travelling to two away matches and say we should have just picked the same, best, team for all three fair enough. Likewise, if you’re one of those who thinks you paid upwards of £30 to be there on Friday and came to see QPR, and the likes of Freeman, not some glorified pre-season friendly full of experimentation. If you’re one of those who believe QPR are still in trouble, filling my Twitter feed with the idea that Blackburn are suddenly going to win five out of five having won nine out of 41 (plus a ridiculously convoluted set of others results barely possibly because everybody below us is playing everybody else in the run in), then may I suggest taking the tin foil hat off and getting out in the sun a bit more.
But for the majority, I’d say it’s accepted that Ian Holloway should be trying things out for next season, working out what works and who doesn’t, who will be involved and who won’t, who will be the key players and so on. Friday was great for that. The importance of Freeman was further emphasised and the team will surely be built around a midfield including him, Luongo and Manning next season. Manning, in particular, absolutely excellent here, switching through multiple positions and roles over the 90 minutes and fitting in wherever – Rangers have won six and drawn two of his 13 senior starts in a season where they’ve only won 14 in 41 overall.
Morrison, on the other hand, on this evidence, will surely be seeking yet another chance in professional football elsewhere come August. One day that penny will drop, but Friday wasn’t that day.
QPR: Smithies 6; Perch 5, Onuoha 5, Lynch 5 (Sylla 77, 5), Robinson 5 (Ngbakoto 66, 6); Luongo 7, Hall 6, Manning 8; Morrison 4 (Freeman 66, 8); Washington 6, Smith 7
Subs not used: Bidwell, Goss, Ingram, Wszolek
Goals: Smith 74 (assisted Freeman)
Brighton: Stockdale 6; Bruno 6, Hünemeier 6, Dunk 5, (Tomori 45, 6) Pocognoli 7; Knockaert 7 (Norwood 83, -) Stephens 8, Sidwell 6, March 7; Murray 7, Hemed 5 (Murphy 78, 6)
Subs not used: Mäenpää, Skalak, Forren, Akpom
Goals: Murray 58 (assisted Hemed), Pocognoli 64 (direct free kick, won Murray)
Bookings: Pocognoli 86 (time wasting)
QPR Star Man – Ryan Manning 8 Tempted to give it to Freeman despite his short time on the field but Manning, who let’s not forget has only played 14 senior games in his life, did a brilliant job against the best team in the league while being asked to cover several positions. First as a central midfield minder to the latest silly Ravel Morrison experiment he both covered his lazier team mate’s arse without the ball, and did far more for QPR going forwards with it. Then switched to left back, against Anthony Knockaert who’s in line for the division’s Player of the Season award, he defended better than the rusty Robinson had before him, and also attacked with real potency, almost setting up an equaliser for Sylla. He’s been in and out of the team, and Holloway is managing him well, but I want to see lots more of him over the remaining games, he’s absolute quality.
Referee – Simon Hooper (Wiltshire) 6 I really eanted to give him a high mark, simply because I much prefer this style of refereeing where cards are kept in the pocket and the game is given every chance. But Perch should have had a red card for his standard wild lunge, Onuoha certainly should have been booked for a bad tackle late on, and in the end the only yellow handed out was for time wasting and though it’s certainly nice to see that finally being punished it felt a bit wrong to see somebody booked for that when, Perch in particular, had been left off with something far worse. Throw in the QPR penalty appeal and it doesn’t sound great, but I came away initially thinking he’d done quite well.
Attendance – 16,503 (3,100 Brighton) The moment at half time, when one of QPR’s greatest ever, Dave Thomas, choked up when trying to thank the supporters who’d donated to the fund to get him a guide dog, while said dog sat obediently by his side… The result was irrelevant from that point on really.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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