Holloway’s report card – Column
Wednesday, 10th May 2017 17:21 by Ram Chandra
With supporters divided on the future of Ian Holloway after a dire end to the season, Ram Chandra returns to LFW with an in depth analysis of the Bristolian’s second spell in charge so far.
Managing a new club in England ain’t easy in your first season, as Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have proven this year. For Mourinho, the manager of the little engine that could known as Manchester United, he needs at least another transfer window and £200 million to fortify his thin squad. As for Pep, it appears it took him a year to realise that in England, goalkeepers are allowed to use both their legs AND hands. The media has given these two self-professed geniuses a free pass in year one. So why then are certain Rangers fans holding Ian Holloway, who came in with a jumbled squad and no pre-season, to a different standard?
Before we evaluate Holloway’s brief second stint as Rangers’ manager, we should put it in its appropriate context. Ollie entered the frame with QPR in seventeenth place, with Rangers having played dire football under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. To accommodate Tjarron Chery, Hasselbaink frequently played multiple players out of their favored positions, including Jordan Cousins and Conor Washington.
Within a few months of his tenure, Ollie had bombed out the focal point of our attack, Tjarron Chery, for the smoggy pastures of China; Sebastian Polter, one of our top scorers, was sold to Union Berlin; Sandro and his little remaining knee cartilage were shipped off to Turkey; Luke Freeman, Matt Smith, Sean Goss, Ravel Morrison and Kazenga LuaLua were all brought in January without a preseason; Michael Doughty and Darnell Furlong were recalled from Swindon, leaving Ollie and Bircham with the daunting task of unteaching everything they learned under Tim Sherwood; Ben SadLoss, Nasser El Khayati, Mide Shodipo and Ariel Borysiuk were all sent out on loan; Karl Henry, who featured heavily under Hasselbaink and whose mindless red card against Forest arguably put the nail in the Dutchman’s coffin, has been seemingly locked away like the Gimp in Pulp Fiction; Grant Hall was shifted from a centre back to a hybrid deep-lying midfielder role; Jame Mackie, Jack Robinson and Yeni Ngbakoto returned from long-term injuries; and Ryan Manning, who was moments away from the executioner, managed to become a vital squad player.
In our opening match versus Leeds, our starting XI featured Smithies, Onohua, Caulker, Hall, Bidwell, Henry, Luongo, Ben SadLoss, Chery, Shodipo and Polter- only four of those players featured in our vital win against Forest last week (Smithies, Onohua, Bidwell and Luongo).
We’ve had so much turnover in one year that Rangers fans wouldn’t even be upset if Les Ferdinand pulled a Dianne Abbot trying to remember our squad this season. The only constant through it all was that Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, aka Swazzy, continued to Swazz.
With all that said, I did an autopsy on the Holloway era, and observed a few troubling trends which Holloway will need to address if he’s kept on, including our puzzlingly low number of draws and our peculiar substitution patterns. To me, these anomalies tell a story about Ollie and his managerial philosophy.
I truly hate sports and military analogies, but with that said, the best word to understand a grueling season in the Championship is a “CAMPAIGN”—46 matches (48, if you count QPR’s annual early cup exits), featuring multiple mid-week ties over a condensed nine month period. You can punch a ticket to the Championship playoffs with about 70 to 75 points, or about 1.6 points per match. Basically, if you win most of your home matches, draw a healthy number of your away matches and nick the occasional three points away from home, you’re probably in the playoffs.
Which brings me to the most puzzling statistical anomaly of the Holloway era: our lack of draws.
Under Ian Holloway, Rangers somehow managed to only draw three matches out of 30, or one in ten. By contrast, approximately one out of every four Championship matches ended in a draw this year (excluding matches in which Ollie was involved).
I concede the sample size is limited, but that does not stop me from drawing (pun intended) certain conclusions from our lack of draws. These conclusions are highlighted by the contrast to the negative Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who managed 13 draws in his 27 league matches in charge last season (about one draw out of every two matches).
In short, I would like to see Holloway adopt an element of cynicism and a more organised, strategic approach to accumulating points over the campaign. Ian Holloway’s managerial philosophy reminds me of Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. Both are stubborn and principled with an undeniable track record of success. In the case of Ned Stark, however, his stubbornness belied a naiveté and lack of cynicism that ultimately ended with his head on a spike.
Losing is contagious and begets a vicious cycle of losing, loss of form and confidence and fan unrest. I wish Holloway would have opted for “stopper” tactics during our losing runs, doing whatever was necessary to churn out a result (like Mourinho against City a few weeks ago) and get our season back on track.
For starters, three clean sheets in 30 matches under Holloway is frankly unacceptable, particularly when we have one of the best shot-stoppers in the division. I don't care what the Rangers twitter mob says: we also have too much defensive talent for this to be the case. Holloway needs to figure out how to turn some of our losses into draws, either through greater defensive organization or the occasional negative tactics. Certain draws can feel like wins, and most Rangers fans would point to our draws away at Newcastle and Leeds as among our best performances under Holloway.
Just ask Garry Monk- one prolonged negative run can torpedo an otherwise successful campaign. This can’t happen again next year.
I didn’t like Hasselbaink and I am genuinely delighted he’s gone- it is interesting to note, however, that his longest losing streak was 2 matches as Rangers boss.
“I see no changes/Wake up in the morning and I ask myself/Is life worth living/Shall I blast myself?”
The above lyrics are from Tupac’s classic “Changes”, a brilliant piece of social commentary in which Tupac highlights the plight of the American inner city. I do sometimes wonder though if Ian Holloway listened to these lyrics before picking our starting XI.
Enough ink has been spilled, and Twitter characters feverishly typed, discussing Ollie’s starting lineups from match to match, so I’ll spare the reader. However, I don’t think we’ve spent enough time thinking about what I call “meta-tinkering”, in which Ian Holloway tinkered with the lineups and formations within a match after tinkering with the starting XI between matches.
Come to think of it, tinkering probably isn’t even the appropriate word to describe what Ollie did to our backline within certain matches. Perhaps “reconstructive surgery” is the more fitting label.
Against Huddersfield at home, we started with a back five of Wszolek-Onohua-Hall-Perch-Bidwell (with Wszolek and Bidwell as wingbacks). After surrendering two goals in the first half, we shifted to a back four of Perch-Onohua-Hall-Bidwell. In the fifty third minute, we took off Bidwell and shifted Manning to left back (Perch-Onohua-Hall-Manning).
Against Sheffield Wednesday at home, we started with a back 5 of Petrasso-Perch-Lynch-Bidwell-Robinson (with Petrasso and Robinson as wingbacks). After about 35 minutes, we went to a back four of Perch-Lynch-Bidwell-Robinson. In the sixty second minute, we took off Robinson and Manning moved to left back (Perch-Lynch-Bidwell-Manning). Then, in the seventy fifth minute, Manning came off and we either played a back three or a back four with Mackie in a quasi-right back/wingback position (Mackie(?)-Perch-Lynch-Bidwell).
You get the idea.
While I do believe tactical flexibility may be appropriate in certain circumstances, I generally do not find such wholesale changes to a backline to be productive. At one point after the nth change against Sheffield Wednesday, Luke Freeman came to the bench quizzically raising his arms like a man who was unsure if he was a professional footballer or trapped in a dream sequence from Inception. These changes were genuinely confusing for me, and I watch most matches sober. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a player asked to execute at the highest level in the midst of all these mid-match changes.
For a second, though, let’s put aside the question of whether we ever need to tinker with our backline so significantly. Instead, lets focus on the efficacy of such changes. Unless you have a squad full of versatile, total footballing geniuses, it is not reasonable to expect players to remember how to play so many styles and still synchronize with one another. Most players lack the bandwidth, and our coaches don’t have enough training time, to instill organization when playing that many different formations with that many different combinations of players.
And lest we forget that QPR is a championship team with a squad full of Championship players. In FIFA terms, we’re lucky if one of our players has an 80 rating in one attribute, let alone three or four. We don’t have a James Milner who can shift from leftback to a false nine without batting an eye. Our players are limited- if they weren’t, they’d be in the Premier League. Let’s get them organized and playing within their comfort zones.
Ultimately, Ollie has tried to run before we even could crawl, let alone walk. Let’s first figure out a system and our best backline, and get that all right before we move on to third and fourth systems and makeshift backlines. Let’s make sure each player can do their primary job first before they’re asked to do another. Take Mike Petrasso for example. The young Canadian has yet to prove he can even play his natural position of winger at the Championship level, yet in his only start of the season against Wednesday, he was tasked with being a right wingback for 35 minutes.
Crawl. Walk. Run. In that order, please.
Substitution patterns, part two
Ian Holloway has frequently stated that one of the reasons Blackpool went down in 2011 was due to their predictability. Other explanations include their meager budget and comparative lack of talent. There is an alternative hypothesis, though: Blackpool had a terrible habit of dropping points at the end of matches.
Look at Blackpool’s 2010-2011 season- it’s truly stunning. Blackpool somehow managed to drop an incredible 15 points (!) by conceding goals after the seventy ninth minute of matches. Blackpool finished one point from safety that year. In QPR’s last Premier League campaign, we had a similar affliction. Even then, QPR only dropped 11 points due to conceding after the seventy ninth minute. Perhaps the moral of the Blackpool Premier League campaign is not one about the dangers of predictability, but rather the virtue of tactical cynicism and defensive organisation.
This all brings me to the next anomaly of the Holloway era: our lack of defensive substitutions from winning positions or drawing positions where a draw would be a good outcome. I’m generally a mellow person, but when we were 2-nil ahead against Forest, needing just to hold on to ensure our safety, I nearly had an aneurysm when I saw our first substitution was Jamie Mackie for Conor Washington- despite the fact that we already had multiple forwards on the pitch, and defensive-minded players were sitting on the bench. This is not the first time Ian Holloway has made attacker-for-attacker substitutions, or has opted to keep two strikers on the pitch when we were in front.
I went through every substitution that Ian Holloway has made when we were winning to determine how frequently his substitutions were of a defensive nature- surprisingly, he very rarely made defensive substitutions when we were ahead. Arguably, swapping any player with tired legs for a player with fresh legs is a defensive move, but I have opted to not categorize any “attacker-for-attacker” substitutions as being “defensive”. Excluding substitutions where players were subbed off due to injury, of the 18 substitutions Ian Holloway made while we were winning, only 3(!) were what I’ve labelled defensive. The most common substitution type from leading positions appears to be a direct striker-for-striker swap (despite the fact that Holloway already deploys two strikers).
My methodology is crude and admittedly a bit subjective, which is why I have provided my findings below. A reasonable reader can surely disagree with some of my categorizations, but its undeniable how infrequently Holloway opted for the “negative” change.
Part of the explanation for this anomaly is that quite a number of our defensive minded players at the start of the season were unavailable to Holloway (i.e., Henry, Borysiuk, Cousins and Sandro), and we had injuries to our backline (i.e., Furlong and Hall). And I do note that, notwithstanding Holloway’s non-defensive substitution patterns, we very rarely dropped points from leading positions. Having said all that, I would like to see a bit more cynicism from Holloway when we’re nursing a lead- taking off a second striker for an extra man in midfield will not kill you!
I will give Ollie a 5.5 out of 10 his season- a 5/10 for tactics and a 6/10 for everything else. Bang average.
I don’t think we truly appreciated how much crap Holloway had to deal with when he got here, including managing our bloated squad and improving our boring playing style. When Ollie arrived, we were in seventeenth place. The best he could have realistically done is keep us up, and he (barely) did. He resuscitated Manning’ career, restored Washington’s confidence, developed Furlong, found a steal in Luke Freeman and brought back some life to Loftus Road. At times, Rangers played exciting, swashbuckling football, and we had a few impressive runs of form.
Ultimately, though, we were too inconsistent. And in trying to tinker with our lineups and formations, Ollie managed to squander a lot of the goodwill and credibility he had built up with our fan base.
Do I think Ollie should come back? I’m still undecided. Tactically, “he is what he is”, but he does have a track record of getting teams promoted. If I had to choose today, I am very slightly leaning towards the “Remain” camp.
Echoing Clive’s sentiment, though, I do believe that any decision that Tony and Ruben make must be made now and not in October or November.
Links >>> Ram’s analysis of Luke Freeman
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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