End of Term Report 18/19 - Defenders
Tuesday, 21st May 2019 08:01 by Clive Whittingham
The second part of our annual run down of each individual player’s performance from the campaign just gone focuses on a defence which has conceded 70 goals for the second season in a row.
2 – Darnell Furlong C
Darnell: Excuse me, who are you?
Furlong’s early season injury, picked up in the blazing sunshine at AFC Wimbledon in pre-season, was a hammer blow for him ahead of what was supposed to be his first full campaign as the first choice full back at Rangers, and also posed a big problem for Steve McClaren. That preferred style of playing out from a keeper through a deep lying midfielder and two split centre backs does require an out ball to the flanks and Furlong’s prodigious ability in the air makes him the perfect sort of full back for it. Any of the four get in trouble or run out of options, little floater out to the right for Darnell to win in the air and move forwards. He was replaced initially by Osman Kakay, whose tackling technique could bring an elephant to its knees but who is, putting it kindly, very green at Championship level. Later there was Angel Rangel, who’s discussed elsewhere in this review, but I was looking forward to having Furlong back by the time he returned – better in the air, more athletic, younger, our player, less inclined to play strikers onside.
What followed was a challenging second half of the season which slid from the highs of Christmas when Rangers lost none of his first six starts of the season and kept six clean sheets, to the lows of March where he was dropped for a poor showing at Brentford and then had an absolute raving nightmare at home to Rotherham, conceding the stupid injury time free kick from which the visitors got their winner. By the end, it was the general consensus that actually Furlong’s aerial ability, athleticism, style of defending and intelligence makes him the perfect centre back – particularly as we desperately need somebody mobile to play alongside the lump of Leistner and neither Lynch nor Hall can do it to the same standard as Darnell.
QPR are dinosaurs in the modern game when it comes to full backs – sitting and watching Dallas and Ayling go up against Malone and Bogle in the play-off semi final at Elland Road was barely even the same sport we play, where our full backs barely cross the halfway line in anger. One assist all season, in the very final game when he finished a beautiful move with a low cross for Josh Scowen at Sheff Wed, is pitiful for a full back. Meanwhile, against Leeds in the cup and Swansea at home, he turned in excellent performances in the middle of the park. He insists he’s a full back, but he’s wrong on this season’s evidence – although, that said, his ratings when picked at centre back (7, 7, 6, 6, 5, 3, 7, 5, 6 = 5.77) aren’t a great deal different from those when he played right back (7, 7, 6, 5, 6, 5, 5, 6, 7, 5, 4, 6, 5, -, 4, 5, 6, 5, 7 = 5.611).
3 – Jake Bidwell C
Assessing Jake Bidwell’s contributions to Queens Park Rangers over the past three summers has been a bit like reviewing beige carpet samples for Homes and Gardens magazine. I think he looks better with hair than without, and that’s about as interesting and controversial as it’s ever going to get. From 45 appearances last season (Jake’s never injured, he’s missed just six league games in two seasons and 16 in total since he joined) he scored 6/10 in our match reports on 19 occasions. He got 7/10 six times and fourteen fives. He strayed beyond those parameters just six times, which include a solitary eight and a man of the match award at home to Leeds in the cup when he suddenly won a penalty for the first goal and scored the second himself. That was his only goal of the season, though he did contribute six assists which is nearly as many as he managed in the previous two seasons put together (four in 2017/18, three in 2016/17). This is the third consecutive season we’ve given him a C.
He has been the focus of increasing grumbles and criticism from some sections of the support, and although there was some surprise that he was included on the release list, given that his former Brentford manager Mark Warburton is coming to the club, the decision was met with more of a shrug than anything else. Never a Clive Wilson, David Bardsley or Kyle Walker style full back, but equally never a Christer Warren, Paul Bruce or Chris Barker horror show. An Ian Barraclough-type who never really let us down, never really did anything spectacular, and in 20 years’ time you’ll probably have forgotten ever played for us.
I personally quite liked him. I like a defender you can rely on to turn up every week and do you a steady job – Lynch I’m looking at you. Those who lost patience with him for not being more than that clearly didn’t read the back of the box properly when we bought him: we were told to expect an unspectacular, consistent, steady left back who would be 6/10 every week, and that’s what we got. Only against Jota at Brentford a couple of seasons ago, and for the first half an hour before he went off in the massacre at Norwich this season, can I remember him properly shitting the bed. The low marks he has picked up from LFW have tended to come in games where the entire team has fallen apart, and it’s been threes and fours across the board.
Most of the problems people perceive with him are club-wide failings for me, which means if they’re not addressed then whoever is left back next season will irritate you just as much as Bidwell did, while almost certainly being less consistent and more injury prone. The modern game rewards teams that attack from full back, as outlined in Darnell Furlong’s review. QPR don’t do that, and are a poorer team for it, but that’s not Bidwell’s game and we knew that when we bought him. Likewise, the justified criticism that he’s regularly too deep and narrow, affording wingers far too much time and space to do as they please in wide areas (two games against Hull’s Jarrod Bowen this season were particularly ball aching), is, again, a team failing. The defence isn’t very good, and is particularly slow, and to counter that it drops back seeking the sanctity of its own byline so there isn’t space in behind. Steve McClaren admitted himself they’d basically decided after the August nonsense to just try and defend the penalty box at all costs, hence Bidwell has to come deeper and narrower than you would ideally like. It would have happened whether he was the left back or somebody else. And to be in a position where you can’t renew the contract of an average Championship left back you brought to the club just three years ago, even though the club and the manager would like to, is simply further evidence we’re still massively overpaying when it comes to player wages, rather than proof Bidwell was particularly poor or deserved to be released. He wasn’t and he didn’t, but simple economics dictated that it was inevitable.
4 – Grant Hall D
Can’t get fit. Simple as that really. Two years of injury horrors continued this season with just 12 starts (five in the cups) and five sub appearances. He’s clearly understandably distraught and frustrated at the way a promising young career has been derailed – QPR’s Player of the Season 2016/17 don’t forget – and has spoken candidly and thoughtfully about the mental torture it has wrought upon him. Given that Jack Robinson told a similar tale of loneliness and depression during his prolonged absence, there are questions to be asked of whether the club could do more for players in such circumstances. Hall also insists, to anybody he speaks to, that the original knee tendonitis that caused all the problems in the first place has finally cleared up. But his appearance record, and performances in the games he has played, speak for themselves sadly.
When he is fit to play, he’s not match fit, because he’s played so few games, and you end up with what we saw at home to Birmingham and Rotherham when he partnered Joel Lynch in a match up the likes of which we haven’t seen since Tina and Ike Turner were wed. Just when he does look like getting a run of games under his belt to help with match fitness, he pulls or strains something else and disappears for another month. It’s a dreadfully sad situation for him, but it is what it is and it’s a big surprise to hear he’ll still be with QPR next season. I wish him all the luck in the world. I like him, and quite rated him as a player before all this happened. But when the club makes no mention of him in their official releases about contract renewals and releases at the end of the season, only quietly admitting Hall had triggered a one-year extension clause when local journos asked them about it, and that he’s been able to trigger said clause despite making just eight league starts since April 2017, rather suggests they’ve fucked up. Again.
5 – Geoff Cameron B
With Nedum Onuoha and Jack Robinson departing at the end of 2017/18, centre backs were high on the summer shopping list for Steve McClaren. Toni Leistner was secured from Union Berlin – to the pleasant surprise of the club who thought he’d take Norwich’s offer over ours – but the second spot remained a problem right down to the loan transfer window at the end of August. Plans to bring veteran German Uwe Hunemeier in on a free from Brighton were scuppered when the 33-year-old got an offer to return to Paderborn from whence he came. A move for Michael Hefele from Huddersfield, who I thought would have been perfect for us at 28-years-old, fell over at the last minute when Nottingham Forest, in the midst of a manifestly excessive summer trolley dash, got wind of his availability and made him a ridiculous offer only to subsequently find they had limited use for him. Blackpool centre half Curtis Tilt, one of several players recommended by the Gary Penrice scouting set up who would probably have signed had Ian Holloway stayed on, was rejected by the incoming McClaren during the off season.
When Geoff Cameron arrived on loan from Stoke at the eleventh hour it seemed that problem had been solved, only for him to pitch up in defensive midfield. His two performances alongside Leistner at the back in the final two games of the season suggested it might not have been a bad idea to have him there all year but I’m actually disappointed with myself for not telegraphing that he’d be used the way he was.
Firstly, because when we met McClaren during the summer he’d spoken of the need for a quality, experienced player right in the middle of the park, doing the job George Thorne had done for him at Derby – ongoing injury nightmares prevented a move for the actual George Thorne. He was irritated at inheriting a collection of midfielders who “all want to play ten” and when Josh Scowen came back from the summer break pointing out that he’d been a more attacking, box to box, player when he was at Barnsley as well that was the start of a difficult relationship between those two. Cameron was that man, and initially I didn’t really get him, because he was painfully slow and clearly not up to the pace of the league. Not unexpected, given he was 34 and had barely played the second half of the previous season at Stoke. But soon he hit his stride, excellent in a home win against Millwall and man of the match in an away win at Ipswich shortly after that. His stats quickly stacked up - QPR won when he played and lost when he didn’t – and he was beaten just once in his first 11 appearances for the club (at Swansea).
He appeared on the QPR Podcast and proved to be a lively, interesting, intelligent, insightful, erudite, confident, funny guest. Of course he did, he’s American. Every American you meet talks like today is the greatest thing that’s happened to them and they’re the best thing in it, whereas every British person you meet sounds like they spent an hour looking into a mirror telling themselves what a cunt they are before leaving the house. When these sort of people come along, QPR and QPR fans tend to overreact. We smother our media output with them, we drop to our knees and worship this new God with whom we may never lose again. We start talking about signing hm permanently, giving him whatever he wants, and burning Tony Fernandes’ house down if the deal isn’t done by first light – or at least nine, for 9.30. To add to the fervour, an injury picked up at Leeds (when Sky Sports’ latest fetish Kalvin Phillips deliberately two footed him from behind well after the whistle had blown for an earlier infringement) basically ended his season and although Rangers won the next three games they would finish the season with just three wins from the last 23 games without him, and he was back to play in one of those (Sheff Wed A). His won-drawn-lost record (8-4-6) is by far the best of the regular starters, bar Angel Rangel, in this whole review. In fact, they’re the only players in the entire squad that won more than they lost last season.
And secondly, because here’s the thing. QPR’s defence is very poor indeed. The 2017/18 version, with Smithies, Onuoha and Robinson at its heart, conceded 70 Championship goals. The class of 2018/19, with Lumley, Lynch and Leistner, conceded 71 in the league. It’s a defence that concedes goals despite having two very defensive minded full backs, who rarely cross the halfway line. It’s a defence with a multitude of problems and it’s a defence that, naturally, improves a bit when you park what is, ostensibly, a third centre back in front of it in the base of midfield. Ian Holloway knew this, and in his first season back at the club the team would win whenever Grant Hall played at the base of midfield and lose whenever he didn’t. At the end of 2016/17 a promising run of results suddenly turned to seven defeats from eight games and near relegation when Hall got injured. And McClaren knew it – hence, Cameron. The American was particularly good at the job, dropping in to make it three centre backs at some times, pushing forwards to crowd the midfield at others, and knowing exactly when to switch between the two. Had he been fit for the whole season I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch - given the amount of close, unlucky and late defeats we suffered – to think we might have won four or five more games, which would put us up around tenth with Swansea and Forest and probably still with McClaren as manager.
Really though, that’s only because it’s a poor defence that benefits from protection, not because Cameron is some miracle working footballer.
22 – Angel Rangel B
We’ll start with the good here, because there’s plenty of that in the Spaniard’s review, if not this page as a whole (sorry, can only work with what we’ve got). Rangel played for more than a decade at Swansea City, much of it in the top division, and has been a super player. He’s still, at 36 and despite recent injury problems, clearly got plenty about him. There were some excellent performances last season, notably at Stoke where he suddenly scored twice, and late in an unravelling campaign when he returned against his former club and led from the front with an all out assault on the new golden boy Dan James, which nullified his threat and roused a crowd that had long since given up hope. That sort of leadership is replicated around the training ground, where his attitude and influence is talked up by everybody who works down there. In a team that’s young and getting younger, has lost all of its dressing room voices, has had to release a captain like Nedum Onuoha, is about to shed a whole load more senior players, that’s invaluable. The way he talks, the way he thinks, the way he looks after himself, the way he plays and the way he represents the club are a credit to him. The two main periods of bad results – August, and basically everything from February onwards - coincided with him not being in the team. You can see, given all of that and the circumstances we’re in, why the club have offered him a contract extension.
All that said. There is something very QPR about all of this, and he is not the all-conquering, faultless full back you’d believe from his hype around the club. Firstly, going out and signing somebody who’s been in the Premier League for the last six years just because your first choice right back gets injured in pre-season is not what we’re meant to be doing, and not what we’ll be able to do moving forwards. Secondly, having sensibly only given him a six-month contract to cover said injury, you don’t then renew it when the first choice is fit again – Rangel was fit to play just three times in the second six months of his deal. Thirdly, we are still very prone to believing the answer always lies in a new signing, and said shiny new toy can do no wrong for their initial period at the club. In actual fact Rangel was the main reason we kept getting our offside trap sprung – look at him for the second at Stoke (a game he played well in), the third at home to Hull, the first at Norwich... deeper than everybody else compensating for his lack of speed, with a forlorn arm in the air appealing to the linesman.
I’m not sure I would have renewed his deal in December and I’m not sure I’d be renewing it now – approaching 37 and with a five month injury absence on his recent CV. Hopefully it’s being done with training ground influence and mentoring youngsters in mind, rather than a thought that he’s going to be the first choice right back across a 46 game Championship season. If we go into next year relying on him for that it’ll likely cause us problems.
33 – Joel Lynch C/D
This is the one you’ve come for isn’t it? Little devils. Ok, here we go. For one, relatively long given what he’d produced before, glorious moment through the autumn it looked like Joel Lynch was finally becoming the head-it-and-kick-it left sided centre half we’d desperately needed him to be ever since taking the ill-advised decision to bring him in to replace Clint Hill (Clint Hill, for goodness sake) two and a half years prior. There were away wins (albeit only at Bolton, Reading and Ipswich) and clean sheets, both of which had been scarce to the point of extinction under Ian Holloway, and they were based on a solid central defence of which Lynch was a key part alongside Toni Leistner and Geoff Cameron. Lynch and the German called each other the L team, and did a funny hand gesture in front of their foreheads, as Ipswich, Sheff Wed and Aston Villa were all beaten in fine style in six days without a goal being conceded – Lynch took man of the match plaudits in two of those. He also, as he’s been prone to throughout his time here, chipped in with the odd important goal, helping us win a thriller at home to Brentford 3-2. There was effusive message board praise, there was talk of a contract extension, people wondered whether he might finally win a second Welsh cap and went rummaging through their old Rothman’s to find out when he got his first (Mesopotamia away, AD266).
But then, like the rest of the team, the slide began, and in Lynch’s case it was merely a slide back to everything he’d been before from a brief period of form and fitness. Here are Joel Lynch’s four favourite things to do, all of which he abandoned during that wonderful September/October period, but all of which were back with a vengeance by the turn of the year. First, Joel Lynch likes to come high up the field and get too tight to a striker allowing himself to be rolled into the acres of space behind him. Watching him run that on repeat against Che Adams in a home game QPR trailed 4-0 after 40 minutes was a deep, personal trauma. Second, Joel Lynch likes to stand off players cutting in from the right side onto their left foot, affording them time and space to pick a spot from 20 yards out – Jarrod Bowen, Hull at home. Third, Joel Lynch distributes the ball like a partially sighted man for whom being partially sighted is the least of his problems. The free kick at Leeds, taken off the boot of Leistner and belted out for a goal kick at the far end with no QPR player near it is the go to viral MEME (difficult to see what was intended, unless he was trying a 75 yard attempt on goal), but the “pass” out from the back at Stoke straight to Tom Ince for their equaliser was far more damaging. A “pass” you could see him playing half an hour before he did, easier to read than a copy of the Beano, which incidentally is where much of Lynch’s decision making belongs. And fourth, Joel Lynch likes to pick up a slew of yellow cards, usually for ridiculous tackles through the back of strikers who are facing away from goal in neutral areas of the pitch – a pathetic hatchet job on Teemu Pukki in the Easer fixture at Norwich a prime example but there was one in the 87th minute of that Hull home game, with Rangers long since beaten, that had to be seen to be believed.
That all is what it is, as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink would say. Poor player, bad signing, but not alone in that. Two of our worst results and defensive performances came when he and Hall were paired together, at home to Birmingham and Rotherham, but he’s certainly not the reason the team collapsed in the manner it did. We’ve had bad players before, and we’ll have them again, not a big deal. Except there’s another factor when assessing Joel Lynch which is unusual and does make him that little bit worse than just the standard Championship liability. He did, once again, as he has done in all three seasons with the club, as he has done in ten of the last 11 seasons with four different clubs, miss out on a fixture played between December 20 and 30 – Nottingham Forest away. He also, just as he’d done last season, clocked off for the summer in mid-April, with games still remaining. We’ve come to know the pattern, like absolute clockwork. It starts with a flurry of needless bookings, often for ridiculous tackles (Leeds A) and often late in games (Hull H). In his first 11 matches of this season through to mid-October Lynch was booked once. In the six weeks leading up to Christmas he was booked five times in nine games. Then, December 15, against Middlesbrough, that routine he goes through where he pulls up early in the first half, signals to the bench, does a big exaggerated lolloping limp through to half time like an escaped zoo animal trying to flee a bloke with a blow dart, appears for the first few minutes of the second half, then disappears. Same again at the end of the season – from three bookings in 12 games from December through to mid-March, suddenly three in as many appearances including the stupid one at Norwich and another at Millwall for screaming into a linesman’s face. And then, when the suspension isn’t achieved, the bloody lolloping about routine all over again at home to Blackburn.
Now it could just be that Lynch is an unlucky footballer who just happens to have been injured or suspended during the Christmas week in ten of his 11 seasons as a professional, and just happens to go on long runs of yellow cards through November and March – pure coincidence. Or, he could be one of the worst examples of a mercenary modern sportsman, getting going whenever the going gets tough or Virgin have a sale on flights to Dubai. Which it is, we have no idea, and the lawyer has told us not to guess. And when it all boils down to it, it’s not the point either. The point is you can’t play like he plays, cost us the goals that he costs us, be unavailable as often as he is (90 league appearances in three years, less than two thirds of what he should have been available for, the equivalent of missing an entire league season) and hope to get a new contract. And he hasn’t got one. Which is good.
37 – Toni Leistner B/C
They called him the chiropractor at Union Berlin, and when he was in that uncompromising, back-bending, bone-cracking mood last season, Toni Leistner looked a very good signing for us. We’ve needed a no nonsense centre back since the premature release of Clint Hill and there remains the potential that the Big Fucking German may well be it.
When backs were to the wall, boarders had to be repelled, headers needed heading and strikers needed belting, Leistner was at the forefront of all of that. At home to Aston Villa, one of three clean sheets kept in a week back in October, Jonathan Kodija grew so frustrated at the out and out bullying he was getting from Leistner that he belted the ball at him after the halftime whistle had gone, prompting a “are we having a problem here puny boy?” reaction worthy of Rainier Wolfcastle. Away at Nottingham Forest, when Rangers made history with a first ever win at The City Ground, Leistner was an obvious man of the match, scoring the winning goal and leading an aggressive second half defensive effort with a captain’s knock that saw the job through. He was brilliant that day. And again, when the season had fallen apart and a descent into relegation problems looked a real possibility, he came back into the team just days after the debacle at Norwich and was key to a much more committed, forceful, strong showing in a 0-0 at Millwall that few gave Rangers a chance in but they should have ended up winning.
Three of the worst four defensive displays of the season – Birmingham H, Norwich A, Rotherham H – came when he’d been left out of the starting line up. The Birmingham massacre only ceased at 4-0 when he was brought on from the bench and to return to that Lynch-Hall centre back combination that had done a lot to cause that collapse for the subsequent home game against The Millers smacked of arrogant managership, underestimating a lowly opponent. Quite why Leistner was in and out of the team at the end of the season, given how his replacements played, I never understood, but I suppose he had played a lot of football to that point so it was possibly to do with fatigue.
That said, this is a signing that can still go either way. First year at this level, first time playing outside Germany, settling in a new city, learning a new language, shouldering the burden of the captaincy, coming into a defence robbed of its three best players from the year before, trying to defend in what is clearly a poor side – we’ve taken all of that into account in awarding a B/C rather than a C. But he is, as we’ve said from the first time we clapped eyes on him at AFC Wimbledon last summer, as slow as rust. Teams that get even moderately quick strikers running into the channel between him and his full back, get great joy from doing so – West Brom away the prime example, he was awful. He gets there as quick as he can in the same way Govia Thameslink Railway do – by the time he’d finished his fool’s mission to win a header he should never have been going for in the first half up at Wigan they’d already flicked it on beyond him and scored the opening goal. He’s a part of the reason the defence drops too deep, has to defend too narrow, often gets its offside trap sprung, and regularly gets burned when opponents turn up with a Che Adams-type in the attack. A more mobile partner in the other centre back spot is a must, because we have to find a way to defend higher up the field and get our full backs going forwards more.
Some very good, some very bad. Jury out.
Alex Baptiste was signed as a fill-in by Ian Holloway, only to end up playing 28 times in 2017/18 thanks to repeated injuries to the first choice back four. He didn’t let anybody down across those outings, and he was in and around the first team to start this season as well, with three league starts and a sub appearance by mid-September as well three outings in the League Cup. That Rangers lost every league game he was involved in by an aggregate score of 14-1, and that League One Luton deemed him good enough for only two sub appearances during a second half of the season loan at Kenilworth Road, probably tells you something. He was better than I’d always thought he was watching him for other teams, but that’s not saying much. A career on the wind down and an easy release.
Osman Kakay started the season as first choice right back thanks to Darnell Furlong’s injury and the late arrival of Angel Rangel. He made three starts in the league and three in the League Cup during what turned out to be a torrid time for the team and its defence. He can certainly tackle, you feel it at the back of South Africa Road when he goes in on somebody, and I’m not sure those August horrors were really very much to do with him. Little so far in the fleeting glimpses we’ve had of him, or what he’s done out on loan, to suggest he’ll make it at this level though.
Nico Hamalainen I’m very unsure about. One of those Michael Petrasso, Michael Doughty-type youth players we seem to keep around year after year well into their 20s (Hamalainen is 22 now) without ever playing (two League Cup starts last season) or having any intention to play in the future. Also one of those young players, like Sean Goss, who seems to enjoy living the footballer lifestyle, without ever playing any actual football. Not quite sure a spell on loan in the MLS in LA, where he’s not a regular starter, will really do much to allay either of those concerns to be honest. We’ll see what next season brings, with Jake Bidwell leaving the club.
Notes – Appearances of less than ten minutes do not count in the WDL stats or the clean sheet totals. The goals conceded is the number of goals the team let in while that player was on the pitch.
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