End of Term Report 19/20 – Defenders
Wednesday, 5th Aug 2020 08:26 by Clive Whittingham
Part two of our annual final analysis of the QPR squad over the course of the season looks at a defence which, for the third year in a row, shipped in excess of 70 goals across the 46 league games.
2 – Todd Kane C/D
Todd Kane’s initial arrival at QPR was born of simple economics. If you get offered £1.5m plus options for a full back you paid nothing for in the first place, however long he’s been at the club and part of the furniture he is, and you can replace him with an experienced player at this level, well on the right side of 30, for free then you do it. And so out went Darnell Furlong, who we all loved, and in came Todd Kane, who apparently we all do not.
The initial signs were good. He came on for Angel Rangel 70 minutes into the opening home game against Huddersfield and was immediately charging off down the right flank, penetrating deep into the visitors’ tiring defence, and helping to lead the comeback from one down to snatch a late point. A seven for that, and his subsequent start against Bristol City in the League Cup, and his personal efforts in defeat at home to Swansea, and his performance away at Millwall where he assisted a Nahki Wells goal in a 2-1 away win, Rangers first in that part of the world since 1990. While not quite clocking Ryan Manning numbers, Kane did manage a goal and four assists having started only half the games played – if he could extrapolate that out to two and eight across a full 46 league games that would be an excellent return. QPR haven’t attacked from full back for far too long, as we’ll discuss in Manning’s write up, and Kane can be a valuable weapon in that when he’s in form, as he was for Fulham away where he set up Jordan Hugill’s goal, would have had a couple more assists but for poor finishing, and was easily man of the match on the night. He was also excellent, a season-high mark of eight, in the 1-0 home win against Leeds.
But there have been problems since. He’s been caught out numerous times defensively and while part of that is down to the formation and system that Mark Warburton prefers, with full backs pushed high as attacking weapons and acres of space left in behind, some of it is also down to Kane’s fairly pathetic weakness in the tackle and deficient positioning when played as a traditional right back in a back four. Compare the joy the opposition get when he plays there to when the vastly more experienced and shrewd Angel Rangel is selected. We've lost twice as many games as we've won when Kane has played, though his 1.3-goals-conceded-a-game average is bettered only by Cameron. His complete abdication of duty, and subsequent carefree shrug, for Morgan Fox’s goal for Sheff Wed at Loftus Road in the FA Cup was a prime example. That would be fine if his attacking game had remained as potent as it was against Huddersfield and Fulham but he went through a period mid-season where he just kept giving the ball away remorselessly. There were a couple of fours in lockdown as he and the team returned in dire form, but he came back strong, out of nowhere, as a substitute against Millwall, scoring with a Lee Cook-style diving header for his first goal for the club.
With Scowen ousted in January he’s been vying with Joe Lumley and Luke Amos for the role of scapegoat in chief among the supporters. While I’m not going to sit here and pretend Kane has been particularly good, I’ve never really felt he’s been anywhere near as bad as some have made out and the criticism of him has been way over the top and wilfully ignorant of the way the full backs can be exposed and look bad because of the system they’re playing in at QPR rather than anything they’ve done particularly poorly themselves. Apart from anything, he’s got two years of his contract left to run. We’re not in a financial position to be going out and buying new full backs to replace ones who are still contracted for another two seasons so there’s little point in giving up on one six months into a three-year contract quite as readily and enthusiastically as many seem to with Kane.
3 – Lee Wallace D
Warbs Warburton is clearly very fond of Lee Wallace, and likes to say “Captain of Glasgow Rangers” every third sentence. But the fact is, Wallace hadn’t been captaining Glasgow Rangers, or anybody very much at all, for two years before he signed for QPR. Thanks first to injury, and then to a very public falling out with the club, he’d played just 53 minutes spread across three matches in 2018/19, and seven games in 2017/18 (all in July, August and September). While you could kindly say that at least he was coming in fresh, it was always going to be something of a tall order for a 32-year-old (he turned 33 this week) to arrive into the rigours of the Championship for the first time and play any kind of significant role. And so it proved.
A pre-season hamstring injury kept him sidelined until November when he made his debut at Elland Road. That game with Leeds saw him make an incredible ball-and-all sliding tackle on a clean-through Patrick Bamford, brilliantly denying him the chance to round the goalkeeper and then blaze wide of the open goal. There was also an out-of-character 20-yard dipping volley into the net as part of the 5-1 demolition of Swansea in the FA Cup, his first since scoring for Rangers against Hamilton in March 2017 – even the scorer looked surprised. But these were rare highlights. Not surprisingly he looked off the pace of the game when selected, sent off against Nottingham Forest after getting caught the wrong side of Joe Lolley, lucky not to concede an early penalty in the home win against Leeds for clumsily stepping on Alioski’s foot in the area, shambolically out of sync with Ryan Manning for the first goal in a 2-2 at home to Middlesbrough on a rare occasion they were played together down the left.
Given his reputation as a model pro, with high standards, I’m sure he’s as annoyed with his year as anybody. Fundamentally, he’s just not been able to get himself fit enough, which must be incredibly frustrating. He’s also apparently had big impact and influence off the pitch, particularly with Manning despite the younger man holding his place in the team. But as far as grades go, it was never going to be a high one for his output on the field. One year of contract remains.
4 – Grant Hall C
Worst kind of modern mercenary footballer, or man doing right by his family. If you’re here for an answer, or even a strong opinion either way, you’re going to be disappointed.
First of all, his performance on the pitch. This rarely veered too far in either direction away from ‘fine’. He got to 30 starts, which having managed only 12 in 2018/19 and just one the year before that I suspect was summer target a, b and c for player and club. He played exceptionally well and scored away at Birmingham, which was easily his best performance. We gave him an eight that night, one of only three times in 30 outings he ventured out of the 5-7 rating bracket which rather tells you what sort of year he had. He became something of a danger from attacking set pieces and there were good goals scored against Huddersfield, Brentford and particularly Derby where he volleyed one in off the underside of the bar, and a scruffy one at Preston on what turned out to be his last ever appearance for the club. He was rarely particularly culpable for the defensive failings around him – though his performance at Griffin Park against Brentford was fairly shambolic – but was the mainstay, and captain, in a defence that shipped 76 goals, so isn’t in line for too much credit either.
The real talking point came the week before the restart when it was announced that club and player had been unable to agree a new contract on greatly reduced financial terms, and consequently he didn’t want to be considered for the nine behind-closed-doors game for risk of jeopardising a future move elsewhere. Here’s where I swerve between philosophical and pissed off, depending on my own mood and circumstances on any particular day.
Part of me thinks fuck him. Here’s a player the club stood by and paid well through more than two years of injury problems, something which led to depression and other issues which Hall himself has praised the club for the help and support they offered him through as soon as they became aware. The very least he could have done, particularly as the captain of the club, is played the June games he was contracted for, rather than sending QPR out to play low on numbers and relying on kids like Conor Masterson and Osman Kakay. I’m sure if QPR had said they didn’t very much fancy paying the last nine weeks of his contract for fear of jeopardising their future financial situation they’d soon have been hearing about it from a high-priced lawyer. And all the “looking after my family” and “thinking about my future” stuff washes about as well as anti-vandal paint when people are facing mass redundancies, recession, wage cuts and unemployment from their previous normal-person money, while Grant and his reality-star girlfriend are hiring television production companies to put out high-spec Instagram videos of lavish celebrity parties called to reveal the gender of their sprog. Had he played and got injured again, you know what, just a hunch, but I think they’d have been alright for a while, don’t you?
But then look at Angel Rangel. Played the lockdown games without a contract and burst his Achilles with nobody near him, jeopardising not only his next contract but potentially the last contract he’ll ever sign as a professional footballer. We’ll later praise him in this piece as a model professional and club man, but he’s not going to get a renewed deal for that is he? Where was QPR’s loyalty to Toni Leistner, who they brought in to be club captain and then ditched as surplus to requirements not even 12 months later because the manager had changed and didn’t fancy him? Where was their loyalty to Ryan Manning when they shoved him out on loan to Rotherham because Steve McClaren didn’t rate him? Where is the QPR supporters’ loyalty to Joe Lumley, a player who’s emerged from our youth team but has been subjected to ironic cheers and jeers because he’s lost form over the last 12 months? Or Todd Kane, who seems to have been written off completely and seen as in need of immediate replacement barely weeks into a three-year contract? Managers, clubs and supporters are all super quick to turn on players, abuse them, send them to train with the kids, pack them off on loan and so on when it suits them, so I’m not sure they can really start crowing about loyalty the other way when it doesn’t.
In the end the situation left me feeling much as Grant Hall did as a player. A bit meh. Three-year contract bagged with Neil Warnock at Middlesbrough, I doubt he gives much of a toss either way.
5 – Geoff Cameron B/C
Only four QPR players in the entire review have a positive WDL record, and Geoff’s 14-10-13 is one of them (Yoann Barbet, Marc Pugh and Josh Scowen are the others). Among the players we debit the ‘goals conceded’ against (goalkeepers, defenders, players playing defensive midfield in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 at the time the goal is scored) nobody has a better record than Cameron’s 1.27 a game average. Among those we credit clean sheets to (same standard) nobody has been in the team for more than Geoff’s six.
The trick is deciphering his impact and influence on that. If he’s playing it’s usually in front of the defence in a deep-lying midfield position, and we’ve known since Ian Holloway’s second stint in charge that the rusty old colander we like to call a defence leaks slightly less when you park a big hulking converted centre back in front of it by way of protection – remember 2016/17 when we literally couldn’t win a game unless Grant Hall played defensive midfield, and we saw his prolonged absence for 2017/18 as a potential nail in our coffin? When he’s at centre back it’s usually as part of a back three, or a 4-1-4-1 where he’ll step forward into the ‘one’ when required or fall back to make a five at other times. More bodies and more experience back there means fewer goals conceded, however talented those bodies may be, you could argue.
Cameron’s personal ratings tell a clearer story. In his first eight games we awarded him a mark of seven on four occasions (Stoke A, Huddersfield H, Millwall A, Blackburn H, W3 D1). In his final eight appearances his highest mark was six and we gave him a three twice (Wigan A, Sheff Wed H). That steady personal decline can be seen across his marks. He got seven sevens and two eights from us and all but one of those marks (an eight in the 4-2 home win against Stoke) came in the first half, up to and including the 6-1 Cardiff game when he actually excelled as a makeshift right back as Warbs, unusually, fought physical fire with fire against a Neil Harris team.
It was steadily downhill from there, including Preston away where a spectacular win rather covered up his foolish, late, tired tackles that got him sent off and left us with ten men. Two of a whopping 12 yellow cards he received and while some were questionable, most notably his justifiably furious reaction to Kalvin Phillips having another go at ending his career, many were not. At Wigan in particular, where his fresh air shot by the corner became an viral meme to sum up the QPR approach to not only that match but lockdown as a whole, he was abysmal. Against Charlton over Christmas he got caught under a routine punt downfield and inadvertently set up a last-kick-of-the-game equaliser.
Under normal circumstances I suspect we’d be shaking hands at this point, thanking him for two years of excellent service, a fine personal Indian summer, nice influence on the younger players but clearly in the very dying embers of his career. It feels like a stretch to think he’ll even be able to contribute half as many of the 37 starts he managed this year, though clearly something of a model pro. But Warburton knows what McClaren and Holloway knew before him – that the defence needs protecting by at least one body in front of it, and the 4-2-3-1 formation we prefer relies on quality and experience in the two deep lying midfield positions. We were rather spoilt under Neil Warnock being able to share those spots between Shaun Derry, Ale Faurlin and Akos Buszaky – a better deep lying midfield three there has never been at this level before, since or into the future – and it’s an underrated achievement of Warburton’s to have QPR as competitive as they have been sharing those roles predominantly between Cameron, Luke Amos and Dom Ball.
Telling, I thought, that among the rabid online clamour for new strikers, defenders and goalkeepers, the manager named West Brom’s Romaine Sawyers as his money-no-object dream signing at the pre-Christmas fans forum. A physical presence who can protect your defence, as well as being able to receive the ball from them and move it forward creatively and intelligently? Such a beast would transform this QPR team, curing many of its ills and adding new dimensions. Until then, it seems we’ll continue to make do.
14 – Ryan Manning A/B
Ryan Manning’s always been my boy. I’ve liked him from the moment I set eyes on him under Ian Holloway. An incredibly versatile player, who could feasibly play half a dozen positions in our 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-1-3-2 or 4-3-3 systems. A player with goal and assist threat, whether you play him full back, defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder or wing. And very durable – another 44 starts for a player who, so far touch wood, has hardly ever been injured and rarely gets suspended for one so well versed in the art of shithousing. Perhaps I overrate him as much as others underrate him – there still seems to be a degree of sniffiness about him now despite the numbers he’s posted – and a concerned wellwisher did take me out for lunch earlier this season to enquire whether I was pitching for a job as Ryan Manning’s agent. But, initially at least, that effusive praise is going to continue.
Five goals and ten assists from left full back is some going – these are Barry Douglas at Wolves levels, achieved in a team that prior to this was making do with the maverick left back stylings of Jake Bidwell. I have an awful, dreary, monotonous voice Ted. Imagine if we’d got those sorts of numbers out of Massimo Luongo, who we signed as an attacking midfielder. If QPR were about to sign a 24-year-old left back who’d scored five goals and got ten assists in the Championship we’d be expecting to pay a fair wedge for him, and we’d all be creaming our pants about it – not without justification either. But because he’s already here we mither and moan and pick fault with this or that and covert all these highly affordable other options who will definitely defend much better than Ryan does. There was some real class and vision behind some of the assists as well – notably the sweeping crossfielder that got Jordan Hugill into space for his spectacular hamstring wrecker at Middlesbrough. Sadly we should have been seeing all of this last season, when Steve McClaren didn’t want to know him and he was shovelled out on loan to Rotherham, and having wasted that 12 months (as we also did with Bright Osayi-Samuel) we’re now in a position where both players have hit form just one year before their contracts end. Lousy management all round, as we said at the time Manning headed north.
QPR had a history of playing back threes and sweepers through the 1980s, and then in the 1990s converted two classy midfielders, David Bardsley and Clive Wilson, into exactly the sort of ball playing, attacking full backs that would go down a storm in the modern game. There’s been the odd Gino Padula or Kyle Walker since but by and large QPR have wasted the position for two decades, ignoring the trend for wing backs and attacking full backs and frequently picking clogging centre halves there instead under some weird pathological fear that every cross to the back post is going to find Kevin Francis piling in over the top of Marcus Bignot. Matthew Rose, Damien Delaney, Peter Ramage, Matt Connolly and other centre backs have all played there, and the genuine full backs we have had like Bidwell or Bradley Orr have tended to be safe steady bets rather than game influencers. I’ve personally found it a bit of a joy to see us attacking from those positions this season, not only in the finest modern traditions of the club but in the manner that scores of other more progressive teams have been doing for years. Yes, it has undoubtedly caught us out on occasions having the full backs pushed so high, but I’m more inclined to blame that on the goalkeeper and centre backs’ inability to play out from the back, and the lack of real quality deep lying central midfielders who can both protect the defence and creatively play the ball in tight areas.
All of that said, here comes the ‘but’. Manning is defensively deficient. Whether it was the benefit of multiple replays that brought it home, he seemed to come back from lockdown in just about the worst form of anybody. Matt Smith’s goal against us for Millwall stemmed from Jed Wallace running off the back of Manning down the right unfollowed; Sheff Wed’s first (much like the first at Middlesbrough the season before) was scored by a player alive to the situation and running past Manning who was not; West Brom’s second was pinned publicly on Amos and Kakay for missing the tackle but Manning’s role in it was shambolic, standing square with his arm in the air rather than covering around behind a centre back who’d gone across to deal with something else; he was a Joe Lumley save away from costing us a late goal at Luton with a chuffing foul throw. He wouldn’t sense danger if you set his foot on fire, and players run off the back of him routinely. We've struggled all season in the left channel between him and Yoann Barbet, notably for Huddersfield's goal at Loftus Road, and we concede far too frequently from crosses that both Manning and Kane seem happy to stand off and allow to come in out of some morbid curiosity for what might happen next. He’s also prone to starting campaigns, or loan spells, very strongly and fading – although nice to see him bag a couple of goals in the final two games to arrest that impression slightly.
Overall, though, a very good season for him, and one that’s likely to get him a cut-price move elsewhere owing to his contract situation. I suspect his defensive failings may prevent teams taking a chance on him at left back, or even as one of the ‘two’ in the trendy 4-2-3-1 set up – I love Alex Mowatt at Barnsley and Manning could easily play a similar role for a team, if only he could cure the tick of allowing men to run off the back of him unnoticed. But I’m still a big fan, I think he’s a potentially superb player in this league playing on the left of the forward three in that set up, and I’m fascinated to see where he ends up and how they use him.
22 – Angel Rangel B
A desperately sad end to another creditable season from Methuselah’s Volvo, but one which spoke in its own tragic way to his character and personality. It’s a mixture of economic realities, the state of the transfer market and QPR’s own current squad building philosophy that has led us to mixture of young kids and old gits among our permanent signings, but in the case of Rangel and Geoff Cameron it’s worked particularly well with a first team average age rapidly descending towards 20-years-old.
We lose several things when Rangel plays. Principally pace (he’s slow as rust) and attacking thrust from full back (Todd Kane and Ryan Manning have six goals and 14 assists between them which wouldn’t be a bad total for an attacking midfielder, Rangel has no goals and one assist). However we also gain plenty in his positioning, experience, knowhow and influence on the younger professionals – Cameron and Rangel have the lowest conceded per game ratios of any of our defenders bar Kane, so while the defence tends to leak regardless it certainly does leak less when they’re part of it.
One thing Mark Warburton has been able to do that the four managers immediately before him weren’t is arrest long winless runs before they take hold, consume the club, turn the support base and cost the manager his job. The 4-0 home loss to Nottingham Forest at Loftus Road made it six without a win in October and while three of those games (Reading H, Boro H and Fulham A) were good performances that would have yielded better results but for basic individual mistakes, the manner of the loss to Forest had a really ominous feel about it. That rot was stopped with a 1-1 draw which was the least QPR deserved at Derby that weekend, and Rangel was one of the men recalled to achieve it. Then again in January, amidst the Nahki Wells departure, four games were lost in very quick succession ahead of a long Tuesday night trip to Swansea where a 0-0 draw halted the slide, and actually began a run of six games unbeaten the other way – again, Rangel was recalled for that match.
A solid, experienced pro for the younger players to look up to and the manager to lean on in times of need. A winner – I still think about him tearing across the field against Swansea at Loftus Road last year to belt a former team mate up in the air, furious that the Swans had played on through a QPR injury. And probably would have gone around again another year but for a snapped Achilles suffered at Luton three games out from the end of the year. Typical of the man that despite not only being out of contract but also now at an age where he’s probably only got one more contract in him he didn’t take the Grant Hall/Lyle Taylor route and opt to sit out of the lockdown games for self preservation. Even while being treated on the sideline he seemed more interested in watching the game taking place to his right, encouraging and urging his team on from the stretcher. Sick justice really that Hall’s reward was a nice juicy move to big-payers Middlesbrough while Rangel’s was an operation and minimum nine-month lay off at age 37. If we have seen the last of him in our colours then he goes with our best – a very steady signing and great pro.
23 – Conor Masterson B
A good start, but that’s all and we must beware the old QPR trope of overhyping a young player with this one.
Masterson has obviously got plenty about him. Liverpool paid £900k to bring him over from Ireland as a teenager, he has captained their U18s, and made the bench for the first team in big games. He has been capped by the Republic of Ireland up to and including U21 level. He has been confident, and very, very loud, when on the field for QPR so far. He came flying out of the blocks when injury and Toni Leistner’s departure gave him a January opportunity – excellent in the 5-1 FA Cup win against Swansea, best of a lousy bunch at Brentford, and then absolutely superb in the home win over eventual champions Leeds. He scored his first goal for the club in the 4-3 lockdown win against Millwall, a great recovery having earlier been harshly sacrificed in the first half of the Sheff Wed debacle as part of a failed tactical switch to try and stem the bleeding from a dreadful team display. As the evil EPPP regulations make it harder for clubs like QPR to develop teenagers into fully fledged first teamers without having them picked off by the bigger clubs on the off chance they turn into something good, picking up the drop outs from that human warehousing system as they’re released in their early 20s is not a bad recruitment strategy and Masterson, so far, looks like a bloody prime example of that.
However… It is worth bearing in mind that the 14 appearances he has made for QPR so far are the only senior football he’s played in his entire career. One of the disadvantages of sweeping up Premier League academy cast offs is they’ve frequently never played any proper football at all, and while Masterson certainly doesn’t look like another Sean Goss at this point he is very inexperienced and still learning his trade. It would still be a stretch to think he can go into next season as the first choice centre half, replacing Grant Hall alongside Yoann Barbet. Rangers were intending to loan him out in January until a combination of injuries, departures, and Masterson’s performances in early games saw him stay and play semi-regularly here instead. That’s a good thing, but there was a certain element of adrenalin fuelling him through those first two or three games and he’s had one or two awkward moments since. It’s also a fact that, so far, QPR tend not to win when he’s playing – W3 D3 L8 easily the worst ratio in the squad.
That’s just me trying to temper expectations I think. I know what we’re like. Good signing, better-than-expected start, very decent campaign overall.
24 – Osman Kakay B
Osman Kakay has been with QPR from the age of eight but his last appearance for the first team prior to this season was a 2-1 FA Cup win against Leeds in January 2019 and his last league outing was the 7-1 humbling at West Brom the August prior to that. It had been generally accepted around the club that he wasn’t ever going to be quite good enough at Championship level and he spent the first half of this campaign on loan at Partick Thistle in the SPL.
But as with Conor Masterson, an opportunity unexpectedly presented itself and was seized. Kakay would almost certainly have finished with zero first team appearances were it not for the lockdown, release of Grant Hall, and QPR’s lousy form upon the resumption. Poor defeats to Barnsley and Charlton saw Warbs switch to a back three system which favours Kakay perfectly and he was a surprise name on the team sheet for a creditable personal performance against Fulham, and was then the QPR man of the match in a clean sheet win up at Middlesbrough.
One powderpuff atrocity with Luke Amos for the second West Brom goal on the final night notwithstanding, you stay tackled when he tackles you. It’s ferocious, you hear the crunch all over the park. Fearless bravery summed up with a clearing header just as Britt Assombalonga seemed certain to equalise up at the Riverside. With the ball he’s much less impressive, lacking composure and confidence, looking like a competitor in the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake. But even then, away at Luton, he went charging off down the right flank on numerous occasions after Angel Rangel’s early withdrawal and slung in several very presentable crosses.
Did enough to suggest he might be an option.
29 – Yoann Barbet C
There was a deal of disquiet among Brentford’s online fraternity that their well-regarded reigning “hottie of the year” Yoann Barbet had used the expiry of his contract to move down the Westway and join “that lot from Shepherd’s Bush” last summer. Initially it felt like he might have infiltrated us as some sort of secret agent, plotting against us to feed Peter Gilham’s sick perversion. Absolutely all over the place in summer friendlies in Austria and Boreham Wood he quickly gave away penalties against Huddersfield and Swansea at Loftus Road, just as he had at Austria Vienna in July. You could ordinarily forgive the Huddersfield one, a desperate last ditch attempt to stop a rampaging striker clean through on goal, but as we discussed in yesterday’s section there’s more chance of Dominic Cummings being held to account than a QPR goalkeeper actually saving a spot kick so you’re often better off just letting them run through/picking the ball up and throwing it into the net yourself than fouling them and risking a red card as well. The Swansea one was a bloody stupid tackle which didn’t need making just as QPR had equalised and climbed on top in the game. Against West Brom at home he again sinned as the last man, saw red, and Pereira scored from the resulting free kick.
So far, so inauspicious. But slowly, quietly, something began to happen. When Barbet played, QPR tended not to lose, and when Barbet didn’t, the opposite was true. He sat out for three months over the winter and his return in the spring sparked a six-match unbeaten run that pushed the R’s to within catching distance of the play-offs. By the time the lockdown came his record read won ten, drawn six, lost just four – by far the best ratio of any first team player. Like his team mates, he rather disgraced himself during the summer football, skewing his stats, but he was unquestionably valuable to the way the team played when it played well prior to that. We’re a better team with Barbet in it than we are without.
Oddly for a defender, that value seemed to mostly come with what he did with the ball than without it. As we’ve quickly become accustomed to under Warburton, players are in the team for what they can do with the ball when we’re going forwards and their fielding? Their fielding does not matter. With the ball the Frenchman can spring our excellent young boys forwards with long raking passes – Barbet’s Diags™ never better demonstrated than with his assist for Ebere Eze’s pearler at West Brom on the final night. Without it he is to the art of traditional, no nonsense, English, Championship defending what Dairylea Dunkers are to fine French cheese. Amongst it all it’s been decided somewhere along the line that he’s a bit handy with free kicks between the 20 and 30-yard mark, which he absolutely is not.
To watch Yoann Barbet defend in the middle of the QPR back three or four this season has been like watching the latter Pirates of the Caribbean films. A lot of chaos and panic revolving around a guy who’s good looking in a ‘might have slept at the railway station’ sort of a way and may well have had a bit to drink before turning up on set. Plenty of dashing about and last-ditch diving around, not a great deal of plot or self-control, a strong sense of nobody really knowing what’s coming next - least of all the protagonist - plenty of confusion and a lot of bloody rope swinging. I’ve quite liked it at times, and at others it’s worn exceptionally thin.
I prefer him to the left of a three, and lose sleep when he’s one of a four. A partner for him his a priority this summer with Grant Hall gone and Toni Leistner almost certain to follow, and Barbet’s such an oddball, with so many unique and prominent strengths and weaknesses, that we have to recruit that person and examine their attributes very carefully indeed. I'd be reticent to pair a lower league punt like, say, Charlie Goode, with Barbet in a four and expect it to go well.
37 – Toni Leistner C
It seemed to have been decided almost before the new manager got here that Toni Leistner would not be Mark Warburton’s sort of player. One year into his three-year QPR contract he was stripped of the captaincy, dropped from the team, and made available to other clubs last summer. That doesn’t say a lot for our recruitment and tendency to flit too frequently between managers of vastly different styles, nor does Leistner’s salary (reported in the £17,000 a week bracket) becoming too expensive for us to want to retain him barely a year after we moved heaven and earth to get him here in the first place ahead of competition from Norwich. When we talk about Grant Hall’s perceived lack of loyalty and commitment over the summer let us not forget that QPR the club and QPR supporters are certainly not adverse to chewing a player up and spitting them straight back out again in double quick time after yet another abrupt change in direction. With Bundesliga outfit Cologne apparently not taking up their option for a permanent transfer after an extended loan, we must now find another German outfit to prevent us landing ourselves in a situation where our top earner is hanging around a place neither he nor we want him to be.
The general consensus is that Warbs wants to play out from the back and Leistner wants to clunk people over the head and devour their raw flesh – new-age hipster manager meets old school rough-arsed centre half. I don’t particularly see that. Sure, Leistner’s miraculous 60-yard assist for Nahki Wells against Luton, which took the entire visiting team clean out of the game, was an exception rather than a rule, but I don’t see that Leistner is particularly awful at passing the ball to team mates relative to the other defenders we have. Hell, most of bloody Barbet’s Diags™ go straight into touch or through to the opposition goalkeeper. He’s certainly less problematic with possession and play with his feet than Joe Lumley, and there’s been no attempt to take him out into the woods late and night and let him run free in the same way we’ve done with the German.
I’m not in any way going to sit here and pretend that Leistner is an answer to our defensive problems, or even a particularly good Championship centre half. We conceded 70 goals in 2017/18 without him, 71 goals in 2018/19 with him, and 76 goals this season with him playing half the matches. He tends to play well two games, and then abysmally in the third, and his lack of mobility and speed can really become an issue – a penalty conceded at home to Portsmouth in the League Cup one of numerous “got there as fast as I could” incidents in his time here. His time at Cologne started with three wins and two clean sheets in his first three appearances but ended with no wins in the last nine, 27 goals conceded (more than two a game) and four conceded to Red Bull Leipzeig and six to Werder Bremen. But he is nasty, he is dominant in the air, he does bully strikers and he does the fundamentals of centre half play. At Millwall away he was recalled and put in a man of the match display under a physical barrage as Neil Harris fought to keep his job. He was decent again at Derby as we put in a strong recovery performance after a 4-0 midweek mauling by Forest.
QPR are a young, quiet, nice team. You can tell, you can see it, you can hear it, and I’ve been told it from a Championship referee as well. We concede far too many goals, we are far too soft, and while the record says Leistner isn’t going to improve the ‘against’ column much I do think we’ve been a bit quick to cast aside his physicality and brutishness, and should be leaning more towards his type than another artist or poet who wants to take elaborate free kick routines when we’re thinking about who we’re bringing in to play alongside Yoann Barbet for next season.
Others >>> Niko Hamalainen popped back from his Instagram holidays long enough to make 31 starts and one sub appearance (W10 D8 L14) for Kilmarnock as they finished eighth in the Grand Celtic Procession 2019/20. The defence he was part of conceded 41 goals across those 32 appearances (1.28 a game) but that was rather skewed by letting in ten in their final four games and prior to that they’d kept 11 clean sheets including seven in Hamalainen’s first nine appearances. That in the bank, he quickly jetted off around the world with another contract renewal in his pocket. Now 23 and with just six QPR first team appearances to his name, it feels like 2020/21 should really be the season we start to see some return on our ongoing fund of his lifestyle, and rather odd that we played ‘wait and see’ with somebody like Bright Osayi-Samuel’s deal while renewing Hamalainen’s each year few questions asked or appearances made.
Joe Gubbins sounds like the younger partner in a father and son chimney sweep business. Signed from Southampton’s academy on Charlie Austin’s recommendation, he made two very late substitute appearances against Swansea in the cup and West Brom on the final night, and seemed absolutely delighted about it, randomly on hand as the first man to congratulate Slaven Bilic on his scraped promotion to the Premier League. We wait to see and hear more from him next season – Gubbins that is, not Bilic.
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