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That point in the spiral - Preview
Tuesday, 5th Apr 2022 13:36 by Clive Whittingham

A week of three away matches at Sheff Utd, Preston and Huddersfield is less than ideal for a QPR side now tanking so badly the press think they might be about to sack the manager again.

Sheff Utd (17-10-12 DWLDWL 8th) v QPR (17-8-14 LLWLLL 9th)

Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Tuesday April 5, 2022 >>> Kick Off 19.45 >>> Weather – Grey, windy >>> Bramall Lane, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

As the QPR news-cycle of doom continues to spiral, defeat in a London derby and the threat of a managerial sacking are inevitable turns we must go through. Beaten at Forest as usual, another goalkeeper injury, best player killed to death, lose to the worst team in the league as usual, botch of the safe standing announcement, failure in a London derby as usual, bastion of truth and accuracy The Daily Mail says Warbs is off... At this football club, it’s a pretty standard week.

Losing three games in a row is not unusual for Mark Warburton at QPR – it’s happened five times in his three years here. Losing four in a row, as seems almost certain to happen at Bramall Lane this evening, would be unprecedented. Given that the team was fourth in the league and looking good for a push towards second after an unbeaten January of five wins and two draws, and is now ninth and descending so fast it’s whistling through the air after two wins and eight defeats from 12 matches, it’s inevitable that the performance of the manager and his position are coming under question.

As I wrote in this column coming into the February fixtures, QPR had worked themselves into such a fine position that they really only needed seven wins from the final 18 or so matches to make the play-offs given the historic totals required to get there. A regression to the sort of form being shown by a team like Hull in nineteenth would still have seen Rangers make the cut – Blackburn have won four out of 15 and failed to score in ten of those and remain sixth, probably three or four wins and a draw from their remaining fixtures away from the 72-75 points that usually gets you there. Instead, only rock bottom Peterborough (six) have taken fewer points than QPR’s eight since the beginning of February, and three of theirs came from a win at Loftus Road. That’s a hell of an opportunity - seemingly now – missed and given that QPR didn’t sell a player last summer and did push the boat out a bit wages wise in the transfer window to try and capitalise on the momentum of 2020/21 it’s only right questions are asked.

And so, as is the natural order of things in the sordid world of modern football, we arrive at the inevitable conclusion that the manager has to go. That he’s “taken us as far as he can” – just like Charlton used to say about Alan Curbishley when they finished eleventh and then thirteenth in the Premier League. It is never, ever, that he’s taken you as far as you can realistically go, it’s always that you would be able to go further if it wasn’t for the pesky manager. QPR Twatter is already in full swing sticking a pin in the list of managers they’ve heard of, who’ve done well at this level before, and are technically available and lo Daniel Farke is not only the answer to all our prayers but would absolutely love to come and jump at the chance to work at a Championship club sans-parachute payment that loses £1.8m a month and has to sell its best player every summer just to keep its nose above the waterline.

Nobody is infallible, or faultless, and there have been decisions made around team selections and substitutions that have puzzled you and I both. Players who were featuring regularly when the team was doing well have been jettisoned, often in favour of loan players who have been repeatedly given minutes regardless of their performance levels – not what we’re meant to be doing even if it does yield results, which it hasn’t. The scale of the collapse in form has had us all surmising that something out of the ordinary must have happened. Only the people within the club will know that, who’s to blame for it and what’s to be done.

It could just be the team was probably over-performing in the first place. The QPR Analytics account had been at pains to point out over and over again that the league position was higher than our statistics said it should be, but you didn’t really need to be an xG evangelist to come away from games like Bristol City, Birmingham and Coventry away a little perplexed as to how we’d managed to win given the performance levels – to a certain extent we’ve simply regressed to the mean, but that doesn’t account for the shambles we’ve repeatedly served up against Barnsley, Peterborough twice, Cardiff, Hull and some of the other worst teams in the division. Telling to watch Boro and Swansea show two of the teams we’ve lost to recently up for the dogs they are at the weekend. Even when we were winning through the first half of the season I remember writing repeatedly that I wasn’t really sure we were that good. West Brom and Reading at home, Boro away, among the few really, solidly convincing performances.

Injuries have also played a part. There can’t be many teams that have lost four senior goalkeepers at the same time, and run through two emergency short term deals in that position. The tremendous run of results put together through the back half of last season coincided with a wonderful run of player fitness, with hardly anybody missing games even at the height of the Covid pandemic. The medical team were rightly lauded. They haven’t become bad at their jobs overnight, but it was never likely to continue, particularly when reliant on so many over-30s like Albert Adomah, Lee Wallace, Stefan Johansen and Charlie Austin – who’ve all struggled badly at times this season and were key to the great form of last.

These things happen. Drops in form, bad luck with injuries, a run of refereeing decisions, a string of crap performances. Modern football’s knee-jerk to that is to sack the manager – something QPR have done 13 times in 13 years resulting in improvements, to my mind, on only three occasions (Luigi De Canio taking over from John Gregory and being given a fortune to spend, Neil Warnock arriving, and Warbs succeeding Schteve). It’s not a failsafe cureall by any means – for every Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest and Chris Wilder at Middlesbrough, there is a Grant McCann at Peterborough or Paul Ince at Reading, in every division, every season. When Warburton was last under pressure, Christmas 2020, the favourite for the job, and the name doing the rounds on Twatter, was Nigel Pearson – Bristol City continue to flatline more than a year on from taking that "opportunity".

Before you make the leap, it’s important to step back from the short term poor form you’re in and make some broader assessments because, like I say, sometimes all four of your goalkeepers get injured and that’s not something the manager should pay for with his job unless he’s been going around knee-capping them himself.

Broadly, has the manager done the job you brought him here to do? Warbs was charged with tearing QPR’s squad up entirely and rebuilding it on a smaller wage bill, including losing its star man Luke Freeman and several others, while maintaining and improving its Championship performance. He did that in his first season, then lost all of his best players from that team – Ebere Eze, Ryan Manning, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Jordan Hugill, Nahki Wells. The team has got better without them. Has the last 12 games been egregious enough to override that? I don’t think so. Remember, you may disagree with his team selections, you may hate his substitutions, but you have no idea about the medical and mental state of the players, who’s struggling, what the physios are saying – the player you think should be playing might be hamstrung. It’s really easy to sit in the stand and say “don’t change a winning team, pick your strongest team every week” without knowing anything about anything. Also, we hated Ian Holloway’s team selections and substitutions as well, and McClaren’s – whoever comes in you’ll be playing Monday morning quarterback with their decisions soon enough as well. That’s part of football fandom. Flavio Briatore thought Neil Warnock was “afraid to win”.

Broadly, is the team’s performance on par with its budget? Bar our disastrous time under Hughes and Redknapp, there’s usually no better medium and long term indicator of how teams are going to perform than wages paid. QPR are paying higher wages this year than they have for sometime, thanks to the headroom created by Ebere Eze’s sale, but they’re below halfway for payers in this division. On Saturday we lost to a team with a striker on north of £100k a week. Ninth may sting having been fourth for so long, but it’s just about where we should be. When people say “the board didn’t back Warburton in January” my counter argument was, budget and FFP wise, they couldn’t even if they’d wanted to given the outlay last summer (which we were all in favour of at the time). Like sacking the manager that’s no guarantee anyway – look at West Brom, who’ve been even worse than us since ‘signing a fucking striker’ for £8m in January who’s since managed two appearances and no goals. Whether it’s the board being tight, your opinion, or simple economic restrictions, my opinion, either way it’s not Warburton’s fault is it? Sure, it doesn’t forgive failing to win any of five games against Barnsley and Peterborough whose budgets are miniscule by our standards, and it is possible to out-perform as Luton are doing this year and Barnsley last. But, to a certain extent, he’s working with what he’s got here, and ninth is probably about fair for those resources.

Those resources would be the same for whoever replaces him. In fact, they’re probably going to be tighter still. The Eze money allowed us to go through last summer without a sale, and adding some proven players on big wages like Johansen and Austin – again, everybody was in favour of that at the time, not Warburton’s fault it hasn’t worked out. Those two being under contract long into the future is now a problem for us – whoever the manager is going to be. The accounts show that without the Eze sale we lose £1.8m a month, £22m for the season, and that will only be tempered to a certain extent by adding back on ticket and hospitality revenues of about £6m. In all likelihood, another big sale or two is going to be required before we can ‘push the boat out’ even to the extent we did this season again. Sadly the value of our best players is tanking along with the team by their non-performance recently, but over the course of Warburton’s time here a clutch of players have developed into genuinely sellable assets, way more than before when we were lucky to get a few million for Smithies or Freeman each year.

Those restrictions, coupled with expectation from the crowd that this is a club that should be pushing for the Premier League, doesn’t make this a particularly attractive job. I might be wrong but it’s why I find talk of Farke – who worked with parachute payments at this level previously, and regularly gets linked with Bundesliga clubs - and people of that ilk a bit ludicrous. Are they going to come here? Really? Maybe I'm wrong, maybe they will, but it doesn't seem likely to me. The Tottenham-Pochettino rule says never sack a manager who would be his best replacement, and if QPR had just sacked somebody else and were looking around for a replacement then given his record over the last three years you’d probably have Mark Warburton pretty high on your candidate list. Who are the realistic alternatives? Who would take the job? You have to ask yourself this before jumping on the Sack Warbs bandwagon.

Look, perhaps we have come to the end of the road and will shake hands in May. Having not shied away from setting expectations loftily this season, and been so high for so long, to crash the way it seems we’re going to will take some getting over for everybody involved and maybe a new face is what’s required to avoid that bleeding into next season. Worth saying, at this point, that while the fixtures look particularly unkind, playing a load of teams around us does mean we’re still well in with a shout if we can somehow reverse the form, potentially starting tonight. If it does sadly turn out to not be the end to the season we’re hoping for I’d be careful what we wish for from that point on.

The revelation this week that Warburton’s contract was improved in salary last summer, but not in length, and so he is coming to the end of his deal this summer, combined with the frankly rather bizarre decision not to deal with new player deals until the season is over, even for key men like Yoann Barbet, suggests something is afoot in the off season. Not a good something either. A manager going into that with his eyes wide open, who's dealt with it all and more admirably over the last three seasons, is not somebody you sack lightly at this point.

Links >>> Blackwell gets the sack – History >>> Bond in charge – Referee >>> Sheffield United official website >>> Bramall Lane ground guide >>> The Shoreham View – Contributor’s YouTube channel >>> S2 4SU – Message Board >>> Sheffield Star – Local Press

Below the fold

Team News: Stefan Johansen, whose fitness and form is becoming an enormous issue for a club that pushed the boat out with a three-year deal to bring him here last summer, will almost certainly miss out. He limped out of another poor showing against his former club Fulham at the weekend and hasn’t been able to do the Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday weeks for sometime in any case. Former Sheff Wed keeper Kieren Westwood will continue in goal with Seny Dieng, David Marshall, Joe Walsh and Jordan Archer all injured. Jimmy Dunne was left out at the weekend having been away on international duty but you’d think will surely be recalled along with Ilias Chair.

Billy Sharp, now 36, is top scorer here with 14 in the league and one inthe cup this season but did his hamstring against Barnsley so misses out. Fellow striker Tartan McPartick also missed the weekend defeat at Stoke but he could return up front for this one. Iliman Ndiaye missed out on the trip to the Potteries (lucky devil) for tactical reasons but given the poor performance served up by The Blades in Staffordshire he may come back in, particularly if McScotsman isn’t fit to start. Filip Uremovic was allowed to sign out of transfer window from Rubin Kazan because of the Russian attack on Ukraine, and awaits a debut.

Elsewhere: A collection of games in hand taking place in this bonus midweek set, though given the way Covid and the winter weather ravaged the fixture list during the winter that still means eight matches including our own.

Most of the good stuff is tomorrow including the game of the week between champions-elect Fulham and Chris Wilder’s play-off chasers Middlesbrough on Teesside. Second-placed Bournemouth, meanwhile, head to West Brom who lost for the eighth time in their last 14 games away at Birmingham at the weekend in a game that manager Steve Bruce said was the worst he’d ever seen. Given he’s seen every game Steve Bruce has ever managed that’s really saying something. Florist at home to Coventry rounds out an intriguing looking Wednesday.

A good deal more stodge around tonight it must be said. Swanselona should at least be full of confidence ahead of their trip to the Marxist Hunters following the 4-0 weekend demolition of Cardiff in the South Wales derby. Steve Morison, as it turns out, not quite the genius he’s been making himself out to be.

Boro showed exactly how you deal with Peterborough by smashed them 4-0 at the weekend, and you wouldn’t stake much against Lutown doing the same. The first league derby between Preston Knob End and Blackpool at Deepdale since 2010 adds some spice to an otherwise non-descript midtable clash. Reading’s annual ‘do just enough to stay up’ mission has a useful looking home game with Stoke.

Referee: Darren Bond gets his first QPR appointment of the season, first since last year’s 2-1 home win against Bournemouth, as the R’s head to Bramall Lane on Tuesday. Details.


Sheff Utd: QPR thought they’d had a bit of a touch when the original December 13 date fell by the Covid-side – the Blades were in the midst of a four-match winning run that included a 1-0 success at league leaders Fulham at the time. That was following the decision to remove Slavisa Jokanovic and appoint Paul Heckingbottom, and that has turned United from an also-ran into a play-off contender. They went from winning just four of their first 18 Championship games post relegation to four out of four and eight out of ten and ten out of 14. That run has subsided somewhat, with four wins from the last 11 games leaving them eighth, one point shy of the top six. The problems, though, have been almost exclusively on the road – since a win at Birmingham on the first Saturday in February they are without a victory in five away games at Huddersfield, Millwall, Coventry, Blackpool and Stoke. Ominously for QPR tonight, at Bramall Lane in ten matches going back to October under the previous manager. They have won seven of those ten, conceded goals in just two of them, in a run that includes a 4-1 win against Boro, 2-0 against Luton, 1-0 against Blackburn and 1-1 with Forest where they conceded an equaliser in the last minute of time added on. Only West Brom (12) have conceded fewer goals at home than Sheff Utd’s 13.

QPR: Rangers have now won only two of their last 12 games and lost eight. They are bottom of the Championship form table have five defeats in the last six games, and have slipped from fourth to ninth. Only Peterborough (six) have taken fewer points than QPR (eight) since the end of February, and the Posh have beaten Rangers in both league and cup during that period. Rangers have scored one goal or fewer in nine of those 12. Away from home they’ve gone from five wins and a draw in six trips to one win and five defeats from the last half dozen. The R’s haven’t kept a clean sheet in those 12 games, and have conceded 11 goals in their last five matches. Defeat tonight would be the first time QPR have lost four league games in a row since Mark Warburton took over.

Prediction: We’re indebted to The Art of Football for once again agreeing to sponsor our Prediction League and provide prizes. You can get involved by lodging your prediction here or sample the merch from our sponsor’s QPR collection here. Last year’s champion Mick_S says…

“Let’s have a go. To be honest, I have to fancy Sheffield, but once in the run in, we have to turn someone over against the odds, and perhaps more importantly, our rotten current form. A very optimistic and bonkers 1-2 Rangers. Dykes to score.”

Mick’s Prediction: Sheff Utd 1-2 QPR. Scorer – Lyndon Dykes

LFW’s Prediction: Sheff Utd 2-0 QPR. No scorer.

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Burnleyhoop added 14:07 - Apr 5
Another detailed and accurate report Clive. We should be more concerned about Warburton deciding to call it a day than considering sacking him. Good football clubs develop a strong, positive culture and despite our recent travails he has done exactly that. I cannot believe for one minute that our owners are even considering dismissal for all the reasons you describe above.

As for the next 3 games, we seem incapable of beating teams at the top or the bottom, but I fancy our chances more against the likes of Sheffield, Preston and Huddersfield.

As for tonight, Dykes and Gray up top and Thomas in behind should provide some energy and threat. Field and the steadily improving Amos to anchor the base of midfield. Find it odd that we are not using the pace and energy of McCallum over Wallace.


Harbour added 14:30 - Apr 5
Thanks Clive really puts into perspective where we are and what we have achieved so far with the scant resources available to us. To finally get a manager that develops our players in saleable assets cannot remember the last manager who did that. Here’s hoping MW is here next season the other other realistic scenario could be John Eustace. As for tonight hoping for backs to wall effort and at least a point.

Match82 added 14:45 - Apr 5
Do we think Warburton is simply going to do something different at the end of the year? He has form, he's already switched careers once, perhaps he's going to become a master carpenter.

It's always been more about the challenge than the money with him and yet another season in the championship might not be motivating for him any more. Might explain Eustace turning down the job earlier this year too if he's on a promise

062259 added 17:04 - Apr 5
An incredibly balanced and objective analysis of the situation. I could not agree more. Warburton has earned the chance to go again next season. If there is something going on in the background, of course, that changes everything. Match82's hunch is not too shabby, especially considering the shutdown of contact discussions you mentioned.

thehat added 17:11 - Apr 5

Great article Clive and agree with everything - Better the devil know and all that!!

Noelmc added 18:04 - Apr 5
Very well balanced article Clive and like you I'm still in the 'Warbs should stay' camp. However, if he fails to reverse our current decline and we finish in a much lower position than last year's 9th, I may have to think again as I always think managers should be judged at the end of a season.

Thanks also for still managing to inject some LOL lines into a mainly serious piece. I loved 'West Brom who lost for the eighth time in their last 14 games away at Birmingham at the weekend in a game that manager Steve Bruce said was the worst he’d ever seen. Given he’s seen every game Steve Bruce has ever managed that’s really saying something'. Brilliant!

francisbowles added 18:30 - Apr 5
Great analysis Clive. It would be useful for Sir Les, Hoos and the board to take on board the points you make before they make any drastic decision that could come back to bite us.

If Warburton has had enough of football management then so be it and we should look no further than John Eustace to try and provide some continuity.

TacticalR added 19:05 - Apr 5
Thanks for your preview.

A lot of our previously reliable players are either off form, or injured, or ageing.

A longstanding problem has been the lack of creativity. You can go back to the home game against Bournemouth in December, when a lot of posters noticed this:

We are a team that is very dependent on our creative players. The loss of creativity coupled with a lack of firepower has seriously hampered us.

The current discussion about Warburton in the forums is not that illuminating. Everything people were saying was good a short while ago (no injuries because of the medical team, signing players who got our season going in 2021) they are now saying is bad. We shouldn't make a snap decision based on this current run of form, or even our form for the rest of the season (which I don't expect to be very good). In my opinion you are right to focus on factors other than Warburton.

Loft1979 added 18:37 - Apr 6
Thank you. I have stepped back from my stance of several weeks ago. I am in the NW corner. There are a couple of whinges that linger. His fetish for older veterans despite his development friendly resume(?), and characteristic stubbornness. I am concerned that his dressing room is divided which is undermining his leadership.

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