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Friday, 8th Apr 2022 19:33 by Clive Whittingham

To see how much QPR have changed for the worse in recent months you need only look at the brief highlights of our thrilling 3-2 win against Preston from earlier in the season, prior to the return fixture at Deepdale tomorrow.

Preston (13-15-12 DWDLLW 13th) v QPR (17-8-15 LWLLLL 9th)

Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday April 9, 2022 >>> Kick Off 15.00 >>> Weather – Cold, dry, windy >>> Deepdale, Preston, Lancs

Anybody can be made to look good by a highlights reel. Just ask the decision makers at QPR around the turn of the millennium when the last £250k we had in the tank was spent on Sammy Koejoe, a ‘striker’ with an arse the size of one of those death star Tescos they stick on the side of provincial northern towns to kill off any lingering hopes of opening an independent business there. Nevertheless, I found the two minute clip of our game against Preston from earlier this season embedded below really rather a stark reminder of how much the team has changed for the worse over the past few months.

Preston have been a problem child for QPR ever since we crashed back into this division in 2015. For a long time their recruitment put ours to absolute shame, regularly scouting and signing players from lower divisions, Premier League reserves and academies, and Ireland who were far, far better than the mugs we were spending far, far more money on. Games against them would follow a very set pattern of QPR falling behind and then getting steadily sucked into the time wasting, injury feigning and dark art shithousing that is now endemic in the Championship but PNE wrote the fucking book on originally. Bar a double in 2019/20 when Ebere Eze was at his peak for us, QPR won none of ten meetings with North End post-2015, losing seven including four at Loftus Road.

Of late, things have gone rather stale at Deepdale while QPR’s transfer activity has come on leaps and bounds. Now it’s Rangers picking up players like Rob Dickie, Jimmy Dunne and Chris Willock as Preston spend a mad summer punting on obvious basket cases like Connor Wickham and Izzy Brown. The game at Loftus Road in October could have been a classic encounter between the two when defensive horror shows allowed Riis and Earl to score either side of half time. Cardinal sin, falling behind against this lot, and the cheating and gamesmanship ramped up immediately, with Sean Maguire in particular spending more of the game sitting down and demanding cards, stoppages and treatment than he did running about. Rangers, however, fought back, in really quite exhilarating and fine style, to win 3-2 and it’s the manner and style of the goals that I want to look at ahead of the return fixture tomorrow.

The first is all about the players we’re now missing. When people are coating off Warburton and demanding a change, it’s always worth bearing in mind the man has lost four senior goalkeepers at the same time – which is pretty unprecedented. A few of you pulled me up on saying Kieren Westwood should have saved the goal at Sheff Utd during the week – as David Marshall surely should have goals against Blackburn, Cardiff and Luton before him. What neither you nor I talked about at the time is the difference that Sam Gallagher tackle on Seny Dieng has made to our ability to play out from the back. This goal, from Lyndon Dykes, starts with a typically commanding piece of goalkeeping from Dieng and then a quick release into attack – we’ve not only asked first Marshall to come into the team after no senior football since June 22, and then Westwood to do the same having not played at all since May 8, but also to participate in a style of football they were never really suited to in their prime. When we wonder why we pisball about at the back so much now, compared to then, it is worth remembering that we used to have a goalkeeper with outballs in his arsenal, and now we simply don’t.

Added to that, the final ball in the move is Chris Willock’s, and he’s now missing and missed as well – although this lousy run did begin with him still in the team. Again, Warburton and the club are copping stick for not “signing a fucking striker” in January (twas ever thus) and instead chasing a number ten in the form of Tom Lawrence and Jamie Paterson. Wouldn’t have minded that cover for Willock’s injury and Chair’s iffy form would we?

Here’s the second goal. Now, first of all, it’s from a well taken set piece – something else that seems to have deserted us rather. But I’m more interested in what goes on immediately afterwards. QPR want the ball back. QPR aren’t happy with an equaliser and a point. QPR still think they can win. There was such confidence about the team in 2021, such belief, such a relentlessness. Only friendlies, granted, but remember those performances against Man Utd and Leicester. We would camp in and around team’s penalty boxes in the final half hour of games and just keep tightening the thumb screws until they cracked and gave us what we wanted. We’d actually scored a brilliant headed goal from Lyndon Dykes just before this, very harshly disallowed for offside, off Rob Dickie surging forward and crossing, something the centre backs don't do any more but previously brought goals at Sheff Wed and Derby and a near miss in injury time at Blackpool. Now we look bereft and beaten as soon as we concede a goal, which on Tuesday at Sheff Utd was after just nine minutes. Now we struggle to get the ball in the opposition half and keep it there for any period of time at all.

Additionally, Preston are shithousing in the back of the net, because of course they are – trying to delay the restart, pretending to be injured, trying to induce a red card. And QPR aren’t having that either. I’ll repeat a line from my Sheff Utd report – QPR have gone quiet, meek, passive and nice again. There's more intensity at the Cleethorpes and District Knitting Circle than there was in our start at Bramall Lane the other night. The incident at Millwall where they refused to stop for our injured player but we said nothing about having to stop for theirs; the nonsense going on in the Peterborough game with the man from the Mega Bus waddling around and fake concussion substitutions taking place; the Fulham coach juggling the ball on the touchline; the Sheff Utd ball boys knobbing about – that nastiness we managed to develop last year is gone, teams are taking the piss out of us on a weekly basis and bar John Eustace and occasionally Sam Field we’re doing nothing about it. We’ve lost our voice and our edge. Warburton and his staff specifically telling the team about that Sheff Utd corner routine, and the players ignoring them and conceding from it after nine minutes anyway is a really bad sign attitude wise. While it's the manager that gets all the grief and loses his job, this is all on the players, who owe their boss better for his steadfast support of them and constant demand they be respected and credited for their efforts.

Some other factors outside of the manager’s control. We’ve lost key players to injury, with that results have dipped, with that confidence has drained, and this can quickly spiral in a tough run of fixtures bunched close together. The squad is small and was reliant on a group of senior players who have all, for one reason or another, hit the wall at the same time: Johansen and Austin were talismanic in the second half of last season, were signed (to universal approval) at an expense that took up whatever budget we might have had to spend in January, and have tanked; Lee Wallace was key to the back half of last season and Albert Adomah to the first half of this but have both hit a wall in recent weeks. That's the budget we're working to.

However, even allowing for that you shouldn’t be getting your arse handed to you by Barnsley and Peterborough. To go from that team we see wrestling around in the back of the Preston net to the one we see now is always going to encourage conspiracy theories that "something has gone on". You have Austin’s wife Tweeting angrily during the Sheff Utd game then thinking better of it and deleting; Dom Ball feeling the need to state his availability on social media as one of several regulars from 2021 who have been sidelined in favour of loan players; when I had a post match vent about our propensity to bore everybody’s tits off knocking the ball around at the back it was liked by, among others, the club’s owner Ruben Gnanalingam; when another account Tweeted that they now couldn’t wait for the season to be over because they were finding the whole thing “draining” that was liked by Jimmy Dunne. The xG evangelists will tell you we were overperforming in the first place – and you didn’t need to be a stats geek to come away from Bristol City, Birmingham, Coventry and other games thinking we’d been very fortunate to win - but the fall off has been so much more dramatic and abrupt than that you do wonder what else there is to it. Again, just look at that clip above. Then watch this, here’s the third goal…

I mean, some said I was a little harsh on Lyndon Dykes midweek. Certainly when you look at the physical shape and contribution of Austin, who’s meant to be the senior man and talisman for the team, only interested in coming back here if we’re “serious about going for promotion”, and more recently taking to social media to try and rally the crowd again, a project player like Lyndon has nothing to be ashamed of. Nor really when set alongside the much more experienced and well remunerated Andre Gray, who like Austin and Dykes can justifiably point to poor quality and quantity of service, but still seems to rather turn up and play when he feels like it which, at the moment, is about one game in four. But I do think Dykes looks far happier playing for Scotland than us, and when you compare his contributions in the last two matches to what we’re seeing here in this clip it’s just night and day isn’t it? Where’s that guy gone?

In general, just look at the speed of these attacks. Look at the amount of men committed to them. The tempo. The ease at which we're getting over the halfway line and in on a scattered and retreating defence.

To a certain extent, expectation is the thing that’s potentially going to cost Mark Warburton his job here. We had such a terrific 2021 that if we’d spread it from August to May instead of January to January we’d have been pushing for automatic promotion, and so the expectation grows that this is what we’re going to get. The players and manager, in the summer, did not shy away from publicly stating that’s what they were going for but the budget says we should be about where we are in the league now. Perhaps if we’d bobbed around this point all season we’d now be looking at it with six games to go, half a chance of the top six, as another decent season of steady progress. Certainly not one that should cost the manager his job, particularly when, like I say, a small squad of players has had to come through a fair deal of unusual adversity. You wouldn’t expect four goalkeepers to get injured, your two marquee players to tank to the degree they have, people like Wallace and Adomah to go from there to here, your player of the year to blow his hamstring out and so on. Luton and Huddersfield have done well on limited resources, as Barnsley did last season, but in the main the teams above us are the teams that should be above us based on wage bill, and there are several below us spending vastly more as well – West Brom, Stoke, Reading etc.

The drop off, however, has been so dramatic, the performances and results against piss poor teams like Hull, Cardiff, Peterborough and Barnsley so stark, that it feels like something more is wrong. It would be nice over the remaining games, starting tomorrow, if we could just see a little bit more of the elements present in those three clips to reassure us it’s not. Would go a long way to keeping the best manager we’ve had since Neil Warnock in the job he deserves to keep as well.

Links >>> Stick or twist – Column >>> Lowe rebuild – Interview >>> Imagine the possibilities – History >>> Harrington in charge – Referee >>> Official Website >>> Lancashire Telegraph – Local Press >>> From The Finney – Blog >>> Deepdale Digest – Blog >>> PNE Online – Forum

Below the fold

Team News: As we know, QPR remain without the four first choice senior goalkeepers – Seny Dieng, Jordan Archer, David Marshall and Joe Walsh – so Kieren Westwood continues to deputise. Chris Willock, player of the year elect, is also done for the season. In the pre-match Warbleton there was mention of four or five more struggling after the latest midweek defeat at Sheff Utd however Moses Odubajo, who missed that trip for personal reasons and is one of the few players we have in reasonable form, should be back for this one. Stefan Johansen is also said to be fit for a return.

Liam Lindsay spends match two of two on the naughty step after a sending off in the recent loss at Wayne Rooney’s Derby County. Ched Evans missed out midweek attending a feminism rally at Durham University, but he’s available again for this one. No further injuries from that triumph over the Tangerines though – Greg Cunningham coming through 73 minutes of his first game in two months after a calf strain unscathed. Ali McCann, an eye-catching summer signing from St Johnstone, replaced him there and has only made 12 starts in the Championship so far, mostly in that makeshift wingback role with regular QPR scourge Daniel Johnson, former Rangers’ transfer target Ben Whiteman, and Alan Browne being the preferred midfield three.

Elsewhere: Exciting round 698/736 in the Mercantile Credit Trophy begins tomorrow lunchtime with Sheffield Red Stripe hosting Bournemouth. Much of the clever money going the way of Paul Heckingbottom’s team has been based on five of their last seven fixtures being at Bramall Lane, while Bournemouth’s faltering stumble towards the line is not aided by the amount of games they’ve got to squeeze in still (eight), the proportion of them away from home (six of nine) and the quality of the opposition (Boro, Coventry, Fulham, Swansea, Blackburn, Forest and Millwall lie beyond this one). A 2-0 midweek defeat at Steve Bruce’s West Brom does not auger well but they have played two games fewer than their immediate chasers Luton and Huddersfield. Not, though, than Nottingham Forest who are eight points back, also with eight to play, and that meeting at Dean Court in the final midweek of the season looming large.

So, let’s say Sheff Utd do their fellow chasers a tidy and knock Scott Parker’s side over to begin the weekend, who’s where looking to capitalise? Sporting Huddersfield and Lutown, sitting third and fourth, go last as this week’s Monday Night Football. Florist can climb above both of them on Saturday afternoon by beating Birmingham at The City Ground, and frankly I can put together a team from the regulars in the Crown and Sceptre who could beat Birmingham at the moment. Boro and Blackburn are the immediate play-off chasers in seventh and eighth, both on 62 points and two shy of Florist and Sheffield Red Stripe in fifth and sixth. Boro are at home to Hull while Blackburn face Blackpool – a pair of home bankers, if somebody could remind Rovers what the posts with the net hanging on the back are for.

QPR can’t move up with a win this weekend, but could drop three places with a defeat depending on the outcome of Wawll’s (tenth) home banker with Barnsley, West Brom’s (eleventh) meeting with Stoke and Coventry (twelfth) away to Tarquin and Rupert on Sunday. Fulham, now 17 points clear of third, in all likelihood promoted within the next week.

At the other end it’s also pretty much all over. Peterborough are bottom and ten points adrift heading to Bristol City, Wayne Rooney’s Derby County have a gap of nine to make up and have lost eight straight away games prior to a visit to Swanselona this weekend, Barnsley probably blew their last chance by conceding a late equaliser to Reading last week – there are now eight points between the two with Barnsley heading to The Den and Reading hosting Cardiff.

No midweek games but everybody plays Friday and Monday next weekend. Fun for all the family.

Referee: New Premier League referee Tony Harrington, last seen with us in our 2-0 home loss to Stoke in December, gets this date – he’s had Preston more than any other team bar Blackburn. Details.

Form

PNE: Preston are thirteenth with 54 points and a record of 13-15-12, which really tells you everything you need to know about this most midtable of teams. They have never once won or lost more than two league games consecutively this season. They arrive into this game on a ‘run’ of five wins, six draws, and four defeats. No team has drawn more than them (15) this season – even Millwall (13). Even Millwall. Nine of those draws have come at Deepdale, easily the highest total in the division, although that does mean they’ve only lost three times here – only West Brom (two) have lost fewer home matches. Only one of those home losses – the surprise 3-2 set back against Reading – has occurred since Ryan Lowe took over in early December. Under him PNE are 7-9-5 overall and 3-5-1 at home. Cameron Archer has gone rather under the radar as a really superb loan signing made by a Championship side in the January transfer window. He’d already scored hat tricks for Aston Villa against Barrow and Burton and a brace against MK Dons in cup competitions in the first half of the campaign and his winning goal against Blackpool in the first league Lancashire derby at Deepdale for a decade was his sixth for PNE in 12 starts so far. It was also only the third goal Preston have scored in the first half of a game since Ryan Lowe took over as manager on December 7 – 20 league and cup games ago.

QPR: QPR have lost six of their last seven, and nine of their last 13. The scale of the decline stark when you consider that even five games ago, when they surprisingly won at promotion contenders Luton, they moved back up to fourth in the table. Four consecutive defeats, the last two of them without scoring, have dropped them to ninth, five points away from the play-off places with six games to play. They have registered just five shots on target in those four games. They can go as low as twelfth if results don’t go their way this weekend. The 3-2 win at home to Preston in the first meeting was part of a near-club record run of scoring in 32 consecutive games, and they also scored in 22 consecutive away matches spread across last season and this. They have now failed to score in seven of the last 15 games, including the last two. The Sheff Utd defeat was their sixth defeat from seven away games, having won five and drawn one of the previous six. They have failed to score in five of those. It took until September 18 for QPR to lose nine times in 2021 and having matched that by April 5 during the week they could potentially reach their previous year-long total of 14 in the six games that remain over the next four weeks. Only Peterborough (six) have fewer points than us (eight) in the league since the end of January, and three of those came in their visit to Loftus Road. Rangers are unbeaten in their last two visits to Deepdale – a 0-0 here last season on Anthony Gordon’s birthday, and a 3-1 Ebere Eze-inspired success with ten men in the final match before the Covid-19 pandemic hit – having failed to win any of their previous 13 visits going back to 1980 (D6 L7).

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. Even ever the optimist, and reigning champion, Mick_S is losing faith…

“I’ve tried to be positive regarding the downturn at Rangers in terms of predictions/goalscorer, but it’s clearly not happening. Sorry to say that I’m going for Preston this weekend. No point going over too much, but we can’t score. So, sorry to say, 0-2 Preston.”

Mick’s Prediction: Preston 2-0 QPR. No scorer.

LFW’s Prediction: Preston 1-0 QPR. No scorer.

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Phil_i_P_Daddy added 20:10 - Apr 8
Whilst we’ve ‘lost’ four keepers to injury does anybody really think we’d be any better placed now if we’d had to rely on Archer or Walsh?
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Northernr added 20:14 - Apr 8
No. But I think we definitely would have been if Dieng had stayed fit, and it's incredibly difficult to have to rely on two goalkeepers who hadn't played for so long prior to joining, and signing two players in a rush because they're free and available rather than because they fit the style (which they don't).
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Myke added 23:16 - Apr 8
Great article Clive and the points you made are starkly backed up by the three goal clips. Only thing I disagree with is the goalkeeping playing out from the back thing. Just taking the Sheffield game as an example, yes Westwood went long many times and Dykes won f**k all in the air (although to be fair Egan is a fine defender at this level). But he went short several times too, to any of the back three, but particularly Dickie, who immediately either gave it back to him, or to Dunne et al, like it was an unexploded cannon ball. The problem is not with the distribution form the keeper, the problem lies in an unwillingness of the recipient to be brave and try to break the lines further forward.
We made errors early on in the season either with wayward passes or getting caught in possession (Dickie v Bournemouth after we bossed the opening 10 minutes comes to mind), but it didn't seem to deter us from going again. We heard Warburton talk about being brave in possession, while being pragmatic enough to accept that at times it would cost us goals, or at least chances.
So now, one of two things has happened; either we are a lot less brave and nobody wants to accept responsible for making that 'risky' (but telling) forward pass, or we are pressed further up the pitch and more aggressively than we were early in the season. It could be a combination of both. In the clip of the first goal, fair enough a great ball bowled out by Seny, but Willock was in aces of space, with nobody attempting to close him down. Obvs Willock is a huge loss (we have lost two big players to unpunished fouls), but we either are not being afforded that kind of space anymore (Amos' goals v Reading and Peterboro, the last occasions we seemed to have unlimited space in the middle of the park) or we are not being brave enough to commit ourselves to these kind of penetrating runs that strike fear into an oppos defence. Whatever the reason, I don't think the fault lies in the keeper's distribution.
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Northernr added 06:58 - Apr 9
Well I agree with you on the centre backs not going forwards and being brave any more. The disallowed Dykes goal in this game came off Dickie surging forward and crossing, which he just doesn't do any more. Dykes should have scored last minute at Blackpool from the same source.

But I disagree about the keepers. How many times have you seen Westwood or Marshall play that low trajectory ball out to the wing backs wide on halfway? Cuts out the back three entirely, gets us out and on the attack. Dieng is perfect at it, these two can't play it at all. Contributes to us getting trapped, contributes to the wing backs not being as high up the pitch. Not their fault, they just can't do it, and never could. Nor the managers' fault, he's had to source emergency keepers in a unique situation.
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davman added 09:30 - Apr 9
The home game was one of my faves this season because it was against THEM and we went behind and still beat them. Dykes' assist was the best thing he ever did for us...
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Rodney added 09:57 - Apr 9
Clive, I like the analysis and the clever use of the home game against Preston as evidence to support it. These are persuasive reasons for our decline but, like you, I have this lingering feeling that "something more is wrong" too. Nevertheless, I feel that Warburton has done so many things right during his tenure, I want to stick with him rather than revert to the hire and fire approach that worked so well for us in the past (sic).
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TacticalR added 15:00 - Apr 9
Thanks for your preview.

Maybe it's a combination of the two things: objective factors such as the number of injuries to key players, and subjective factors such as a loss of confidence, or the team being disturbed by the January signings, or something else we just don't know about.

Agree with Myke that teams are pressing us a lot more now than before.

We could do with a win, but even if we don't win any more matches this season, in my opinion we should not make a decision about Warburton based on our current loss of form.
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