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Defensive set piece déjà vu – Analysis
Thursday, 11th Jan 2024 16:28 by Dan Lambert

Only Blackburn (eight) have allowed more goals from corners than QPR (seven), seven of the last nine goals Rangers have shipped have been from dead balls, and nine of the 14 conceded under Cifuentes have been from set pieces – Dan Lambert looks into what exactly we’re playing at.

It has been a tough spell of form since defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on December 16, which feels so long ago following the quick succession of Christmas and New Years fixtures followed by an FA Cup defeat to Bournemouth on Saturday.

Between that period of fixtures, the one main issue across the board that has cost us points in nearly every game is set pieces.

I probably should have started this piece with an apology- it’s been the third successive year I’ve highlighted our defensive set piece issues and had to analyse them, since I started analysing the tactical side of QPR, so it feels like our inability to defend corners, free-kicks and even long throws is ingrained in our DNA. As Cifuentes said in a post-match interview to beIN SPORTS after the defeat to Bournemouth he probably best summed up his tenure at the club by saying: “My life at QPR would be a lot easier without set pieces”, a line that no doubt every fan would share as well.

Defensive set pieces have been bad - we have conceded seven in our last six games. In terms of numbers for the league (we don’t get very far in cups anyway) we rank 18th for set piece xG having conceded 8.31xG, we have conceded 10 set piece goals (ranked 23rd) and have given up 95 shots from set pieces (ranking us 17th) so a collective grim ranking in all of those departments. I understand statistics aren’t for everybody and aren’t there to be superior to what we see on the pitch, but these numbers certainly match up to what we’ve seen in the last six games to therefore give us a better overall picture of how bad we are in that department.

A lot of the goals do look laughable, comical or even just stupid defending but there are some noticeable issues in there that could be the difference in clearing up this mess.

Hillsborough horror

Sheffield Wednesday’s set piece goal came in the dying minutes of injury time, which rather highlighted our lack of willingness to defend a draw, and also Sheffield Wednesday’s desperation to pick up some wins.

A deep defensive set-up. Four zonal including one on the post, three man-t- man on the edge of the six yard box, with two on the edge.

Second phase of the set piece – Bannan 1v1 with Chair, the defensive line is higher and a bit more chaotic.

Bannan makes enough room for delivery. An issue with the back post defending in this instance.

Steve Cook is in front of him, allowing the attacker to jump all over him when the ball is delivered. In theory, he should be more goal side to the attacker, attacking the ball from a deeper position with better force than jumping flat footed.

The ball ricochets off the post and Wednesday are quicker to anticipate the ball, an issue that has been lacking in this team for some time.

A mixture of poor individual defending and a collective lack of desire to react to losing the first contact and connecting with the second ball.

At least this one wasn’t a corner

As for Southampton, a set piece goal was the deciding factor between a point and none, this one being a deep free-kick.

More of a man-to-man approach with free players along the line. Southampton have two players spare on the edge of the box, whilst we have a defender as a one man wall, and one deeper (highlighted) to cover the distances between but stay in line to Kyle Walker Peters.

The wall really does seem questionable when the delivery is a left footed inswinger into at the very least the penalty box, so it seemed a waste of a body in this scenario. Had Willock (highlighted) been slightly deeper he’d have covered Adam Armstrong’s flick-on from both in front and behind him.

Willock is basically void in the situation now, Paal loses the flick-on to Armstrong because he’s too deep in his positioning and Harwood Bellis has got goal side of Reggie Cannon at the back post 1v1 with lots of space to attack.

Another issue that’s highlighted is we have two spare players amongst the crowd in the box, and with them being to see the flick-on coming, there’s perhaps an element of hindsight to suggest they should try and drop the line and protect the space behind the defensive line.

Harwood-Bellis slots the ball into the far corner for the decisive goal in the game.

A rather simple move from Southampton, but one from a QPR POV where if we tweak the starting positions and react to in game circumstances that the goal is avoidable. It is worth saying Cannon should do better in his 1v1 duel against Harwood-Bellis.

Boxing Day knock out blow

Onto Millwall, and a goal that just killed the game off as Millwall score from a corner in added time - another stoppage time goal conceded, perhaps highlighting a theme across a lack of late concentration levels?

4v4 on the edge of the box for the runners. An inswinging delivery so one likely to be closer to the six-yard box. Milwall have a player on the keeper, and again we have four zonal, one of which is on the front post.

Interestingly, although we have good enough coverage across the six yard box numerically, they end up scoring at the back post.

The group split- two attack the front post, one centrally and the other the back post.

Begovic is overly aggressive in trying to claim the ball, it passes Nisbet centrally leaving us 2v1 at the back post to clear the ball.

To no one’s surprise we lose the duel and Murray Wallace scores to double Millwall’s lead.

A series of errors starting with Begovic’s over-aggressiveness and then an inability to win duels showed a level of stupidity but also a lack of desire to want to defend our goal properly. A few themes are starting to occur here: a lack of desire to be first to duels, and conceding very late set piece goals.

New Year, new me

New Year, new QPR (we hoped). We faced a Cardiff side who weren’t brilliant for the gulf in level/points between the two sides this season. The game finished 2-1 to Cardiff, and both of their goals were from set pieces, infact both were from corners but more importantly the goals were the difference between us drawing or winning. The cliché of set pieces being a fine margin are really ringing alarm bells throughout here, they can make a huge difference in game state.

Similar set-up to usual, this time two zonal, one on the post and man-to-man centrally where Cardiff’s attackers are situated. As highlighted, one of Cardiff’s players has attacked the front post which turns out to be a decoy to draw the man and create the space for Goutas to attack.

Goutas rises higher than his marker (Larkeche) and Dunne who tries to attack the ball as a zonal marker.

It’s an interesting approach deployed: a mismatch in height for player markers (Goutas v Larkeche) with the height we do possess used zonally with the aim of connecting with deliveries. Both were unsuccessful, particularly as Larkeche would be deemed useful to act as a blocker to give Dunne time to clear the ball.

Goutas scores past Begovic because of course.

The second goal was very similar to the Millwall one where we again see Begovic’s aggressive tendencies in positioning and coming out to claim the ball, which results in the goal being quite open for Cardiff to take the lead late on.

Similar set-up to the first goal with the runners central, three zonal and one on the front post.

One attacks the front post, one the back post and one centrally. No news here.

Begovic comes out for the cross and misses, with a Cardiff player rising at the back post

Perry Ng gets contact on the cross and scores into an empty net. Again a small man marker (Kolli) with the height (Clarke-Salter) left to mark zonally and both failing.

A second goal where Begovic has been over aggressive when coming for crosses and has been unsuccessful which has cost us in games, but another instance where we have a 2v1 in our favour at the back post (Millwall as well) and we lose a duel to an opposition player - desire has to be a factor in a lot of these goals.

Bournemouth seen film

The final set piece goals conceded are Bournemouth, where similarly to Cardiff we concede two set piece goals in a game. The difference here is both of Bournemouth’s in this game were of different variation, rather than Cardiff where it is just bog standard defending with the ball delivered into the central areas and us not dealing with it well (rinse and repeat).

The first set piece goal is from a short corner routine. Scott plays it into Billing, everyone is within the six-yard box to create space/separation for runners on the edge of box.

Billing draws out three QPR players, there’s space to lay it off edge of box and Tavenier times his run to meet the pass.

There could be arguments made that Field could have closed the space quicker, and Dozzell could have come across to block the path of Tavernier’s shot.

Tavernier slots past Begovic to make the score 2-1.

Now as mentioned there are questions marks over players closing/blocking the space to give Tavernier a harder task of scoring from the pass and run he made, but the initial mistake is Tavernier is lost by Armstrong and doesn’t stop or track his run therefore Tavernier has time and space to make contact with Billing’s lay off.

As for the second goal, it was a pretty simple move…

Alex Scott delivers again this time to the front post with height, we have one player on the front post- start point is deep again as everyone is surrounding the keeper.

Two things worth noting in this set-up. Firstly, Billing has got goal side to his marker meaning we are wrong side on him and with his height he can block our defender out of the way. Secondly, the goal scorer Keiffer Moore is in front of his marker meaning from a starting perspective we are already on the back foot.

The defender on the front post is unable to win contact to the ball, Biling blocks his man to produce the space for the onrushing Keiffer Moore to head the ball and Begovic can’t get across in time to prevent Moore from scoring.

Final thoughts

Bournemouth have showed us how the use of height advantage (with Billing and Moore) created a simple set piece opening without a need for detailed movements or decoy runs. On our part the lack of awareness to get in front of your man to get first contact on deliveries is alarming. There are certain elements that can be coached within these mistakes like structure and marking schemes etc however winning first and second balls, and basic marking, are signs of a weak team, which we already had established but they’re habits we need to snap out of.

A lack of height perhaps in this team is an issue when considering how bad we are at defending set pieces, we aren’t a very tall team so that could factor in. However, when you look at the bigger picture for the goals we have conceded that doesn’t give you issues with winning 1v1 duels or even just competing with them, making correct decisions and being sure you can claim crosses (Begovic), and tracking runners and getting goal side of players - these are all basics that should be expected of players on top of the tactical details when it comes to set plays.

There are a few themes that can be noticed amongst some of the goals, and there are some obvious errors in individual moments. For the most part, the structure isn’t the issue, bar maybe the Southampton goal where it felt a little redundant. Unless defending set pieces are fixed we have little hope of progress. Goals have been an issue but not as much as this, and defensively in open play we are pretty sound too. To put into perspective set pieces have cost us nine points and an FA cup exit over the last six games and that matter of points takes us to 18th and fairly comfortably away from the relegation zone.

The reality of it means we aren’t, and maybe set pieces have caused Cifuentes some thinking to do with recruitment (if there’s any) in the January transfer window.

Links >>> More like this at Dan’s SubStack >>> What have we learned so far? >>> QPR’s attacking set pieces >>> Struggling to break down defences >>> Positive changes v Sheff Utd >>> Ainsworth’s structural headache >>> Suceeding without possession >>> Consistent, persistent failures without the ball

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Pictures — QPRPlusPass

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