Story of a Match: QPR
Colin came, Colin saw, Colin pissed off without any points and an appointment at specsavers. According to Mrs Doubtfire, QPR got mugged. But is that the case? Exactly how did the team with 17 shots on goal beat the team with 13 shots on goal 2-1?
We were better than them
More or less. I could just leave this match review there, but I feel like illustrating my point with pictures. Now, I don’t mean to say we were better than them for the full 90 minutes. We weren’t. QPR showed decent ability on the ball, not unexpected with Faurlin in centre midfield, and in Mackie/SWP had a couple of dangerous players, even if the latter did spend more time on his arse than his feet. I have to admit, I was wary going into the match having seen the lineups. Regular readers of this here award nominated blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Hoolahan and Fox, and I think they should generally be starting matches if they’re fit. You’ll also know that I have been highly critical of Andrew Crofts’ appearances so far this season, and a midfield that included Crofts, Johnson and Surman suggested a match where we would struggle to retain possession and may lose the midfield. While elements of this were true (we had less possession, for example), it wasn’t a killer blow. In fact, Crofts was hugely improved from his performance vs Arsenal.
The above is just a crude snapshot, but it illustrates a general point. Against Arsenal, Crofts is pretty out of his depth. He didn’t get on the ball much, didn’t offer a lot of help in winning it and was a bit of a bystander. Against QPR and, in fairness, against a team more down at our level, he was much improved, winning the ball in key areas and providing a solid body in front of the back four.
The first half was among the worst football matches I have seen in years, a drab experience of midfield ineptitude, set pieces and boredom. Ruddy wasn’t called upon to make a save until the 46th minute and Norwich deservedly led on the basis we had contrived to actually shoot at goal. A revolutionary tactic. The second half started slightly differently, however, as QPR raised their game and, with the introduction of Bothroyd for Hill, really began to threaten. They deservedly drew level with a goal that contained so many Norwich cock-ups it’s going to take four pictures to explain it.
Ignore the dumb facebook link. So, part 1. The ball comes into the Norwich backline, Tierney heads it down towards the box and Ruddy, as you can see, is on his way to come and pick it up. This is clearly news to Leon Barnett who puts his left foot into the ball and clears it all of 20 yards down the pitch. I don’t think any individual player takes all the blame here, but I’ve seen a lot of people point the finger at Leon and I don’t agree. If he hears a call from Ruddy to leave the ball, he can protect it and allow the keeper to come and collect it. He doesn’t, so he does what all good defenders do; clears. Unfortunately, his clearance didn’t go very far.
Part 2. Now the ball has been cleared and is at the feet of, I think, Faurlin. It doesn’t really matter. In front of him is the back four as well as two Norwich midfielders – neither of whom put him under pressure. In fact, the movement of Surman actually shows him into the middle of the pitch. He shows him into the space where a long shot would be most ideal, instead of pressing up close to try and win the ball, or trying to force him wide. This is just dumb. So now you’ve got some poor communication, a poor clearance and poor decision making to allow the shot to come in.
Parts 3 and 4. After being shown inside and invited to take the shot, Faurlin does, and cracks the post. Tierney, who was 10 yards deeper than Luke Young just seconds earlier, stands to admire the shot, showing the anticipation of a drugged up sloth in the process. Young, doing his best Russell Martin impression, is first on hand to slot the ball away, completely unchallenged as Tierney stood and slowly tried to comprehend the danger of losing the man you’re supposed to mark.
This is why we don’t keep clean sheets, and as long as we keep winning or stay above relegation, I don’t care all that much. But it’s the needless errors that have plagued the defence all season, showing the naivity of a bunch of players who, for 99% of the game, play outstandingly. It is a steep learning curve, and they get punished more in the Premier League than they ever did in leagues below, but until they learn to cut out these errors or judgement, we’ll always need to just score more than the other team.
Change in system
Which is what we did against QPR. Having conceded the equaliser, the game was poised until the introduction of Hoolahan and Holt. 3 minutes later, they combined to bundle in the winning goal. But that wasn’t their only impact. Norwich enjoyed a good spell once both men were introduced and it wasn’t just down to their individual abilities or the crowd suddenly being enthused. The change in system, from a 4-4-2 to the diamond, benefitted everyone. Crofts, Surman and Johnson looked more composed, Wes was able to attack freely and Holt put in a great cameo, bulling defenders and winning the ball high.
This can be seen the messy abstract art above. For the first 69 minutes, Norwich had a pass completion of 68% and no real focus. Some passes were played down the wings but neither Pilkington or Surman have bags of pace so there wasn’t a lot of joy to be had, and Crofts/Johnson in midfield were never going to dominate. For the final 20 minutes, we had a pass completion of 75%, prioriting the middle of the pitch, swamping out dangerous players like Faurlin and getting plenty of balls into the box. No one showed the strength of this system more than Wes, mind.
In his 20 minute spell, he only misplaced 1 ball. Only 1. All but 2 of his passes were in the opposition half, and he frequently got the ball into dangerous areas, either in the box or out wide, high up the pitch. It was the sort of performance he did so well at last year, because he had the safety net of 3 midfielders behind him. And these midfielders raised their game too.
As you can see, in the last 20 minutes, Johnson and Surman were hugely accurate with their passing. In seeing out a win over a rival, they were calm, composed and managed to find Norwich shirts over and over again. Surman in particular was able to get the ball into dangerous areas, linking very well with Wes, while Johnson was more stable, sitting with Crofts and breaking up play.
Lambert has deflected a lot of the praise for the tactical change which saw us win the game, and he’s half right to do so. The players out on the pitch are the ones who worked hard for the result – harder than QPR who were lethargic most of the game, really lacking the missing Barton. The players worked well as a team and, despite the mistakes for the QPR equaliser, defended well throughout. Ruddy didn’t have a great deal to do and the QPR strikers had afternoons to forget. But it’s worth noting Lambert’s contribution, because it was his decision to adapt the shape on the pitch to one that players like Surman, Wes and Crofts are all comfortable with. When SWP was taken off, most of their wide threat was missing, and this tactical switch saw us get the goal then see out the victory. It probably won’t be a formation we can try against a lot of teams, but against one that is at our level, against players we’ve seen it work against before, it was the right decision and the players stepped up. Which is nice, because the match really was boring as fuck for a good hour or so.
Credit also has to go to the so far unmentioned Steve Morison and Simeon Jackson. While neither got goals, both had excellent games, working really hard off not a lot of service. It was nice to see Jacko get a start and hopefully he will get more chances as the season rolls along.
Chalkboards as ever come from the wonderful folks at the Guardian.