Story of a Match: 12/13 QPR (H)
After last week’s horror show, it was important that Norwich responded well in the first home game of the season; if not with a result, then at the very least a performance of note – and against the cash-splashers of QPR we certainly saw a lot to be encouraged by.
Just to get it out of the way – it probably wasn’t a penalty. Cisse and Bassong are battling for the ball and there is a coming together. Neither really ‘won’ the ball, and neither really seemed to be denied any opportunity one way or the other. But soft penalties do sometimes get given. Bassong joins a less-than-esteemed list of what seems like almost all our other defenders as we repeat last season’s opening run of conceding penalties every game. Add to the softness that Zamora is clearly guilty of encroachment as Ruddy’s excellent save fell to his feet to dispatch the rebound, and City fans are rightfully frustrated. This, admittedly, is something that happens more often than not on penalties, and rarely gets called out, but if the guilty party has clearly gained an advantage, as Zamora had, made evident by his scoring of the goal, you would hope that the referee would notice.
With that out the way (except for a quick mention of Rob Green’s handball) it’s on to more positive stuff. After being isolated last week, Holt was joined by Simeon Jackson in attack in more of a 4-4-2 formation. Holt and Jackson have been at the club for a few years now and have developed a good understanding of each other’s game – when to drop off, drift wide, or try and get behind the back four. New signings Garrido and Bassong, along with a returning Leon Barnett, replaced Tierney, Turner and Bennett in a complete overhaul of the defence, with only Russell Martin surviving. Bringing in a partner for Holt was a move everyone expected Hughton to make in a home game, but swapping three quarters of the back line is a slightly risky move – it could be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to one bad game, causing crises of confidence in already wounded players – but it could also be a bold statement of intent. You would assume that the signing of Bassong was one that had been in motion for some time given the non-assignment of the number 5 shirt, and Garrido was only just signed too late to play last week. These are Hughton’s own signings, and could be his preferred starters. In some ways, the sooner they get bedded in, the more settled the back four become as a unit and the more solid they should look. The return of Barnett is a bit more of a surprise, but many think he deserves as much chance as anyone else. He was dropped last year after making a couple of bad errors, but to be honest, every other one of our centre backs were equally culpable of similar, if not worse offences. Single errors, while often catastrophic, should get fewer and further between when a consistent back line are communicating well and know exactly what everyone else is doing.
Bassong and Barnett were in constant dialogue throughout the match, congratulating and applauding successful tackles and offside catches, and letting each other know when they were poorly positioned. It worked – QPR were caught offside 5 times compared to 2 last week at Fulham – and there were no similar failures in holding the line that led to chances on goal.
The defence generally looked a lot more steady (it couldn’t really have looked any less), with both Barnett and Bassong looking good in the air and on the ground. Bassong in particular was dominant in the air, winning almost everything, as shown in the diagram below. There is room for improvement, of course, and especially early on some of his clearances left a little to be desired, but so far he looks like a promising acquisition. Barnett was impressive; winning important balls, keeping his passing simple, and he was credited with 4 of the 5 offside decisions.
With a steadier defence in place, we were then in a much better position to be able to build attacks. We attempted to pass out from the back whenever possible, with Johnson and Howson alternately trying to come deep to collect the ball. Howson was particularly impressive, continually finding space and demanding the ball, and always looking composed when in possession. Johnson too, had a better game than he sometimes does on the ball, and the two of them together helped each others game – QPR could not always track both Howson and Johnson, and so more often than not one was creating space for the other, the diagram below showing where both midfielders received passes.
Able to build in this way, City’s transition between defence and attack was much improved. Howson seemed to be at the centre of almost all our good play, not just picking the ball up deep, but continually offering options all the way up the pitch. The table below shows the number of pass combinations – passes from one particular player to another for the whole game, and what’s notable is that Howson dominates the top of the table, showing his link-up with Martin, Johnson and Snodgrass, in both directions was continually successful, and highlights a clear progression between the defence, midfield and attack.
The two central midfielders did not shirk their defensive responsibilities either – both were willing to close players down and get tackles in. Howson had a couple of particularly memorable occasions where he chased back to win the ball. The ‘x’s below show where these two made tackles. They generally held their defensive shape well, and this meant decent protection for the back 4, and a restriction of good opportunities for QPR. Aside from the penalty incident, QPR created only 1 attempt on our goal from inside our area all game. It might ‘only’ have been QPR – but this is a drastic improvement from last week.
Even Junior Hoilett, who tormented us in both games against Blackburn last season, was kept quiet. Continually able to cut inside and beat Russel Martin, Hoilett was a constant threat for Blackburn, but yesterday he was completely unable to successfully take on any of our players in dangerous positions, as the purple hexagons in the diagram below show.
In the final third, City looked threatening, thanks to the wide play of Pilkington, and particularly Snodgrass, who had a great game and a much improved performance from last week. Our passing in the final third was focused primarily on the right hand side – with Howson on that side of the central midfield, and Snodgrass playing well wide, that is no surprise. These are two players that know each other well from Leeds of course, and it shows the importance of the players knowing each other’s games. Snodgrass was able to both go down the outside and cut inside, which is a nightmare for fullbacks who don’t then know which way to show the winger (unlike Hoilett and Russel Martin). His ‘dashboard’ below which diagrams many aspects of Snodgrass shows how he was able to take on and beat the full back (yellow hexagons) on a number of occasions, as well as drawing fouls and winning free-kicks (white triangles). He was also able to cut back inside, where he had good shot which was well saved by Green, and the blue passing arrows show how he was able to spread the play across to the other wing. With our attacks largely focussed down this right hand side, it of course means space is generated on the left, where a promising-looking Javier Garrido was getting forward and put a couple of good crosses in, and an also effective Pilkington was operating – most notably for the goal.
A slick passing move spread the play from the right hand side over to the left where Pilkington chipped up a perfect ball for Jackson to nod home. Worth noting here I think is a great run by Grant Holt to the near post, while Jackson checks his run back square. Holt, clearly the dangerman in Anton Ferdinand and Clint Hill’s eyes, pulls both centre-backs with him, leaving Jackson in plenty of space, with only a despairing Traore at left back trying to get back to cover him. Holt actually ends up past the goal-line by the time the ball is in the net, with Hill and Ferdinand helpless.
Holt was able to have a decent game all round, with an effective partner in Jackson and good support from the wide men meaning he wasn’t just left fending off scraps. He played intelligently, drawing a lot of fouls around the box. He caused Clint Hill in particular all kinds of problems all first half, so much so that Mark Hughes opted to replace him during the interval, after he was penalised for four fouls, one of which he was booked for, and a couple of other incidents which he could be considered lucky to have got away with. It certainly says something that QPR’s three substitutions were a centre-back, a fullback and a defensive midfielder.
But for all the pressure and possession, unfortunately we weren’t able to find a breakthrough, despite a number of decent opportunities, notably headers from Snodgrass and Russel Martin. So there is still a way to go. It does seem though that this is starting to look like Hughton’s team, that we’re starting to develop a formation that might work, and that the players are starting to gel within that system. It looks like we’re on the way, and we’ll know by the time of the game against Tottenham need week exactly what squad we’ll have to work with.