Good news for Mark Hughes this week – he was not, after all, the first Premier League manager to lose his job this season. His former Chelsea teammate Roberto Di Matteo was instead 2012/13’s first coaching casualty, but although that has deflected the media spotlight away from Hughes, he remains under huge pressure. His failure to beat either Reading or Southampton at home was surely a sackable offence, and now Hughes faces a tough trip to Old Trafford, where he spent the best years of his playing career.
If there’s any reason for positivity, it’s in the fact Queens Park Rangers have played relatively well against big clubs this season. They were unfortunate to lose 1-0 at the Emirates to a last-gasp offside goal, they fully deserved their point at home to Chelsea, they were 1-0 up at half-time against Tottenham before losing 2-1, and played well in the 3-1 defeat at Manchester City. Nevertheless, there’s an obvious theme – QPR aren’t turning decent performances into results.
Those matches were essentially bonus games for QPR – they didn’t expect to pick up any points – but Hughes’ management style appears suited to big tests. Last season he led the side to survival with important wins over Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, yet lost to relegated sides Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves. He is a good reactive manager, able to stifle the opposition with intelligent tactics in one-off games, but has struggled in winnable games because QPR don’t have a natural way of playing.
This contradicts the fact that QPR are a decent side with the ball. They have the 10th highest average possession in the Premier League, have recorded the 12th most shots and the 13th most shots on target. These are not startling statistics, but they suggest that QPR should be a mid-table club, rather than sitting bottom of the league. More telling is the fact they’ve conceded the 17th most shots in the league.
Somehow, they can’t seem to find the balance between defence and attack – the only time they’ve kept a clean sheet this season, at home to Chelsea, they also failed to score. The only time they’ve scored two goals in a game, at West Brom, they conceded three goals. When one part of the side functions well, they suffer elsewhere.
In truth, there are major problems in both attack and defence. Going forward they’ve scored the joint-fewest goals with Norwich, and at the back they’ve conceded the second-highest number of goals behind Southampton. Hughes isn’t sure of his best formation or starting XI, and there’s a complete lack of cohesion across the side.
QPR simply have too many options – a huge number of players have arrived over the past year, and Hughes seems too tempted to change things after one bad result, rather than giving the same players a consistent run of games. He’s tried two upfront some weeks, then one striker the next. When using one striker, he’s played one solitary holding player behind two additional midfielders, then decided to play a 4-2-3-1 with a central playmaker. There’s little consistency – last week’s game against Southampton was the first time QPR have named an unchanged team this season, although the 3-1 home defeat indicates that the right balance still hasn’t been found.
If Hughes is replaced in the next couple of weeks, his successor should have two main priorities. First, there must be more organisation and structure without the ball. QPR’s defenders are perfectly competent as individuals – Ryan Nelsen is experienced and dependable, while Anton Ferdinand is a decent partner and Jose Bosingwa was winning the Champions League a few months ago.
The problem at left-back is a microcosm of the issues overall - QPR must protect the defence more effectively. Armand Traore lacks experience and gets himself into poor positions, so he needs protection. But so far this season, Hughes has used Junior Hoilett or Adel Taarabt drifting inside into the middle of the pitch from the left, leaving Traore exposed. Hoilett makes 1.4 tackles per game, Taarabt 1.1 – putting a fit-again Park Ji-Sung there would be a good bet, as he averages 3.6 tackles a game. There must be more structure without the ball, and the continual formation switches haven’t helped the lack of organisation.
The second priority is goalscoring. It’s often a lazy analysis to see a poor ‘goals scored’ figure and simply blame the forwards, but in this case, it’s fair comment. As previously mentioned, QPR have more than enough shots, and both Esteban Granero and Taarabt are in the league’s top ten players for ‘key passes per game’ – the chances simply aren’t being converted. Both Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, two players Hughes had at Fulham, are out of action for the foreseeable future. There’s now a huge onus upon Djibril Cisse for goalscoring – he’s netted just once from 24 attempts this season, a terrible record in front of goal.
In truth, this is a talented squad that is vastly underperforming. Hoilett, Taarabt, Granero and Alejandro Faurlin are excellent technical players, while Cisse, Bosingwa, Park Ji-Sung and Julio Cesar provide Champions League-winning experience. Hughes hasn’t managed to make the most of their talents, and even surprise performers last year, like Clint Hill and Jamie Mackie, have lost confidence. Something has to change – another transfer splurge is unrealistic, so the obvious next step is to bring in a new manager.