When Mark Warburton was appointed as QPR’s manager last summer, after a poor 2019/20 season under Steve McClaren in which QPR finished 19th, one thing was certain for the upcoming season: whatever happens, it’s going to be ‘interesting’. That word entailed anything ranging from a car-crash season where QPR could potentially get relegated, a situation not unthinkable just two weeks before the start of the season in August where QPR were without a centre forward in their squad, to a potential promotion season for the Rs in a year without many obvious promotion candidates, with the exception of Leeds, playing Warburton’s free-flowing attacking brand of football along the way. Unfortunately, now that two thirds of the Championship season has been played, the past has predictably repeated itself, not just with Leeds seemingly bottling promotion but also with QPR having an indifferent, lower mid-table season, as has happened with them in all of their season in the Championship since their last relegation from the Premier League in 2015.
However, their position in the league standings (17th after the first weekend of February), does look average on paper, but in reality is unrepresentative of the relative excitement of their season so far, at least up until the middle of December. Their 1st half of the season was intriguing to the neutral and showed promise to their own fans, kicking off their campaign with an excellent 2-1 away at Stoke City, with young superstar Eberechi Eze scoring a sensational goal from a solo run. Performances such as these continued and QPR were firmly in the tight, albeit wide, playoff picture until mid-December hovering between the positions of 4th and 12th in the compressed Championship table. Going forward QPR were a cracking team to watch; the two centre forwards of Jordan Hugill and Nahki Wells, brought in just before the start of the season, were banging in goals for fun, mercurial winger Bright Osayi-Samuel lit up games with his pace and technical ability, with the jewel in the crown being Eberechi Eze, signed in 2016 at the age of 18 following his release from Millwall. Eze, an exceptionally versatile midfielder whose breadth of abilities and quality allow to play anywhere in the midfield, whether that be a dictating number 6, a box-to-box, a mezzala, a Segundo Volante, a wide midfielder- take your pick, however he thrives as an inside forward in a front four or as a number 10 behind the centre forward. His physical traits allow him to make driving runs from midfield into dangerous attacking areas, such as how he won QPR’s first penalty at an away game against Hull City in October, but often overlooked is his technical ability, with him regularly displaying his immense passing range in game, none more so than with a phenomenal assist for Wells to open the scoring in a 6-1 demolition victory at home to Cardiff City in early January, pinging the ball 30 yards onto a sixpence for Wells to easily nod home.
On the other side of the coin, as many times as QPR have dazzled this season, at least in examples such as that Cardiff victory, they have also been dreadful defensively, conceding 5 goals away at Barnsley in December (a side in the relegation zone) and didn’t pick up their first clean sheet of the season until the 7th of December against Preston, a run of 19 games, or to put that in other words nearly half the season, highlighting their defensive frailties. Their situation this season can be well-summarised by the Championship xG tables this season; they sit in 6th for goals for, a playoff position, and 5th for goals conceded (xGA), a position just two spots of above the relegation zone. An ‘interesting’ season indeed.
However, drip by drip the enthusiasm for this season among QPR fans has withered away, and now find themselves in yet another aimless season by February after getting knocked out of the FA Cup by Sheffield Wednesday in late January. Despite being in the playoff mix for the 1st half of the season, if anything it’s more likely now that they’ll now be brought into the relegation fight in the Championship, with Wigan, Stoke and Huddersfield all experiences upturns in both performances and results. The public attention on QPR has all but vanished after initial promise, which is a shame, more than anything, as this is a side that had the potential to be one of the stories of the season, and it’s frustrating to continue to see Warburton’s sides not make those few improvements needed to transform themselves from a middling side with an attractive style into serious promotion challengers.
Their flaws are almost entirely defensive, with the cracks gradually widening as the season progresses. They have only kept one clean sheet since the 11th of December, and this was only due to a missed penalty from Patrick Bamford for Leeds. They have only kept the same back four combination twice in their last seven games, unlikely to produce some much-needed stability and solidity to a leaky defence.
Yet a revolutionary change in team selection or tactics wasn’t necessarily needed from Warburton to start improving defensively (or at least to a level that would suffice), as the January transfer window represented an opportunity for QPR to bring in some defensive reinforcements to reinvigorate their season. However, not a single defensive player was brought in, a huge frustration for QPR fans who can see that their attacking output in games is still good enough to get themselves 2 to 3 goals per game, and even if this dropped off, attacking inspiration wouldn’t be too far away with Eze’s ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat time after time. In fact, the frustration among QPR fans only increases upon considering that they managed to keep hold of star man Eze in January, despite being courted by numerous Premier League sides. Going into January, it was clear that numerous defensive reinforcements were needed; Yoann Barbet was brought in from Brentford in the summer, who themselves, meticulous to the last, are always sensible when selling players and must have done so with Barbet due to doubts about his capability to be in a promotion-chasing Championship side. Most clearly however, the goalkeeping situation has been a massive Achilles’ heel for the Rs this season, with Joe Lumley starting the season as their number one choice however being benched recently due to a string of poor performances, and whilst Liam Kelly has been in reasonable form since coming into the side he is still adjusting to life in the Championship after signing from Livingston in the Scottish Premiership last summer, a division where the overall standard is considerably lower. The transfers were there to be made for QPR to address these issues; highly rated young centre backs in Cameron Carter-Vickers and Marc Guehi went on loan from Premier League sides to fellow Championship sides Luton and Swansea respectively, and other centre backs deemed surplus to requirements by other Championship clubs in January clubs could have also improved their defence, such as Terence Kongolo, capped four times by the Netherlands who joined Fulham on loan from Huddersfield. Similarly, the goalkeeping situation should have been more adequately addressed, missing out on Jordan Archer, moving to Fulham, as well as Jamal Blackman on loan from Chelsea, two goalkeepers who have proven their worth at Championship level in previous seasons.
QPR fans and external watchers alike know that all it would have taken for QPR to make a playoff push this season was an improved defence, and this could have been achieved in a short-term manner in January by bringing in reinforcements, even without a change in tactical approach from Warburton. For every moment this season where a change in form has looked on the cards, such as the 6-1 win over Cardiff which was followed upon by a 5-1 win over Swansea in the FA Cup, Rangers have come crashing back down to earth in following weeks due to their inability to be defensively solid, as shown by going 3-0 down away at rivals Brentford after just 33 minutes in the game immediately after their emphatic win over Swansea, and having an xGA of 2.6 last weekend against a Huddersfield side with one of the worst attacking records in the division. It has been a frustrating watch for me, a man with no affiliation to the side whatsoever, so goodness knows what it has been like for those going through the Loftus Road turnstiles every fortnight.
Now, as of matchday 32, QPR are on 39 points. The (exact) same as last season, and the (exact) same as the season before that. Eze and their attacking brilliance remain, but as do their defensive woes, cancelling each other out, putting them in the mid-table Championship mire, as it has done season, after season, after season…
xG stats provided by InfoGol and EFL Stats on twitter (@EFLStats). Images credited to Lancashire Live and QPR’s website.