No Plan B: Holloway throwing on forwards and hoping for the best

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Queens Park Rangers 0-0 Burton Albion: QPR held to a goalless draw as Holloway goes direct

On Saturday, I was invited by a friend to watch the Championship encounter between Queens Park Rangers and Burton Albion. Despite it being a largely uneventful goalless draw, it was a good laugh and also served as an interesting insight into the puzzling footballing mind of Ian Holloway.

There’s a very likeable feel to Loftus Road. Crowds swarm with buoyancy and warmth. Long-time season ticket holders embrace with fellow fans sitting near them, as my friend did as we arrived. Rangers’ home form has been solid this season and there was a genuine sense of optimism heading into the stadium. I overheard a Rangers fan say to his friends, “I reckon 6-0 today, maybe 7.” He then quickly caveated that bold statement with, “…if we score an early goal that is”.

Despite the enthusiasm in the stadium, QPR looked out of sorts early on. Burton had travelled to Old Trafford in midweek for the third round of the Carabao Cup, and took a 4-1 shelling in the process. The extended run-out appeared not to have affected them in the early stages.

Sean Scannell, Burton’s number nine, looked the most likely to break the deadlock in the first half, and struck a post as Burton dominated the early exchanges. Ex-Blackburn and Liverpool full-back Stephen Warnock played the supporting role on Albion’s left-hand side, combining well with Scannell on several occasions.

Josh Scowen and Luke Freeman – two very tidy, metronomic ball-players in Rangers’ midfield – impressed throughout the match. Although a lack of guile shown from their teammates too often let them down in the final third. Jamie Mackie, the perennial hard-working non-thinker, went close midway through the first half, but it was ultimately small beans from the hosts.

Holloway rang the changes at half-time. Bright Osayi-Samuel, a forward-thinking midfielder, and Matt Smith, an archetypal target man, entered the fray. Rangers started to enjoy more possession, although Smith had mixed success with aerial duels from straight long-balls forward. It’s a real pet hate of mine, that – if you’re going to play the long-ball, at least do it at an angle to feed off the seconds balls. Simply launching the ball straight down the middle of the pitch is a centre-back’s dream.

With Nigel Clough’s men content to soak up pressure and earn themselves only their second away point of the season, Holloway’s response was to constantly shuffle the pack. To be less kind, he threw on forward-thinking players and hoped for the best. Perhaps it’s an over-reliance on his motivational man-management style – sacrificing a fluid tactical methodology by simply stirring a response in his players. Either way, his team looked as confused by his instructions as the fans in the South Africa Road Stand.

In fairness to the Bristolian, his hands were somewhat tied by injuries to key players, including Nedum Onuoha, the team captain. In his absence though, versatile summer-signing Alex Baptiste looks to have settled in well, and also nearly scored a left-footed wonder volley in the second half.

With 70 minutes on the clock, Idrissa Sylla, another number nine-type target man, was Holloway’s final roll of the dice. Unsurprisingly, Sylla and Smith found themselves occupying the same spaces. That, in a nutshell, is precisely the mystifying nature of the manager’s tactics. They have the fine creative talents of Scowen and Freeman, yet they consistently bypassed them with crick-in-the-neck, indiscriminate punts forward. Judging from the amount of times the wally behind me shouted, ‘Wew daan, Scowen’, the fans seem to like them as well. It just seems a waste.

At the full-time whistle, Rangers’ fans shuffled out of the stands looking underwhelmed by a mediocre second-half performance. Throwing on strikers when chasing a goal, with no clear sense of a game plan, feels old-fashioned. It’s the same school of thought which views a lone-striker as part of an inherently negative formation. Whether it’s a tactic reflective of the manager himself or an exercise in pandering to a disgruntled set of fans with the clock ticking down is unclear.

In the post-match interview with the BBC, the QPR boss said “I made what I thought were positive changes. Did it work? Nearly. We pinned them in during the second half and had more and more chances.” With only four shots on target in the whole match, ‘nearly’ is almost certainly over-egging the omelette.

Holloway also lamented a lack of ruthlessness, “We played into their hands. We’re notoriously rubbish at QPR at beating anyone we’re expected to beat.” It felt too passive coming from the man in charge of exactly that.

It’s a cliché often used, but QPR does feel like a family club. In the face of stubborn opposition, and with key players out injured, these fans really do deserve a decent plan B.

Chris Henderson

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