There are many remarkable facts about QPR. It’s remarkable that despite being on paper the richest club the Championship has ever seen, manager Neil Warnock has apparently been given a relatively meagre ten million pounds to invest in players. Remarkable that they weren’t docked points for third-party shenanigans with Alejandro Faurlin. New regulations were put in place after the Carlos Tevez fiasco at West Ham, QPR were proved guilty of two charges, but received no points deduction. Even more remarkable is that Neil Warnock was manager of Sheffield United when they were relegated at the expense of West Ham, perhaps like a ref who knows he’s given a dodgy decision, they decided to even things up. Remarkable that they reportedly count amongst their celebrity fans Pete Doherty (Libertines), Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Mick Jones (The Clash) and Nick Cave. That’s one hell of an after-party right there.
From a more tactical point of view, QPR were remarkable last season for being the only team in the entire football league to play the same formation for every single league game of the season. That includes the lower divisions, where you would’ve thought 4-4-2 was the be all and end all. Of course QPR didn’t have the same playing staff every single game – that would be superhuman, but they lined using 4-2-3-1 every single game. I repeat: The same formation, for every single game. The only team to do this.
This tells us a few things about Neil Warnock. He’s confident in his system, he’s got the players to suit it, and he’s made it work. QPR were promoted as champions, 4 points clear of second placed Norwich.
Is it fair to assume that QPR will continue with their tried and tested formation? If we look at the promoted teams last time around – Blackpool, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion – we can see if their managers felt it necessary to adapt for life in the top tier, and if it was effective.
Blackpool were promoted via the play-offs. In their promotion year, they played an adventurous 4-3-3, and famously continued their swashbuckling style in the Premiership, gaining the admiration of plenty of neutral fans, but sadly weren’t able to last the course and were relegated.
Newcastle played a traditional 4-4-2 in their Championship winning season, and again, in 2010/11 continued to play for the majority of the games in a 4-4-2, but also notably switching to the not too dissimilar 4-4-1-1 for a fair proportion of matches.
West Bromwich Albion, another team famed for good passing football interestingly changed their most common formation from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 after being promoted. So, Blackpool gambled and lost, whereas Newcastle and WBA varied their approach and stayed up.
The two other teams apart from Blackpool which were relegated from the Premiership were West Ham United, and Birmingham City. Interestingly, both played a 4-4-2 for the majority of their games.
Much has been said and written about the death of the 4-4-2. Certainly it’s not a fashionable formation. The most popular formation in the German Bundesliga (By that I mean most commonly used) is 4-2-3-1; in the Italian Serie A it is 4-3-1-2; and in Spain, the most used formation in La Liga is, by an overwhelming majority, 4-2-3-1. A notable exception is FC Barcelona, who use a 4-3-3. Perhaps the lesson for Blackpool is, unless you’re Barcelona don’t try to play like them. The Premiership is the only “top” league to still favour 4-4-2, and with QPR, Norwich (4-1-3-2) and Swansea (4-3-3) making the step up, and two 4-4-2 advocated dropping down it’s likely that for the first time in a long time, 4-4-2 won’t be the most popular formation in the English top division.
Of course, numbers on a page tell a tiny part of the story. No system will work without good players. So have QPR got the personnel to stay up? Neil Warnock has astutely assembled a good mixture of youth and experience, and of flair and fortitude.
QPR have a very experienced ‘keeper in Paddy Kenny. He seems to have been around for ever, but he’s only 33, relatively young for a goalkeeper. Paddy has one years experience in the Premier League – unhappy memories of that controversial relegation with Sheffield United in 2006/7.
The flat back four also has some seasoned campaigners, notably at centre back – Fitz Hall and Danny Shittu have plenty of top flight games under their belt. “One size” has tasted the Premiership with several different clubs, as has Danny Shittu.
At full back, the team is given attacking width by Bradley Orr at right-back, who can also play right midfield. Kyle Walker – another attacking full back – was on loan at QPR for 3 months and impressed Neil Warnock to the extent that he is one of the players linked with a permanent move to the club, as is Emmanuel Eboue.
The two deep lying midfielders were most commonly the aforementioned Alejandro Faurlin, and Shaun Derry. This midfield pairing neatly encapsulates the blend of youth and experience. Derry, at 33 is one of the players whose place may be under threat from rumoured transfer targets such as Lee Bowyer, Jimmy Bullard and Jermaine Jenas. All of which have far more top flight experience and you’d have to say more quality about them too.
A 4-2-3-1 formation can be interpreted in different ways according to what sort of players you use in each position, and what you ask them to do. It is often used as a defensive set-up, with only one up front and two holding midfielders. However, out of that back six, you have an attacking full back, and a deep-lying playmaker in Faurlin. Neil Warnock also used very attacking players in the front four, playing accomplished strikers such as Tommy Smith and Jamie Mackie as wingers – pushing up to become inside forwards when in possession and attacking. Versatile winger Hogan Ephraim, who can play on either flank and is one to watch, had a lot of minutes on the pitch, as did Wayne Routledge. It’s not certain at the moment whether Routledge will be part of the squad next year. Up front is a target man – last season Heidar Helguson got the nod the majority of the time, and got 13 goals. Helguson is another with bags of experience, but at 33 his best years are behind him, and QPR have been linked with Andy Johnson and Robbie Keane. Helguson recently signed a one year extension to his contract, so if Warnock lands one of his rumoured targets, we may see Helguson used more as a substitute in the coming season.
That of course leaves the attacking midfielder role to be filled by the exquisitely talented Adel Taarabt. There almost seems to be a rule with exquisitely talented young footballers that states that they must also be of questionable temperament. This can certainly be applied to Taarabt, he failed to make an impact at his first British club – only playing 9 games in three seasons under Juande Ramos and Harry Redknapp, and famously he retired from playing international football at the ripe old age of 22, after being asked to start on the bench in a ACN qualifier. He initially went to QPR on loan, but signed permanently in 2010 and was made captain for the 2010/11 season. He was been unhelpfully labelled as “The next Zidane” when he first arrived in England, inevitably struggling after such hype. Neil Warnock seems to be the man who can coax the best out of the young Moroccan, giving him opportunity and responsibility seems to have worked. Taarabt scored 19 goals in the Championship, and was awarded the league’s Player of the Season.
So, QPR go up to the top table playing good football, in the formation du jour, and with experienced and talented players already in the squad or soon to join.
I’d back Neil Warnock to stick to his guns, play a 4-2-3-1, and provided they get some of the names in, and get the all important bit of luck, I think they’ll stay up. Swansea, with the attacking 4-3-3 might do well to learn the lessons of Blackpool if they wish to avoid the drop, and Norwich – the surprise ticket of 2010/11, well – who knows?