Mark Hughes is finding votes of confidence easier to come by than points at the moment. Tony Fernandes, the Queens Park Rangers chairman, has given a second message of support to the manager in the space of a week, and the players who are bottom of the table have also issued a ringing endorsement of the manager’s credentials.
“For all QPR fans. Fans who analyse properly. I am not changing anything. And all shareholders agree,” tweeted Fernandes on Sunday morning, in response to the criticism that followed a fifth defeat of the season. “No team except the first game [against Swansea] has outplayed us. We need a consistent four defenders, not changing every week, especially left and right-back. Mark is the right man. For all those calling for change, this is the team that outplayed Spurs [and] gave Chelsea a damn good game, and you want change? No way.”
Hughes, in other words, is in for the long haul. Fernandes, though, has helpfully identified a few areas where the manager needs to get to work.
Esteban Granero, one of 12 summer signings, suggested the finger of blame needs to be pointed at the players, rather than the manager who has picked up 22 points from his 25 games in charge. “We all support the manager – we know he is the best manager we can have,” said the Spaniard, whose fine goal in injury time counted for nothing. “Most of the losses are not his fault. It is our fault – the people that are on the pitch. We are the ones who have to improve. We are worried because this is not where we want to be. This is not expected of the squad we have.”
It is arguable that QPR lack a leader figure on the pitch. Mark Hughes likes a good leader in his sides. Someone who can defend well, and have a multiplier effect on those around him. Someone to lead by example by blocking a shot, or simply to talk team mates through situations. When to stay on their feet, when to foul, when not to foul, and so forth. It’s the reason John Terry was his number one target when he was City manager, and why QPR made bids last January for Alex and Chris Samba, both aerially and physically dominant players. It’s the reason why QPR targeted Michael Dawson this summer, agreeing a fee but not personal terms with the Tottenham captain. None of these deals materialised and the club were left rudderless.
QPR have since made Park Ji-Sung, a great pro and example to team mates, the club’s captain. What Park does not bring is vocal leadership, a particular ability to organise those around him, or the ability to do things like talk to the referee. With Park missing from QPR’s trip to Arsenal, Ryan Nelsen took over the captaincy of the side. Now, no disrespect the veteran New Zealand defender, but Nelsen is no longer a particularly good player and was signed this summer as much for his dressing room influence and experience as his actual defending.
Beyond that, there are few candidates for a leadership role. In it a sad indication of QPR’s footballing character of the last few seasons that their previous two captains were Adel Taarabt and Joey Barton. Of course, Taarabt was never captaincy material, but the armband lifted his game and he played a massive part in getting QPR in to the Premier League. After his outbursts about departing the club, Joey Barton took over as club captain. QPR struggled massively, Barton performed poorly and the side very nearly went down. Another club who made a new signing captain, Wolves, were relegated. QPR have now done the same for the second season in a row and have started poorly and look more likely to be in a relegation scrap than in a comfortable mid-table position.
Any side without a good organiser in defence will struggle at defending crosses and set-pieces. These have been QPR’s biggest issues this season as opponents have lost their markers. Every player appears concentrated on their own jobs, and not able to cover for those around them. The poor disciplinary record is alarming – 11 red cards since the start of last season. This appears to stem from a lack of on-field leadership, and Mark Hughes must take some of the blame for this too. His Blackburn side were overly physical at times, but they had the football intelligence to make sure there were not too many red cards. Stéphane Mbia’s frankly ludicrous sending off may very well have cost QPR a point at The Emirates. This was from a player who has spoken in the past about not wanting to play in central defence for Marseille. You can’t help but question whether frustration over his position played a part.
The results on the road have been extremely poor. In Hughes’ 14 away league games in charge, the side have picked up only 2 points – draws at Aston Villa and Norwich. Away trips are about defending well and being tactically intelligent. It’s also about keeping your emotions in check, and using some important tools to stop opponents – occasional tactical fouling, slowing the game down, wasting time, and drawing fouls. These can all be done within reason without cards being shown. However, there’s no player to be the manager’s on-field incarnation. Experienced managers can pair up weaker personalities with a stronger one on the field to talk them through games, remind them of their responsibilities, ensure they’re picking up their man at set-pieces etc. QPR are lacking in any types of these players, never mind having enough to have a leader in each department of the side.
The next few games may very well decide Mark Hughes’ future at QPR manager. Southampton, Aston Villa and Fulham all visit Loftus Road and this is a good chance to pick up some wins. If they don’t pick up a decent haul of points from these games, Hughes might find himself getting the sack. Not a lot can be done about the team lacking a literal and figurative spine until the January window opens.