First of all, a little catch-up. My last match report was after the Blackburn game. I concluded by commenting that the Board was paralysed by indecision, and hamstrung by the November 27 start date of the new Sporting Director.
The Board responded, although I doubt it was prompted by my article, with a calculated move that even at the time looked quite cute. Bring forward Stuart Webber’s departure and the arrival of Ben Knapper. Give David Wagner the old ‘you have our full support’ phone call and a final game to sort it out. If we lose, Ben Knapper walks in, fires the head coach, and has two weeks to fight the fires.
Or if, somehow, we manage a win, then the rocky ship is steadied and valuable breathing space is bought.
Fortunately, the latter scenario prevailed.
And now some context is needed. If yesterday’s game had been played in the context of last season’s clash – a top-end-of-the-table battle for play-off points – then City’s critics would correctly pan it as a low-quality game devoid of attacking intent.
However, view it as a vital battle for points in a lower-half scrap to avoid being sucked into a relegation battle and it looks like a much more satisfactory performance.
Johnny Rowe didn’t recover from his ankle knock in time so Onel Hernandez started up top. But the good news was the return of Ashley Barnes. I was not surprised to see him partnering Hwang Ui-jo up front. Even before the pre-match press conference, my feeling was that his ability to play the pressing game preferred by Wagner would earn him the nod. Even after Adam Idah’s cameo in Cardiff.
The game itself was more akin to a chess match than a game of Championship football – albeit one with a few fruity challenges thrown in that Kasparov and Karpov (showing my age) would have been unlikely to exhibit.
City set out their stall in familiar fashion. Playing the ball across the back, inviting QPR onto them with the press. For their part, the visitors only committed Lyndon Dykes to keeping the City defenders honest. Behind him, a line of three set out to stifle the easy short ball into the midfield. When they did press, they went into a more traditional 4-3-3.
For their part, City were happy with this. They were waiting for the QPR back line to push up before playing the directed long pass in behind them. QPR have the distinction of possibly having the only slower centre-back pairing than City and as soon as a gap appeared behind them, City looked to use the pace of Hernandez and Hwang to cause problems.
The return of Barnes made the City press look altogether more convincing. He and Hwang worked as a pair closing down the QPR back line. When City pressed in numbers, they caused the visitors problems. Jack Stacey played a couple of decent crosses that just evaded Barnes and the experienced Begovic was hurried into a number of clearances that went straight out for City throws.
That said, City exhibited the usual problems though. Without Ben Gibson – sorry Gibson haters – City lack the additional creative outlet from the back and much then falls to Kenny Mclean and Gabriel Sara to get City moving forward. And then the sloppy passes. In the opening 30 minutes alone, Sara and Hernandez gave the ball away half a dozen times. Hernandez went on one superb turn and run, powering towards the QPR back line before running out of ideas and passing it straight to a QPR player.
The only saviour was that QPR are as shorn of confidence as City and as a result, in transition, they were equally as slow and laboured as City have been in recent weeks. Whenever City lost the ball, they were unable to punish them as others have.
Having set out their game plan, on 20 minutes City executed it perfectly. Sara picked up the ball in a deep position. Hwang started his run from behind the QPR back line, ran past them, bought the ball down superbly and rifled past Begovic.
It could have been Buendia and Pukki and the move would not have been executed better.
In response, QPR became a little more committed to attack and had a spell of controlled possession following the goal. A cute flick and turn earned them their first corner – Hernandez chasing back after initially being wrong-footed conceded the set piece.
As the first half drew to its conclusion, City were clearly happy to see out the remaining minutes whilst QPR remained unable to make a meaningful impact, other than a few weak shots that were easy for Long to grasp.
QPR started the second half with much more attacking intent and intensity. They forced a smart stop from Long, who couldn’t keep hold of the ball, and somehow Shane Duffy and Stacey cleared the ball after some risky interplay at the back.
The increased intent also gave City more opportunities, Danny Batth hit a long ball to find Hwang again. The Korean looked favourite to add to his goal tally but seemed to pull up with some sort of muscle tweak. Although he carried on for a further 10 minutes, he was eventually replaced by Adam Idah.
And here’s the thing. Despite having the majority of the possession, QPR rarely threatened the City goal. Their shots on target were easy for Long. They had a shot that fizzed just wide and high. Even Duffy couldn’t help them – hooking one ball over the bar from a corner.
The fact is, once they were set, City defended reasonably solidly. Having the goal cushion enabled them to control aspects of the game and choose when to press. Had QPR been quicked in transition then they may have punished City more though.
City created chances of their own, yet rarely threatened Begovic. Miss of the day has to go to Hernandez for his complete air kick following a clever McLean corner.
In the end, it was three points. An ugly three points but they all count. For the first time since Josh Sargent got hurt scoring against Huddersfield way back in August, City are on an upwards trajectory.
Let’s not get carried away, QPR were poor and there is a lot of water to pass under the bridge until the season changes back from mid-table stabilisation to a chase for the playoffs, but two wins in succession make the league table a slightly better read.