If City are to break that glass ceiling between sixth and seventh place and sneak into the playoffs, games like QPR (A) are the type they are going to have to win.
And so, on that basis, yesterday was one that got away. Two points dropped rather than one gained. A game in which City struggled to find any discernible flow and rhythm but where they managed to wrestle the initiative away from the hosts and get themselves into a lead only to then hand it back.
From what appeared a position of relative comfort, some curious substitutions handed momentum back to the Rs and, lo and behold, we snatch a draw from the jaws of victory and return home from Shepherd’s Bush with just a point.
It wasn’t the complete disaster of the type we experienced far too often in the autumn – although some of the football in the first half teetered on the brink – but was an opportunity squandered where better decision-making from the technical area could have aided those on the pitch to see it through.
We lauded David Wagner for getting it right last week and he was liberal with his use of the I told you so’s in his post-match conversations, but had no grounds for such bravado yesterday.
His decision to drop Marcelino Nunez from the starting eleven was an interesting one given the Chilean’s growing influence in the middle of the pitch, but could just about be justified by the match-winning cameo of Ashley Barnes last Saturday.
To accommodate said change, Nunez is invariably the sacrificial lamb as, with Barnes in the number 10 role, Gabriel Sara is the one chosen to drop into the double pivot alongside Kenny McLean. That I could just about live with, although it was undeniably harsh on the Chilean.
Wagner also opted to stay with Christian Fassnacht on the right ahead of a fit-again Jonathan Rowe. Another curious one but our head coach seems to like the solidity provided down that side by the Jack Stacey/Fassnacht combo.
But, whatever the logic behind the starting lineup, it didn’t work. The performance in the opening 45 was as tepid as it was disjointed and yielded zero shots on target. The ebb and flow of the Coventry game was long gone and back came the staccato football of which we have seen far too much.
To compound it all they gave away the softest of soft goals when McLean and Dimi Giannoulis contrived to allow a challenge-free cross in from the QPR right and then Angus, in a rare moment of uncertainty, could only parry the ball into the path of Jack Colback.
When Colback scores against you, it’s not destined to be a good day.
The direct response to the goal was poor – still no punch, still no penetration – but a change in oomph was evident early in the second half where it took them just three minutes to pull level.
Whoever in Wagner’s coaching team devised that little corner routine deserves a pat on the back because it was a good one. Subtle it may have been but it did include Big Bad Barnes blocking off a defender en route to them closing down McLean.
Who doesn’t love a bit of innovation?
And from there, things did improve. The football was less tepid, the tempo was a beat quicker, and we did start to look a bit more dangerous. Begovic finally got his knees dirty.
When the second goal arrived it felt deserved. The improvements and tweaks administered at halftime had worked and even though Rowe had entered the fray by this point, it was Stacey who timed his overlap to perfection and, for once, found a pearler of a cross.
Sarge did the rest and it felt like the momentum had swung. It had swung.
Then, the moment that changed the game.
Just seven minutes after giving City the lead, Josh Sargent was withdrawn. That, in itself, felt a little odd but Wagner being Wagner opted for caution and decided that to keep the American fresh for Tuesday night, he would spare him the grind of the final 21 minutes.
It later transpired that Sargent had only trained on Friday and so that too fed into the decision-making, but rather than replace him like-for-like by bringing on Sydney van Hooijdonk, Wagner retreated further into his shell.
Instead, Nunez was brought on to, presumably, help fortify the centre of the pitch, while Barnes was handed the role of lone striker. And when I say lone, I mean stranded. Isolated.
In doing so the initiative that, at the time of Sargent’s departure was ours, was handed to QPR.
It wasn’t the only oddity to occur on 69 minutes. Also withdrawn as part of that double substitution was Jack Stacey who we later learn had been projectile vomiting in the team hotel. Lovely.
Given this was no surprise and was a fact well known by Wagner and his coaching team before the handing in of the teamsheets, it would have made sense for Kellen Fisher – bona fide right-back – to have been on the bench.
But no. Instead, Lungi Sorensen was handed the stripes and the not-inconsiderable task of managing QPR’s best player, Ilias Chair. Unsurprisingly, the Dane was twisted and turned this way and that, and will probably still have a spinning head this morning.
Barnes as a lone striker rarely works and it didn’t yesterday. Instead of holding the ball up and pinging it off to runners, which is easier to do with that extra half-second you get when playing just off the centre-backs, he spent the rest of the game unsuccessfully grappling with them.
The ball had no chance of sticking and emboldened by having the initiative handed to them, the Rs grew in belief.
When they equalised through Michael Frey’s close-range effort it had been coming, albeit Giannoulis earned himself a double-assist in the process, first of all for giving away a needless throw-in, and then not stopping the cross coming in.
So, a point. But, crucially, two dropped. And I’m sorry for whom this may offend but this one’s on the head coach. If 2-1 had become 3-1 it would have been game over and with City in such a dominant position there’s no reason to believe that couldn’t have happened.
Either give Sargent another ten minutes to help achieve it or, if he had to be replaced, do so with van Hooijdonk and leave the shape the same.
But no. In this timid new world that we now inhabit, the first instinct always seems to be to try and protect what we have at the expense of everything else.
And they wonder why we question if another head coach could get a better tune out of this group…