I’ve always believed that good managers tend to find a system for their players, not players for their system. But Neil Warnock has taken a hammer to that theory.
A major reason for QPR’s success so far is that Warnock has been able – through good judgement and, more importantly, having money to spend – to get the right players for his preferred system.
Shaun Derry, Matt Connolly, Adel Taarabt, Heidar Helguson, Hogan Ephraim and Jamie Mackie all have something in common, and it isn’t just that they’ve been playing really well. It’s also that they wouldn’t be nearly as effective, and in some cases would be a total liability, in a 4-4-2.
The same can be said of Akos Buzsaky, as his past performances for Rangers have proved, and Tommy Smith is yet another player who fits into this bracket.
Taarabt: Not the striker he believed he was a year ago, and playing out wide is as much of a worry to his own full-back as the opposition’s. But with two sitting midfielders behind him and a line-leading striker in front, his strengths are highlighted much more than his weaknesses.
Ephraim: Has, at best, been moderately effective playing on either flank in a 4-4-2. Looks much better as a wide forward in Rangers’ current system.
Connolly: Has looked good for Rangers at full-back and as a central defender in a 4-4-2, but is still learning the game and his development as a centre-back had stalled a bit. Operating with two sitting players in front is a great chance for him to play to his strengths while learning the game and developing physically.
Helguson: Signed when not fully fit, there have been few better forwards of his type at Championship level in the last decade. But his role this season depends on smart running rather than the amount of running. That makes all the difference.
Derry: Possibly the biggest surprise of the season so far. This guy is a much better footballer than he’s given credit for and his importance to a squad with the likes of Taarabt, Ephraim, Faurlin and Buzsaky is immeasurable. Again though, the system is everything. Derry simply could not play in a 4-4-2. But in the current Rangers formation he does a great job and could do it with his eyes closed.
Mackie: I always felt Mackie would be a sensation to begin with, quickly become a fans’ favourite, and then perhaps fade. But six goals and the type of quality and finishing he’s produced was not what I expected.
And again the system is the key. Mackie’s the man of the moment but would be nowhere near as effective, or popular, in a 4-4-2. He’d give it a real go either in a two-man strikeforce or on the wing, but isn’t really cut out for either role. That wide forward position is made for him though.
Mackie tends to do the same things again and again, which in a 4-4-2 would be a weakness and make him look limited, but in Warnock’s system is a strength, because he constantly annoys and asks questions of defenders who often have one eye on Taarabt.
So that’s six of Warnock’s regular outfield 10 whose performances can be put down to his system.
This hasn’t happened by chance. Warnock did exactly the same at Crystal Palace with Ben Watson and to a lesser extent Tom Soares. Neither player has kicked on since he sold them.
I despaired of QPR’s attempts to sign Watson before he eventually arrived on loan, because it was the mark of a club that didn’t have a clue what they were doing. They wanted him because of his reputation at Palace, who played a specific way that suited him.
Watson was never going to as effective at QPR because he is another player that cannot play in a 4-4-2. Warnock knew this, which is how he got the best out of him and why he was happy enough to sell him.
And after Watson and Soares, there was Darren Ambrose; a player who flattered to deceive before a brilliant season for Palace. His problem had been establishing his best position, but in a right-of-centre role under Warnock he also flourished.
Too many players can’t play outside a 4-4-2, whereas Warnock’s success is based on players who can’t play in it.
It’s ironic that someone portrayed as the stereotypical old-school English manager consistently gets the best out of players who struggle in the old-school English formation.