Early in the season, I said to a friend that if teams that man-mark Adel Taarabt don’t do so with a player who can pass the ball, Rangers could go through the whole season unbeaten.
I was half-joking and don’t think for a moment Rangers won’t eventually lose. But the way teams have gone about playing against them – and Taarabt in particular – sums up the Championship and why QPR are the best and most exciting team in it at the moment.
Gushing articles about Rangers are all the rage these days, but I think Adam Boxer of the Vital QPR website makes a good point in the local Times newspaper’s ‘Beat around the Bush’ column this week.
Adam suggests Rangers’ rise to the top of the table is partly down to the poor standard of the Championship, and to a large extent I agree.
Not that QPR don’t warrant the praise they’ve received this season. Most of the complimentary comments, apart from those suggesting they haven’t spent massively on players, have been pretty accurate.
To adopt a gung-ho attacking style built around someone like Taarabt, yet have the best defensive record in the division, is a real achievement. But it also underlines the limitations of other Championship teams.
An article in the South Wales Echo ahead of Saturday’s game portrays Cardiff as playing total football, and a more attacking style than Rangers. They’ve seen Taarabt, Shaun Derry and QPR’s goals-against column, and seem to have concluded that the key for free-flowing Cardiff is to somehow break down a typical Neil Warnock side. That’s well wide of the mark on several counts.
Yes, QPR are solid for a team that plays the way they do, and for that Warnock is responsible. But they are far from impenetrable. In fact I’d say they’re vulnerable. I’d even describe them as there for the taking for any team with decent players and the right gameplan.
I’ve seen some teams – Reading being a classic example – and wondered if they’ve actually had QPR watched or taken any notice of whoever has watched them, such is the extent to which they’ve played into their hands and done everything you should not do against this Rangers side.
Others had clearly done their homework, had a good gameplan, and had seen that QPR’s strength could, in theory, easily be turned into their weakness. But they simply don’t have players capable of carrying out that gameplan effectively.
Taarabt can be lethal in the final third of the pitch, but not even his biggest admirer can deny that he can cause problems for his own team as well. No player will beat his man every time, not even Taarabt in full flight.
Without the ball, Taarabt is ineffective. We know that. And while Derry is excellent in his role, it’s a very defined role in a defined area of the pitch in order to save his legs. In between, there’s Faurlin, who has great attributes but also does not have the legs to dominate a midfield. As I did with Ben Watson, I wonder whether this will prevent him becoming the top-class player many think he will be, but at the moment he can do no wrong in the eyes of many.
What this all means is that an opposing team that closes down Taarabt or Faurlin is very often one decent pass away from being onto Rangers’ back four. Taarabt will not track back, and Faurlin is a good player but lets people run off his shoulder for fun.
So any team taking the ball off Rangers should then have at least one extra man – provided they can play the right ball.
In the Premier League, this would be punished because a player taking the ball from Taarabt is then likely to be able to do something with it. Not so in the Championship, where plenty of players are capable of stopping Taarabt but few are capable of doing anything more. For them, stopping him is only a stay of execution.
The key to playing against QPR is having a player who can break up play and then, crucially, pass the ball. But how many Championship teams have one of these?
Preston have one in Adam Barton, but the job of man-marking Taarabt was given to Darel Russell – the epitome of the limited Championship midfielder who will close a man down and have some success against him, but can’t do much more.
Through choice, but in most cases necessity, teams are trying to cut off QPR, and especially Taarabt, with their version of Mikele Leigertwood.
That’s great for Rangers, who are potentially vulnerable against any side who can close them down and then shift the ball into areas where they would have an extra man – something Premier League sides do instantly but Championship ones struggle to do.
If Seyi Olofinjana can help Cardiff do it, Rangers are likely to have problems against them – especially as they also have strikers who can finish. But even if that happens, it’s only one game. The season so far has shown that Championship sides lack that type of player.
Rangers have weaknesses like every other team, and I’ve long thought coming up against an energetic midfield would be their undoing. Forest have one, and a cracking player in Lewis McGugan, but they couldn’t beat Rangers.
I didn’t go to the Burnley game but wasn’t surprised to hear Faurlin struggled, because they too have the kind of midfield likely to cause Rangers’ problems. But they couldn’t beat them either.
This is why the recent run of draws shouldn’t be seen as a mini-wobble, but a great sign for QPR and an indication of their strength.
These were some of the strongest teams in the Championship. In Norwich’s case they had a brilliant away record, in Forest’s case a great home record. These sides were up for it, in good form, and determined to raise their game against unbeaten QPR – none more so than Millwall and Portsmouth, who had both been in great form. And of course there’s Swansea.
These sides caused problems, and so did Burnley with the kind of midfield that was always likely to have some success against Rangers, as opposed to sides who’ve been blown away by them. And still, a draw has been the best they have all managed.
Cardiff could go one better. But even if they do, Rangers could just as easily win there in April and, barring injuries to key players, will be well on course for promotion whatever the result on Saturday.