QPR 1-1 Aston Villa: Lambert’s three man defence works… sort of
QPR and Villa battled each other to a standstill in an evenly-matched contest at Loftus Road.
New Hoops manager Harry continued with the veterans he recalled in last week’s draw against Sunderland. Stephane M’Bia held position in front of the defence and broke up play – at least until his unfortunate and nasty injury near half time, best wishes go to him -, allowing Samba Diakite to play a box-to-box role alongside regista Esteban Granero. Jamie Mackie battled tirelessly up front.
Paul Lambert threw last week’s tactics out of the window, displaying his reputation for tactical flexibility with a 3-4-3ish formation. Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood continued as the side’s hub in the centre of midfield, with Brett Holman out on the right again after his impressive display last week. Gabby Agbonlahor played a strange shuttling position somewhat like the one Antonio Cassano enjoys playing (though it’s hard to think of two less-alike players) and Eric Lichaj played at left back due to Enda Stevens’ injury.
Agbonlahor, Lichaj and Bosingwa
Brett Holman and Matthew Lowton continued their good partnership from last week, with the Australian harrying, covering and tracking his direct opponent Traore in support of his full-back. However, on the other side, there was a totally different story. Last week, Holman shuttled between a support striking position and the right wing, managing to both close down the flank and offer another creative outlet in the centre of the pitch. Today, Agbonlahor tried the same job on the left flank, but didn’t have the – in his defence, immense – energy and drive required to perform such a role. As a result, he often ended up took close to Benteke when QPR had the ball, allowing his fullback Eric Lichaj to be exposed two-on-one down the flank. QPR right-back Jose Bosingwa took full advantage, bombing on down the flank at will and playing more passes than anyone else on his team. That said, his final ball was poor, with only one of his nine crosses effective.
Compounding this situation was Lichaj’s positioning. The American is a right-back who can fill in on the left, but has occasionally looked uncomfortable doing so. Today was one of those days, and his constant desire to come inside onto his favoured right foot made Villa narrow and let QPR deal with attacks down the left much more easily, as well as launch counters into the space left wide. As a result, nearly 50% of QPR’s attacks went down their right hand side.
With QPR fielding a midfield three to Villa’s two, the odds were always in the favour of QPR when it came to the midfield battle. As it happened, the fight was more even than otherwise. With Chris Herd a natural defensive midfielder, it was easy for him to step up into midfield when Villa had a numerical advantage at the back, which was often given the centre-backs were three vs one against Jamie Mackie.
The battle between Ashley Westwood and Esteban Granero was intriguing. The two registas were on top form, with Granero knocking balls over the top at will when unmarked and Westwood completing the most passes of anyone on the entire pitch. With M’Bia’s replacement Shaun Derry sitting deep and Barry Bannan kept busy by the inwards drifts of Adel Taarabt from the left wing, there was little quality in the centre of the pitch.
The one exception was Diakite. The Mali international made several powerful runs from deep, occasionally charging into the space left by Lichaj to help overload Villa in their left-back position. He also got back and defended well when given time, helping Bosingwa out against Agbonlahor’s pace and power.
A fair result for both sides. QPR had to immediately go on the attack after Holman’s freak early goal, and got their reward soon after in a lively first half. That said, it could be argued that Lambert went for the 3-4-3 specifically to combat the lack of height in the team, and so Villa will be disappointed they conceded a header with three centre-backs on the pitch.
This was Villa’s second consecutive week conceding a flank to the opposition. It worked last time, but didn’t today. You need either a very specific type of extremely hard-working winger to be able to work a shuttling role, or a wide forward who is capable of exploiting space behind an attacking full-back in order to be able to leave a full-back by himself for the majority of the time. Last week, Holman filled the former category perfectly, but today Agbonlahor did neither, and indeed was disappointing on a whole apart from one or two bursts of pace. Villa’s attacking method, mostly based around Christian Benteke, was one-dimensional and Clint Hill had an excellent game to deny the Belgian much of the spoils in the air.
However, Lambert can rightly point to the ‘Arry factor’, and rightly so. QPR looked better than most of their games this year and could be deemed a tad unlucky to be coming away with only a point. They got players forward in attack, especially down the flanks, and left the defence in midfield to M’Bia/Derry and Granero/Park’s positioning. Much of the game was played in the midfield to not much avail, as Benteke and Mackie were surrounded by a trio of defenders and isolated from much of the rest of their team. Mackie perhaps fared slightly better, scoring a goal and constantly a thorn in defenders’ sides with his tireless running, but was caught offside far too often. Both sides made good use of the bench, with Fabian Delph and Karim El Ahmadi adding energy and Derrick Williams providing a nerveless debut for Villa, and Ji-Sung Park closing down the Villa midfield well and Junior Hoilett adding another dimension in attack. That said, all of the changes made were probably more defensive ones (with the possible exception of Hoilett for Diakite) and both sides seemed happy to settle for a point at the end of the second half. Much of that was down to the excellent work of Villa ‘keeper Brad Guzan, who pulled off several excellent saves.