Cancelling each other out

Posted by Richard Jolly

Andros Townsend and Alexander TetteyPA PhotosAndros Townsend and Alexander Tettey battle for the ball


After Harry Redknapp furthered his reputation for frantic trading in transfer windows, he extended his record for overseeing uneventful games. The Queens Park Rangers manager's various teams have had 62 Premier League stalemates, more than any other coach's, and the latest was a clear case of two teams cancelling each other out.

QPR and Norwich played the same system – 4-4-1-1 – in fairly similar ways and with an identical outcome. But differing needs rendered it a fine result for only one: as City were the away side and a team with 11 more points, it nudged them nearer another season in the top flight.

As QPR's unbeaten run went up to five league matches, Redknapp's problem was that the tactics that have made his side hard to beat rendered it difficult for them to win. A previously porous defence has now only been breached once in those five games, an achievement which is testament to their organisation and safety-first principles.

Besides the improved form of goalkeeper Julio Cesar, the key factors had been the six men nearest him: the two central midfielders, charged with being destroyers rather than the creators Mark Hughes preferred, and the back four. Shaun Derry is selected to anchor the midfield, Stephane Mbia to provide the energy alongside him.

That is all the more necessary as they have more ground to cover. Redknapp had tightened QPR up by dropping deep and defending on the edge of their penalty area. It suited the ageing and slowing, but positionally excellent, central defenders Ryan Nelsen and Clint Hill, especially in fixtures against top teams, where Rangers were underdogs. Norwich at home, however, required a more ambitious gameplan and it was one that, especially at the start, Rangers struggled to execute.

Where their formation has been 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1, it needed to be 4-2-3-1 when in possession. By the end of the game, it certainly was. At the start, however, the system was all too similar to the games when they were set up to draw. In effect, they only attacked with four players, none of them, like Loic Remy, a specialist striker.

Lone forward Jamie Mackie, often used on the right wing and known for his work ethic, sometimes vacated the middle to plough a furrow on the flank, which could leave space for Adel Taarabt to move into. The Moroccan was afforded something of a free role; it meant the wingers Shaun Wright-Phillips and Andros Townsend had to break beyond him, partly to chase Taarabt's passes. But, charged with tracking back so QPR could defend in two banks of four, they could not really fulfil the attacking half of their brief.

Compared to the Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City games, the back four adopted a higher starting position. However, it wasn't much higher and helped, by facing a Norwich team without genuine pace in attack, Rangers could have pushed up further. The debutant Christopher Samba replaced the departed Nelsen but, though the Congolese is quicker than his former Blackburn team-mate, he is short of match fitness, which perhaps explained the cautious approach of a defence who did not want to leave room behind them.

But when central defenders start nearer their goal, so do the men who screen them. And because of Rangers' deep-lying central midfielders, Norwich were able to have more possession in that area of the pitch, where Bradley Johnson and Alexander Tettey were the game's most prolific passers. They, too, protected their back four and it was telling that Rangers' best chance, Adel Taarabt's penalty, which Mark Bunn saved, came from a defensive error: Javier Garrido's under-hit backpass, coupled with Mackie's persistence to chase it.

The makeshift forward moved to the right when Bobby Zamora came on, with QPR playing the same shape, but with greater urgency and with the wingers in more advanced roles. Indeed, the only time two out-and-out forwards were paired was in the final few minutes when Norwich brought Luciano Becchio on alongside Grant Holt for his debut.

Before then, Chris Hughton's gameplan was similar to Redknapp's. Wes Hoolahan floated around as their equivalent of Taarabt but the major difference of the sole striker, Holt, being more of a target man. Their finest opportunities came when they got men beyond him, either Anthony Pilkington or Wes Hoolahan, to meet deliveries from either side.

As the away side, their wingers were generally less adventurous. Nevertheless, the major threat was Robert Snodgrass, whether with long-range shooting, angled runs in from the right flank to the penalty area to get on the end of balls from the left wing or going outside Armand Traore to set up chances from the touchline.

It was the second time in three days QPR had been troubled by a right winger who turned up at Loftus Road: first Peter Odemwingie, with his deadline-day antics, and then Snodgrass.

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