The first match after the international break was between Fulham and QPR under the lights at Craven Cottage. Both teams were looking to kick-start some momentum into their seasons, both going into the intense winter schedule after stuttering starts.
The undeniable headline news here was the absence of EFL Championship top scorer Aleksandar Mitrović due to him picking up his fifth yellow of the season last time out. However, as we will see, his replacement made his own mark. Scott Parker did return though to regular first-team men in Joe Bryan and fan-favourite Tom Cairney.
Mark Warburton himself was forced to make a change from the previous game due to suspension. American Geoff Cameron, like Mitrović, picked up his fifth booking of the season resulting in Toni Leistner taking his place in the middle centre-back role. West Ham loanee Jordan Hugill also returned, replacing youngster Ilias Chair.
QPR’s brilliant start, and effective press
Even though they were going away to a promotion-favourite, the Hoops weren’t affected. In fact, unlike their hosts, they matched the intensity you’d expect from a local derby and were duly rewarded three minutes in.
This intensity was expressed through a high press, shutting off Fulham’s preference to heavily involve the defence in the construction of attacking moves.
A signature feature of the QPR press – and system – is the wing-backs advancing. Playing effectively a 5-3-2, the wing-backs are the only natural wide players, thus there is massive responsibility to provide width in the attacking phase and stopping the ball being played out wide and through in the defensive phase.
In total there were usually six QPR players trying to restrict ball progression and also regain possession high up the pitch. These players were: the two strikers, the two wing-backs, and the outer central midfielders Eberechi Eze and Luke Amos. This subsequently meant they had a man-orientated pressing scheme, with the Cottagers readily giving the ball away in dangerous areas after QPR pressure.
Hugill and Nakhi Wells played as a front two. Unlike their opponents, Fulham elected to play a regular four at the back. The clever positioning of the two Hoops’ forwards – matching up the Fulham centre-backs – culminated in play being forced out wide, with less passing options, or going long towards three tall QPR centre-backs where it was likely they’d win the initial aerial duel or the second ball.
QPR’s single goal of the game came after they forced Fulham goalkeeper Marek Rodák into misplacing a pass out for a throw-in.
We can see Hugill and Wells working well together to prevent any simple passes, hence forcing keeper Rodák into an error. In addition to this usual deep-lying midfielder, Dominic Ball has got close to pivot Harrison Reed to stop that potential option.
Fulham were determined to play out from the back, but when they did go long it wasn’t very successful. Aboubakar Kamara stands at a height of 5’ 8” which, as well as taking into account he’s going up against three lanky centre-backs, resulted in him losing the majority of his aerial duels. Kamara won two of the seven he contested.
QPR going forward
QPR main objective in an attacking sense was to fill the box and pepper it with a variety of crosses. This was if they hadn’t regained possession from the press and could then catch an unorganised Fulham in transition. In total, the West London side registered 23 crosses but only two were completed, a measly 9% – inferior technical quality and composure costed QPR here.
A fundamental principle in their attacking strategy was the inclusion and importance of the wing-backs Ryan Manning and Todd Kane. Having three centre-backs, and Ball, covering them gave both the insurance to draw and stretch the home side’s back-line. You can see their individual heat-maps below.
In the example below, Kane is released down the right, after being in an already advanced starting position. Hugill has a march on Alfie Mawson, and he’s looking for a tap-in, whereas others hold back near the edge for the possibility of a cut-back, also ahead of the retreating Fulham midfield. Importantly, we can see a characteristic of Warburton’s system, Manning being visible on the opposite flank. Plus, Amos is also not afraid to stride forward in search of that telling finish.
The frantic nature of the game meant there were not many occasions when a concerted, controlled attempt at build-up could occur and yet you could see the foundations of Warburton’s tactics. The centre-backs tended to split wide, Grant Hall and LJ Wallace would position themselves in either half-space, with Leistner central and deeper and behind Ball – the pivot. Eze and Amos, then Josh Scowen, were instructed to place themselves between the lines and in the half-spaces. When the centre-backs chose to go long, searching for knock-downs or the forwards in behind, after depth runs, these advanced midfielders were typically well-placed to support the attack.
How Fulham got the win
Such an approach is a risk against a side with the attacking quality that Fulham possess and the hallmarks of a second-half fightback were on the cards before then. The three centre-backs may be aerially dominant but one thing they are not is particularly mobile. A lack of mobility is quite a severe problem against the pace and trickery of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert.
When the QPR press was bypassed, or a turnover in their half occurred, space was inevitably there for the wider players to exploit. The resting shape of the QPR defensive unit suffers from an inadequate amount of compactness, as well as their first-choice centre-backs having a lack of defensive prowess. In the whole of the top four leagues in England, they are the only team not to keep a clean sheet this season, with 17 matchdays now having been played.
In the first 45, Fulham failed to capitalise on any substantial openings, having an xG of 0.23 and hitting the post. Additionally, the Cottagers had 0.33 attacks per minute in the first half, compared to 0.49 in the second – demonstrating the increased intensity and pressure they came out with after the break.
In fact, a major reason why Parker’s team were able to complete the turnaround was the switch in who were the game’s protagonists. In essence, this game was determined by the quality and vigour of the respective press. Many of QPR’s problems arose from poor execution of passes and a general lack of presence in central midfield – Ball had become overwhelmed.
Reed’s injury in the 54th minute, forcing him to be replaced by Bobby Reid – someone who is known for their attacking ability – turned into a blessing in disguise. Reid entering the play gave the Fulham attack some much-needed attacking impetus from midfield – the Jamaican international provided energy, incisiveness, and ball-carrying ability. Moreover, it was common for the 26-year-old to play similarly to a Mezzala, he would drift wide to help avoid the widest sitting players becoming isolated – an issue in the first half.
In this situation above Reid has initially dispossessed an increasingly poor ball before driving at a backtracking defence, and then playing a perfectly weighted through ball to Knockaert who just puts it past the far post. Although only coming on as a substitute, Reid greatly impacted his team high up the pitch with two key passes and creating one big chance.
However, the stats suggest Fulham may have been lucky here and should be very thankful towards keeper Rodák. The Cottagers actually lost xG wise, 1.15:1.62. This suggests that unless Rodák maintains his current form (the Slovakian made seven saves here) or they keep coming up against sides that still can’t finish efficiently to a regular rate, then a downturn in results can be expected.
This analysis has shown how Fulham got the win in this EFL Championship tie. We’ve also looked at the impact of changes made and why poor defending and a lack of quality in decisive areas cost QPR.
Both teams now look towards a round of home midweek fixtures. Fulham host Derby while QPR have got the other East Midlands side, Nottingham Forest.
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