Last season, Queens Park Rangers’ mid-table finish was a tough pill to swallow. Having started the 2021 campaign undefeated in its first four games, Rangers were consistently in the playoff spots for most of the season. For a brief moment, QPR even looked good enough to challenge for automatic promotion. But all those hopes came crashing down after a poor January transfer window brought in little reinforcement while the rest of the teams around them improved.
With no extra help, and Mark Warburton’s apparent tactical stubbornness, Rangers couldn’t keep up with their competition as the other teams appeared to have figured out Warburton’s strategies through the second half of the season. The final blow came once stand-out playmaker and goalscorer Chris Willock went down injured for the remainder of the season. Just like that, hopes of a playoff push for the first time since 2014 didn’t materialize.
As the English Championship is one of the most competitive leagues from top to bottom in all of soccer, QPR slipped from fourth place to mid-table in a matter of weeks. Ultimately, QPR ended in a modest 11th. Despite this, there was still a lot of positives to show for it. The duo of Willock and Ilias Chair were a standout that at times looked too good for second tier competition, and Seny Dieng is far and away one of the best goalkeepers in the league. The prospects were good, so it was unexpected when the club decided to part ways with Warburton soon after the conclusion of the season.
Signs of improvement under QPR’s Michael Beale
While some of Warburton’s tactical decisions were questionable, he brought a consistency to Rangers that had been lacking since they had returned to the Championship in 2015. He implemented a style of play that focused on possession at the back. While holding the ball in their own half felt nervy at times, it forced Ranger’s opponents to push forward which often created openings for attackers to quickly strike. This required a deep lying midfielder in the form of Stefan Johansen as well as center backs with decent ball control willing to move forward into space. The entire squad had been curated to fit Warburton’s style, which meant bringing in a new face jeopardized the consistency and cohesion he had instilled.
The club promised their search for a manager prioritized someone who could continue the team in the mold of what Warburton had built while pushing QPR further towards their goal of finishing in the top six. In came Michael Beale who had been the number two at Aston Villa behind Steven Gerrard, someone without the managerial experience one would’ve expected given the circumstances. Despite high praise for his tactical mind, this pick was a huge gamble.
Undoubtedly, Warburton’s biggest weakness was his inability to adjust his tactical plan for each match. You rarely saw game to game changes let alone in-game changes in tactics. If Rangers were down and his plan wasn’t working, his last-ditch effort was to throw on another striker and hope the goals came. To his credit, there were several occasions where this worked, but these comebacks felt more like they were carved out with the sheer force of will from the Rangers’ players as opposed to Warburton outmaneuvering whatever plan the opposing manager had put forth.
In contrast, Michael Beale has shown another level of tactical acumen that seemed beyond Warburton’s reach. The best example of this is Rangers’ most recent matchup against Bristol City. For most of the last two seasons under Warburton, Queens Park Rangers set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation with wingbacks that would play high up the pitch when attacking. While Beale started with a similar formation early on, he’s since been more willing to switch things up. Part of this is due to him looking for his best team, but the other part is adjusting to how the opponent plays.
Against Bristol, we saw a 4-3-3 that allowed Willock, Chair and Tyler Roberts to overwhelm City’s three center backs when their two wingbacks were pushed high in the attack. This led to Rangers cutting through their back line on quick counterattacks and scoring two early goals. It was a well thought out and executed strategy that should’ve resulted in at least two more goals in the first half. This is the kind of tactical creativity we never saw from Warburton who almost seemed pigheaded at times about playing the same lineup and tactics every match.
With his wealth of managerial experience, Bristol City manager Nigel Pearson did a good job of adjusting at the half. While Bristol had conceded the second most goals so far with 16, they are also tied for most goals scored at 19. On came Antoine Semenyo, and you could feel the improved physicality from Bristol as they pushed for a goal, so it wasn’t a surprise when former Rangers’ striker Nahki Wells found the ball in a favorable position in the QPR box, and put it away in the 63rd minute.
Beale again showed his tactical ability by making some decent substitutions in midfield to bring on fresh legs. And then he brought on Lyndon Dykes to create some good holdup play and served as an extra defender to close out the game with a 2-1 away victory to the Rs.
QPR are currently sitting in fifth place in the Championship and have taken points from some stiff competitions. Likewise, they have dropped points to teams that felt beatable.
The gamble to put him in the driver’s seat appears to be paying off. Still, the hard truth is that no matter how well QPR have looked lately, as it stands, they are not a Premier League-quality side, but there is plenty of potential there.
Photo credit: IMAGO / PA Images
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