Sink or Swim: The Battle against Relegation

By Simon White  @TLE_Sport

They say it’s lonely at the top, but clubs at the bottom of the Premier League will attest to being a world away from anyone else.  Both Hull City and Queens Park Rangers have fallen upon hard times this season, sitting 18th and 19th in the table respectively.  Despite their similarities in the table however, their future outlooks differ enormously.  From Hull we see green shoots of recovery and attacking promise which can take them to safety, while at QPR we see a deflated manager after an unsuccessful transfer window coupled with a defence seemingly incapable of playing at this level.

Starting with the teams’ attacking players, fans of both sides may have cause for hope.  Charlie Austin’s performances this season have been a shining light in a sea of mediocrity at Loftus Road. With 13 league goals this season, he provides QPR’s most obvious attacking threat.  Perhaps unfairly overlooked alongside him though is their Chilean loanee Eduardo Vargas.  Blessed with scintillating speed and fantastic technique, when QPR play two up front at home his talent is there for all to see.  Often forced to play wide in a five man midfield woeful at protecting their defence, Vargas cannot always have the impact he deserves to on games, but  watch him fly if given a chance when he returns to Napoli next season.  QPR’s new boss has to find a formation where he can give both these players a chance if they are to escape the spectre of Championship football next season.

Hull, conversely, have no standout performer in the final third.  Nikica Jelavic boasts six goals this term while Abel Hernandez’ lightning start seems to have long fizzled out. Having scored in only three of their last ten Premier League games, goals are evidently Hull’s issue. Steve Bruce has sought to address this with a late signing in the transfer window, Dame N’Doye from Lokomotiv Moscow, who many would argue is suited to the Premier League.  A striker all about pace and power, he brings with him an impressive record from his time at Champions League group stage stalwarts FC Copenhagen.  Having scored an impressive 88 goals in 138 appearances for the Danish side, his record has somewhat diminished during his time in Moscow.  Still averaging a goal every 2.5 games, Tigers fans will see him as a welcome addition to a strike-force lacking cutting edge.

Saturday’s game against Newcastle however, offered hope.  Despite a terrible sounding 3-0 defeat, Hull really should have had three of their own. Goal-line clearances and criminally under hit square passes proved Hull’s downfall, albeit thanks to two world class finishes and a deflection.  There can be no doubt they will be back in the goals again this season and I feel they will finish out of the relegation zone.

From goals scored and goals to be scored, now we turn to their suppliers.  While QPR may have the upper hand when it comes to strikers, Hull possess more quality throughout the rest of the pitch.  As passing sideways was clearly the cause of defeat for Hull at the weekend, it seems obvious that with Jelavic up front and Tom Huddlestone in midfield, a more direct style of play suits perfectly.  Huddlestone’s ability to play 40 yard passes dovetails beautifully with Jelavic’s ability to win the ball and play it out to Robbie Brady or Ahmed Elmohamady, who can use their pace to turn defences and whip crosses into the penalty box.  The incredibly astute addition of Mohamed Diame last summer also means Steve Bruce has the required steel in midfield to play a simple, direct brand of 4-4-2.  This can keep his side afloat as it creates chances whilst remaining responsible at the back.

Things are bleak from here on out for QPR unfortunately.  Their midfield reads like a veritable who’s who of unfulfilled potential and over the hill Redknapp favourites (not dissimilar to their defence).  While Leroy Fer provides some standout talent and potential, the likes of Joey Barton, Matt Phillips, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Karl Henry make for tough reading and even worse watching.  A lack of quality in these players (while they provide plenty of work-rate and aggression) makes it a wonder Austin has scored the goals he has.  Sandro provides further evidence of unfulfilled potential in Redknapp’s old boys club, while ignoring Jordan Mutch on the bench and now selling him is nothing short of poor management.  A promising player in Cardiff’s ultimately unsuccessful season, 7 goals and numerous assists surely made him a better candidate for a midfield starting berth than the once capped 32 year old Barton.

Behind a sub-standard midfield however, we find categorically the worst defence in the Premier League.  Having leaked a league high 42 goals, it is not hard to see why QPR still haven’t picked up a point away from home.  In a defence seemingly lacking one decent all round centre-half, they are surely doomed to relegation.  In one group they have Richard Dunne, Rio Ferdinand and Clint Hill.  All good players in their day (Rio in fact one of the best), but for all their experience, nous and ability to read the game, they simply are not as quick or strong as they once were, meaning lesser opponents get an easy ride against them.

In the other camp they have Nedeem Onouha, Steven Caulker and Armand Traore.  Players blessed with pace and strength, but unfortunately so prone to errors they simply cannot be trusted.  This is particularly worrying for Caulker who since his move to QPR, seems to have defied all the plaudits thrown his way while at Spurs and Cardiff, damaging his once bright prospects.  Nor does Robert Green in goal seem an adequate replacement for Julio Cesar, the latter a Champions League winner and the former perennially drifting between the Premier League and the Championship.

This is where Hull are head and shoulders above their immediate rivals. In Curtis Davies they have one of the premier league’s most underrated centre-backs – good at his job and a natural leader.  If nothing else he should be enough to tighten up Hull’s defence that little bit, in order to drag them out of the relegation zone. Promising players like Andrew Robertson form a good balance with the more experienced Michael Dawson and Premier League stalwart Maynor Figueroa.  Backed up by a generally reliable Allan McGregor in goal, provided the defence accept their limitations on the ball and allow those in front of them to do more with it, Hull should be safe once they cut out individual errors.

The relegation places are not a nice place to be, but what will define the teams currently in them is how they react to the challenge.  Hull undoubtedly have the quality required to get out of the zone, particularly when teams like Aston Villa have only scored 11 goals this season.  QPR meanwhile find themselves in an ever deepening mess, with manager Harry Redknapp walking away due to a knee operation.  Speculation has already mounted whether he knew his ship was sinking after a lack of January signings, having been given the dreaded vote of confidence not two weeks previously by owner Tony Fernandes.  Even with a change at the helm, I think QPR’s issues are too great to solve within six months and by the end of May, we’ll be seeing a clear out of older players on high wages following relegation.  This should give the club a chance to bring in some new, younger, hungrier players.  Perhaps, relegation could be just what QPR need.

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