Should QPR boss Hughes abandon his winning formula?
The Rs boss has a wealth of strikers at his disposal - but should he consider switching to 4-4-2?
If Mark Hughes is to get the best from QPR’s array of attacking weaponry this season the Rangers boss may be forced to depart from very the system which kept his side in the Premier League.
Throughout the managerial career, Hughes has relied on the 4-4-2 system. It is the formation he has employed at Blackburn Rovers, and latterly at Manchester City and Fulham; two banks of four behind two strikers, at least one of whom is a guaranteed regular goal-scorer.
It is a system he attempted to replicate – with varying success – after he took over as QPR boss in January. From his first match against Newcastle United at St James’ Park on January 15, when Heidar Helguson and Jay Bothroyd led the line, Hughes’s inclination was to play 4-4-2.
This was partly due to the form of Djibril Cisse, QPR’s livewire Frenchman who scored six goals after arriving from Lazio, strikes which were to play a crucial part in their ultimate survival.
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However, it was Cisse’s lengthy suspensions, earned by red cards at home to Wolves and away to Sunderland, which were to force Hughes to field an alternative – and far more effective – formation. From 4-4-2, Hughes switched to 4-2-3-1, with spectacular results.
Seven days after Cisse’s red card against Sunderland, the Rs entertained Arsenal at Loftus Road. Minus Cisse, Hughes reverted to a three-man midfield comprised of new signing Samba Diakite, skipper Joey Barton and the veteran Shaun Derry. Arsenal’s central midfield trio of Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Alex Song were comprehensively out-manoeuvred as QPR won 2-1.
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That result represented a turning point for Hughes and QPR. From that day in March until the end of the season, the manager was able to name virtually the line-up side week after week.
The question for Hughes now, and one which he will have been considering in his side’s pre-season games against Sabah, Kelantan and Persebaya, is which system is more effective?
The signing of Andy Johnson provides an insight into his thinking. Johnson knows Zamora well, the two having played together under Hughes at Fulham, and he has featured prominently in pre-season. With Johnson in tow, Hughes has two potential partnerships: Zamora and Cisse, and Zamora and Johnson. It seems that a return to 4-4-2 could well be on the cards.
Hughes can also call on Heidar Helguson and Jay Bothroyd, assuming both players stay at the club. Both are far more comfortable playing off another striker rather than in the lone role.
Such a move could be seen as a gamble. The big problem for QPR when playing 4-4-2 last season was ball retention: their possession was simply too poor, with the men in the middle, usually two from the trio of Derry, Alejandro Faurlin and Barton, frequently ceding possession. Too often the ball failed to reach the two men up front.
Additionally, Jamie Mackie, playing on the right of QPR’s middle four, was restricted, unable to push forward for fear of leaving his defence exposed. There was also the problem of Adel Taarabt, the Moroccan producing a number of listless displays on the left of midfield.
The difference this season could well prove a decisive one: the arrival of Ji-Sung Park. Park spent much of his time as a Manchester United player occupying a spot in central midfield. An excellent player in possession, Park’s presence alongside Diakite could provide Rangers with the ability in central midfield to convince Hughes to let the shackles off, particularly at home.
Against Kelantan, in the second of QPR’s pre-season matches, Hughes began with Taarabt playing off Cisse in a 4-4-1-1 system, with Hogan Ephraim joining Diakite in central midfield, another variation of 4-4-2 which Hughes may consider.
Certainly, it would be surprising if Hughes totally abandoned the system in which QPR thrived last season, one which gave a second lease of life to Taarabt, playing on the left of a front three, and also brought the best from inspirational figures such as Mackie and Diakite.
It is a system not without drawbacks. Playing a lone striker, Rangers lose some of their potency, particularly if that one striker is Zamora, who scored just twice since he signed in January.
Aside from Cisse, who is ill-suited to the lone role, Rangers are lacking a regular goal-scorer. Hughes may of course attempt to address that deficiency by dipping into the transfer market.
The choice is an intriguing one: does Hughes stick with his 4-2-3-1, opting for solidity, organisation, and building on the platform which he set at the tail-end of last season, which relied largely on goals from the players around Zamora?
Or does the manager go back to his roots, abandon the three-man midfield, and attempt to bring the best from his striking trio of Zamora, Cisse and Johnson?
The answer could well be both. The addition of Johnson has widened Hughes’s number of options. Away from home he will almost certainly stick with 4-2-3-1. At Loftus Road however, where the onus will be on QPR to attack teams, it would be no surprise to see Hughes return to his tried and trusted 4-4-2.
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