The QPR Verdict: Lack of leadership is crippling Hughes’ survival bid
With Joey Barton struggling in his role as captain, should Mark Hughes hand the armband to Luke Young?
If Mark Hughes was under any misconceptions as to the size of the task facing him at QPR, they were comprehensively dispelled in 45 catastrophic minutes at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday afternoon.
In less than a month in charge, Hughes has overseen one Premier League win against Wigan Athletic, a draw at Aston Villa, and defeats to Newcastle United, Wolves and Blackburn.
His latest setback is the most revealing, and perhaps the most concerning problem highlighted at Ewood Park in the opening half was the lack of leaders within the QPR side.
On Saturday, against a team with one win in six and which had shipped seven goals in their previous match, QPR came off second-best. Their ability to wilt in the heat of battle has become a recurring theme this season.
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From Hughes’s captain, Joey Barton, it was another disappointing display. Back in September, it came as something of a surprise to many when Barton was awarded the captaincy by then manager Neil Warnock, just days after the midfielder signed for the club.
Questions were raised over whether a player with such a suspect temperament would embrace the added responsibility, both on and off the pitch, which comes with possession of the armband.
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While Barton has not singularly failed in the role, his impact as skipper has been, at best, limited.
As well as his inconsistent performances, and putting aside his activities on social networking side Twitter, Barton remains a figure who too easily becomes embroiled in controversy, as his clashes with Wolves’ Karl Henry and Norwich City’s Bradley Johnson prove. His sending off against Norwich for an apparent head-butt on Johnson resulted in a leaderless QPR throwing away a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1.
It has, perhaps, been a case of too much too soon for Barton, who on his day remains a fine midfielder, but who has been a QPR player for barely six months having endured a tumultuous end to his spell at Newcastle, and as he seeks to rebuild his image, the burden of captaincy at Loftus Road may be a pressure he could do without.
It could be argued that Hughes, after replacing Warnock, had little option but to allow Barton to retain the armband, with few other options standing out.
It is often experienced servants of the club who make the best captain material, yet of the 11 players who started against Blackburn, only three – Paddy Kenny, Fitz Hall and Adel Taarabt – played on the opening day of the season against Bolton.
However, Hughes could turn to Luke Young. Although a summer signing, the Rangers right-back has been arguably the success story of the season, and easily the most effective of the club’s summer signings.
With more than 300 appearances for the likes of Tottenham, Aston Villa and Charlton, and seven England caps, Young possesses a cool temperament and the necessary experience to take the armband.
If Hughes were to switch the captaincy, Young is the obvious choice. Of the remaining candidates, Adel Taarabt led the side up from the Championship last season, but the shape and dynamic of the team has changed and is no longer built around his presence.
Heidar Helguson established himself as a focal point in attack, but with the arrival of Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora finds himself further down the pecking order of strikers.
Shaun Derry provides another option and certainly portrays leadership qualities, but is technically limited and unsuited to a 4-4-2 formation. Like Helguson, he is unlikely to feature regularly between now and May.
Hughes may cast a wistful glance towards the two other promoted sides this season. Both Norwich and Swansea have thrived in the top flight, with the Canaries currently eighth in the table, a staggering 14 points above QPR, and Swansea 11th. Both are virtually assured of safety with more than three months of the season remaining.
The common factor in both success stories has been the form of the captains. For Norwich, striker Grant Holt has led by example, and is his side’s top-scorer with 11 goals in all competitions.
For Swansea, meanwhile, the form of skipper Ashley Williams has been enough to convince his manager Brendan Rogers that the top Premier League sides will soon come calling.
“I don’t know what price you’d put on him,” Rogers said of Williams, who has played more than 160 consecutive games for the club. “I’m not so sure I’d swap him for many. He’s an absolute top, top player.”
The fact that both captains have led their side to almost certain survival so quickly will not be lost on Hughes. He now has a two-week break in which to prepare his side for the Premier League run-in, which begins with huge back-to-back home games against Fulham and Everton.
The struggle from this point will only become more arduous, and will increasingly call for a leader to rally his team-mates. But unless either Barton or anyone else in a Hooped shirt can finally step forward, QPR’s free-fall towards the bottom three will continue.
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