Winning without Willock is further proof that Mick Beale is evolving


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A 2-1 win for Queens Park Rangers against Reading on Friday night moved the R’s into third place in the Championship, and provided further proof of the burgeoning managerial talent of Mick Beale.

Despite being without talisman Chris Willock due to injury, the R’s were more than worthy of the victory against an opponent who started the evening a point and a place above them in the league table. The result means that Beale has now won seven of his first 13 games in charge of the west London club, and this was the first occasion that they have managed to collect three points when top-scorer Willock has not been available.

The second part of last season saw QPR collapse. Not in a dramatic way, or one that excites neutrals and delights rivals, but rather a slow disintegration that makes decisions such as handing permanent deals to Stefan Johansen and Charlie Austin, or recruiting Jeff Hendrick in an attempt to salvage hopes of a play-off spot, seem more misguided by the week. The services of the sometimes-loved, always-respected Mark Warburton were dispensed with, and a club that can often appear wed to the bust and boom associated with chaos was left yearning for something new and exciting.

Up stepped Beale, fresh from four years seemingly masterminding Steven Gerrard’s managerial career, thrust along the often-unsuccessful path of transitioning from second in command to chief decision maker at the age of 41. His pedigree as a coach at both youth level and with senior players is hard to question, but, as much as the supposed hustle and bustle of the Championship is overplayed by broadcasters, the fixture scheduling does make it a managerial test unlike any other.

Beale has already fallen victim to the fixture list. After a weekend win at Watford was followed up by a midweek victory against Hull, he stuck with the same starting XI for a third game in a row against Swansea at the start of September. QPR only lost 1-0 that day but were noticeably flat, and their new manager accepted that he was at fault as much as any of the players for not fully considering the physical demands of playing three matches in seven days.

They in fact managed to win three consecutive matches across just six days this week, and although at least a couple of the four personnel changes made for the Reading game were enforced, rotation, particularly in midfield, has proven decisive.

“The rotation in midfield has been really important to keep the freshness. That’s the reason why we are able to score in the last 10 minutes (against Reading), we still had legs on the pitch.

“What we are starting to see at the moment is that if QPR have got the majority of their best players available, then they can compete against the best teams in this league.”

– QPR manager Mick Beale

That defeat in South Wales is the only occasion this season that QPR have been beaten when the influential Willock has played. The club are still very much in a state of rehabilitation after years of ill-judged spending and even worse off-field decision making that characterised Tony Fernandes’ attempts to establish them as Premier League regulars. This has meant that Beale has had to make the most of what he’s got. Unfortunately, what he has had has been severely hampered by persistent injuries to the hamstring of his most influential player.

Willock scored the decisive goal in Tuesday’s 1-0 win at former league leaders Sheffield United before hobbling from the field not long after. Beale revealed post-Reading that his playmaker-cum-top goalscorer should return in three weeks’ time, but victory last night perhaps suggests that this team is not quite as dependent on the Arsenal academy graduate as initially seemed to be the case.

In the absence of Willock, the fluid and dynamic frontline of Ilias Chair and Tyler Roberts had a hulking great 6ft 2in Australian-born Scotsman bludgeoned in between them. Lyndon Dykes’ QPR career has had its moments, but the sense that Beale is building something he will not be a part of has been heightened by the fact that he had not started any games in the four-match unbeaten run leading up to the Reading encounter.

However, Beale found a way to utilise him on Friday night. Dykes was only involved sporadically, but he occupied centre-backs effectively, and he made the most of the game’s decisive moments when they fell his way. A stooping header to level the scores before the interval was executed with the accuracy of a frontman who has been playing often and finding the net regularly. His all-important late penalty displayed a level of composure that belied the fact that it was just his fifth Championship goal this calendar year.

“I’m delighted for him. He carries it (pressure) around his neck more than people realise. I work with the boy every day and he gives us everything he’s got. He knows he’d like to score more, and he knows the fans want him to score more.

“We never nominated a penalty taker. In the moment he picked the ball up and he went and took it. To pick that penalty up and score it late on shows the quality of the man.

“He actually apologised to me on Tuesday for the miss in the second half at Sheffield United. He doesn’t need to! He’s giving me everything.”

– QPR manager Mick Beale

The addition of an old-school target man did not mean that all of Beale’s well-laid tactical plans were put to waste. The opening 25 minutes saw a plethora of positional rotation and aggressive field positioning, leaving Reading with little time nor room to get within sniffing distance of their hosts. With Tim Iroegbunam dropping in at right-back, Ethan Laird was free to gallop into the opposition half. On the other side, Kenneth Paal would usually sit deeper and instead it would be captain Johansen who regularly occupied wide positions.

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It is however defensive improvements that have characterised QPR’s recent unbeaten run. They have conceded just twice across the last five games now, and, an accurate Andy Carroll penalty that found the top corner aside, a late Tom Ince free-kick was the only time that Seny Dieng was truly tested at Loftus Road. This recent solidity has been discovered despite four changes of centre-back pairing between games and, as on Friday, shifts to a three-man defence within matches – indicating it is quite possibly the outcome of good coaching rather than good fortune.

That it is not to say that this victory was by any means perfect. When the promising start did not yield an opening goal and the effervescent Laird was forced from the field through injury in the 25th minute and a claim for a stonewall penalty had been ignored, heads did seem to drop somewhat. Iroegbunam, who had a mightily impressive game all-in-all that was capped by winning the late spot-kick, gave the ball away in his own half for the first time on the half hour mark and proceeded to commit to a rash challenge in his penalty area trying to make amends. The force of the contact he made with the trailing leg of Lucas Joao was questionable, but it was undoubtedly an error on behalf of the Aston Villa loanee.

An unconvincing spell at the start of the second period was possibly more tangible evidence that Beale has some way to go before it can be suggested that he has completed football management. A spattering of long throws and set-pieces were either allowed to bounce in the penalty or were cleared unconvincingly, and had Carroll been closer to his sharpest and most disruptive, this could have caused more of a problem.

But QPR won, so those concerns can be magnified and picked apart on another occasion. For now, all concerned can simply marvel. We have reached that point where this story’s protagonist has ascended to the next level of their character progression. Mistakes have been made and learnt from. Obstacles have been placed in the way and avoided. The latest episode of mind-boggling EFL refereeing has been thoroughly watched, ultimately ignored, and deleted from memory until next weekend.

It is early in the season, the squad can hardly afford to suffer any further injuries, but those on the field were assured and confident against Reading throughout. This team and this manager are capable of producing better performances, both are young and still learning so will no doubt produce plenty that are also worse, but the way in which Beale has already made a clear and visible imprint on this team, and also altered and adapted that imprint over the past few weeks, is evidence enough that QPR are travelling in a positive direction.

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