The Indisputable Importance of Marc Pugh.
Functional pragmatists seldom get the adulation they deserve on a football pitch. Dependable and consistent they are an unfashionable yet quintessential element of any team. They are a particular breed of footballer who performs their duties somewhat anonymously until the rare occasion arises where they do something noticeable, reminding us all that they are still on the pitch. Unlike the Mavericks they are not entertainers. They aren’t the players that get us supporters out of our seats nor are they the individuals we sing about religiously. And very few if any of us personalise our shirts with their name.
It was no surprise therefore when Marc Pugh’s departure from Loftus Road garnered little to no reaction when announced two weeks ago. Though many fans were grateful for his contribution the vast majority were unperturbed at the termination of his contract. Apathy towards his exit was perhaps understandable. Pugh had made 27 league appearances this season, mostly from the bench; weighing in with two goals and three assists. For a player revered on the South Coast, who had dropped out of the Premier League in search of first-team football, more was probably expected.
Fans expectations though were always too high. Pugh had spent the second half of last season on loan at Hull City, and despite being a key element of the Bournemouth side that won promotion from the Championship in 2015, he had become a fringe player in the top flight. 32 on arrival at Loftus Road, this was not the same industrial game changer he had once been. The winger had evolved into a more disciplined all-round midfielder; adept at managing games and balancing the attributes of his teammates. Rangers fans expecting anything more than steady performances were always going to be disappointed.
But with two defeats from two since football’s resurrection Pugh’s absence is arguably being felt. In unprecedented times the significance of seasoned professionals is only heightened. Their influence off the pitch, in particular, carries greater importance. Not only are they crucial to ensuring that standards are not allowed to slip, they are vital in guiding young squads, such as our own, through unknown times. Synonymous for his ‘foodiefootballer’ Instagram page, Pugh had become a popular figure in the dressing room; frequently bringing his homemade recipes in to training with him. And with Apple Crumble loaf and lemon drizzle no longer on the menu the teams moral seems to have taken a hit
The lack of morale seems to be translating onto the pitch too. Though largely a squad player, in the League games when he has started we have looked a far better team. His ability on the left to compliment the attacking flare of Eberechi Eze and Bright Osayi-Samuel with graft and control have made us a more assured outfit. And his experience is vital too to Ryan Manning; who continues to adapt to his role at left-back. In truth when Pugh plays we are more complete. Games may be less exciting but we are an improved outfit; more controlled and balanced and far more efficient at getting results. And with him providing greater security in midfield Bright and Eze are given greater freedom to express themselves, something which we can all agree is beneficial to the team.
Admittedly the sample size is small, but our results are vastly improved when Pugh starts. Of the 11 league games he has started this season we have won six, drawn four and lastly only once: away at Reading on Boxing Day. Averaging 2 points per game we would find ourselves top of the Championship with 78 points had these results translated across the season. In contrast when Pugh is absent from the start we have won only 8 of our 28 games, losing 16. Our average points intake is also halved, and would leave us at the foot of the Championship on 39 points. Obviously such differences in form cannot be attributed to Pugh alone but his impact on the team is statistically visible.
When Pugh doesn’t start Mark Warburton has a tendency to deploy Chair, Eze and Osayi-Samuel alongside one another. On paper this a formula that should work. The trio are undoubtedly our finest players, and all carry significant market value should we look to move them on. But in reality, when the they start together our results are underwhelming. In these 13 games our points per game total stands at less than one. We have won four, losing nine. And have not won a game with them in the starting XI since the victory over Leeds in January. More worryingly, we have lost the last five games when Warburton has deployed them together, and haven’t scored in our last four.
Why are results so poor with the trio in the team? The issue is one of balance. Both Eze and Chair perform to the best of their abilities when operating as traditional tens. When one is forced to play wide their natural instinct remains to cut inside. The pair end up operating within one another’s space, and nullify each other’s threats. Width can come from Manning, but as he bombs forward he vacates enormous space at the back. With limited pace in our defence, and without an athletic holding midfielder who can cover ground at ease, we find ourselves exposed and particularly vulnerable to counter-attacking teams. The onus then falls upon Bright to essentially carry the team, and whilst he has enjoyed an excellent season this remains a heavy burden for him to carry alone. If he has an off day or is crowded out by multiple defenders we cease to have an impact going forward. And with the team still incapable of defending defeats become inevitable.
Pugh was the solution to the problem; a necessary counterweight in the midfield. With him gone and our numbers already stretched it’s difficult to see quite how Warburton can establish any balance. Manning could admittedly be moved to the left side of midfield, but with Lee Wallace having disappeared we have nobody to slot in at left-back. Yoann Barbet spent most of his time at Brentford in that role, but with a shortage of centre-backs following Grant Hall’s departure moving the Frenchman is not a viable option. For similar reasons, a return to a back three is also unlikely. Jack Clarke and Faysal Bettache are options on the wing, but it doesn’t appear Warburton considers either ready for the rigours of consistent Championship football. As such he is likely to persist with Chair, Bright and Eze regardless of its impact on our results.
But with the gap at the bottom shrinking with every game that strategy could jeopardise our safety. On 50 points and sat comfortably in mid-table it’s easy to suggest we have nothing to play for. With Hull looking doomed and Barnsley certainties for the drop, one relegation place remains vacant. Middlesbrough and Luton are both enjoying a bounce under new managers, and Charlton too have found their feet again. Whilst Stoke City’s form since Michael O’Neill arrived has also been strong. If Huddersfield start picking up points and our dire results persist, all of a sudden our predicament will become increasingly precarious.
When reflecting on the decision to release Pugh, one can’t help but feel that ageism is creeping into the game. Football is now a more profitable industry than at any point in its history. As moneyball grips an increasing number of clubs are now utilising transfer windows as investment opportunities rather as than to improve their team. This has placed a greater emphasis on youth, and players over 30 are no longer fashionable. Unlikely to be sold for a profit these players in the twilight of the career are now deemed worthless. But if results fail to improve and squeaky bum time comes a-knocking the value of Marc Pugh will increase. And in the long term the
decision not retain his services may prove a price the club should have paid.