How Beale will set up at QPR – and which players are up to the task

by Dan Lambert and Micah Chudleigh

Michael Beale was announced the new QPR manager (or as titled ‘head coach’) earlier last week after a process of rigorous recruitment from the board.

He’s a highly respected coach, and was the ‘tactical brains’ behind the Steven Gerrard regime. So, what will he bring?

Beale’s style of play

Beale described himself as a coach who likes to play ‘high energy and attacking football’. It’s obviously a summary of his style, but it’s rather vague as to what is high energy and attacking football as it can be played in many ways to that brand.

Over the time at Rangers and Aston Villa under Steven Gerrard they have usually deployed a 4-3-3 with 2 roaming 10s as the ‘wingers’, with the other formations he has used being the 4-3-1-2, 4-2-3-1 and occasionally the 4-4-2 diamond shape, the latter two being more in-game systems rather than starting ones.

Whilst over the course of Beale’s coaching career thus far he’s deployed an exclusive back four system, it isn’t a set system. There are hybrid elements to it.

In possession, and probably one of the more demanding positions in a Beale/Gerrard side are the full backs, seeing as they provide all the natural width. Realistically, they’re going to have to be mobile, athletic, be tactically disciplined (come inside and show wide in and out of possession) and have a good delivery.

Beale was part of Steven Gerrard’s managerial debut at Rangers (Image: Rangers FC)

No, we’re not going to be able to use a complete full back at championship level, which makes the role even more intriguing, as for me the standard of Championship full backs/wing-backs aren’t of the highest quality, so he may have to prioritise specific skill sets in his full back role.

The role of the no.10s are interesting too. Free to roam, can come inside or show width. With the narrow system, it will rely on the midfield 3, and two 10s to be able to be technically gifted, to play through teams centrally and access the 10s between the lines, similar to what we did under Warburton.

Beale shares some similar patterns of play with what we had under Warburton. Creating overloads either against the opposition CBs or out wide with the 10s, full backs and even wide CMs.

And as well as overloads, he has spoken about the ‘flexibility of his front three,’ most definitely through positional rotations (e.g., the Chair, Willock and Lee Wallace left half space rotations/combination play we knew so well).

In terms of variations on the ball, there is some emphasis with playing out from the back, but from what we’ve seen footage-wise there might not be strong emphasis on it, like we did under Warburton.

Warburton’s side played some pretty football – but some fans felt it had grown stale (Image: QPR FC)

It’s also worth noting that when building out from the back, the wide CMs on occasions drop into the full back areas to create numerical superiority in build-up play, whilst allowing the full backs to push higher to provide the natural width.

Out of possession is where it gets more intriguing in terms of the set block and pressing structures and traps. Off the ball, it’s a narrow 4-3-3 midblock, with the two 10s and striker (or vice versa) staying high to create what you could call a rest attack (structure of the front 3 in order to react to turnovers), to create counter attacking situations.

The aim also is to prevent opposition teams’ access through central areas both in the sense of the midblock but also the front three, blocking access to the pivot player (no.6) or CMs in build-up.

4-3-3 midblock

There are many advantages to a midblock – it protects central areas (areas closest to goal) so that’s good from a statistical POV in terms of preventing higher quality chances. On the other hand, it does afford teams wide areas as shown in the image above.

A lot of crosses, or ball possession will be allowed in those areas, but unless the quality of full backs/wing backs are of top quality in this division from crossing situations, it could be to our advantage.

Statistically speaking crosses are a poor way of creating chances, in terms of chance quality – so it would be better to allow deeper crosses than cutbacks from the byline to the edge of the six-yard box.

It’s not just about sitting in a set 4-3-3 block under Beale. There are also pressing traps and structures used to regain possession quickly. To some people’s disappointment, it’s not a pure pressing side – Beale’s side press from triggers (similar to under Warburton) and in specific structures that you’ll find interesting.

For example…

I’ll highlight a situation of the pressing structure from an opposition goal kick/build-up: (note Beale’s team are in white for this instance).

Figure 1: Phase 1 of the press from oppo build up
Figure 2: Phase 2 creating the pressing trap

In this example, the RCB of a back 3 has the ball. In a Beale side, they rarely apply pressure on the first line (CBs) and instead block off the 2nd line centrally. This allows the opposition full backs to be ‘free’ and the obvious pass is a CB -> FB one.

Often, they play it, and this triggers the press to start. But rather than the wide ST/10 press the full back, the ball near CM presses the full back as shown in Figure 1. This is because it also allows the front 3 to stay high in positioning for both the pressing trap (I’ll explain later) and set for counter attacks.

As the ball near CM presses the full back, the wide ST/10 whilst remaining high blocks off the back-pass to the RCB- starting to create the wide pressing trap. The no.10 has dropped into the midfield 3 and as shown in Figure 2 it’s now 3v3 in the midfield (all man to man).

As the ball near CM presses the full back he also acts as a cover shadow to block off the central pass into one of the opposition’s midfielders (as shown by the arrow in figure 2) to remain compact centrally whilst also applying pressure to the full back on the ball.

So, there’s no access to the RCB for a back-pass, there’s no access to the nearest CM inside, and there’s no access to one of the strikers down the channel as he is isolated 2v1 with the left back and CB – this therefore creates the ‘pressing trap’ and is an easy access to regaining the ball through a turnover or the opposition being forced long.

There are a few patterns regarding the press:

  • Ball side CM presses the FB
  • Ball sided aggression (overload in numerical superiority) as Beale claims far side is ‘inactive until the switch’
  • Blocking passing lanes

Rangers fans might also recognise that this pressing structure or at least the ball near CM pressing the full back, was a replica of under Warburton when he used the 4-4-2 diamond in a few games at the back end of last season (Huddersfield, Derby, Preston).

Whilst in Beale’s side the ball near CM will always press the full back, if we opt to use the 4-3-1-2 formation it basically becomes the 4-4-2 diamond we briefly knew as an in-game system.

What will be interesting is how suitable the current squad will be (with new additions too) to Michael Beale’s system.

We’ve taken a look at how the current crop of QPR players might fare under the new head coach:

The midfield

Beale believes in the midfield, essentially, playing in midfield. He describes the midfield as part of the ‘core’ of the team that are expected to stay in place and hold their position. The job will be to keep the ball ticking over, feed the front three and be aggressive when the opposition counter-attack. Based on the current personnel at the club, this does seem like it has the potential to be a very sensible fit.

Luke Amos could kick on from his strong end to the season (Image: QPR FC)

Of the retained midfielders, Rangers midfielders scored a grand total of 7 goals last season – 6 of which came from one player, Luke Amos. There are no Frank Lampards getting 15 goals a season in this midfield, but there are some very good Championship midfielders there – especially when you consider how well they pass the ball. Every single one of our midfielders completed over 75% of their passes last season, with Dozzell coming in at number 1, just shy of 87%.

Dozzell, for all his talent and inconsistency, has a chance to really kick-start his QPR career under Beale. The new manager will want the technical side of the game, but will require his midfielders to be aggressive and switched-on during defensive transitions.

I believe he has those qualities, but will need to stay switched on for 90 minutes. He played nearly half as many minutes as Johansen last season, If he features more heavily this time around, how will he respond to that?

Speaking of the club captain, Stefan is another one who might find a new lease of life under this new regime. His legs are clearly going, but the brain and the work rate are still there. If his workload can be reduced and his touches are kept in a centralised area, you might see a rejuvenated Stefan Johansen. Of course, football isn’t always that simple and his relationship with the club – coupled with his wages – make his future somewhat unclear.

The club captain’s performances left some fans divided last season (Image: QPR FC)

Finally, we have arguably one of the best defensive midfielders in the Championship in Sam Field and his role will be vitally important. Beale talks about the flexibility of having one of your midfielders drop-in and make a back three, allowing the wing backs to push higher up the pitch and affect the final third. If that role isn’t Sam Field to a T, what is?

If we are to lose Rob Dickie this summer, Rangers will be losing one of the best weapons to play out from the back within the entire league. With this in mind, Sam Field dropping in and giving the centre-backs an extra option to pass to may be able to negate aspects of that loss.

Rangers still need another midfielder – arguably two, but one for sure. Sam Field stands as our only defensive midfielder with the qualities to drop in and make a back three.

There are options in the U23’s, but for a role this specialised, it’s hard to tell tell you which of the youngsters can do it, purely as most fans (us included) haven’t spent enough time watching them to know. It firmly seems that Faysal Bettache has the qualities to play in this midfield, but not as the defensive player. This is not the top priority by any means, but should definitely be on the list.

The front three

Interesting one, this. As previously noted, Beale’s Rangers side played with their wide players – Kent and Hagi, for instance – tucking in to essentially create a 4-3-2-1, at times. On top of that, depending on who you believe, there’s an idea floating around that Beale was the ‘brains’ behind Steven Gerrard at Rangers – not the first nor will he be the last highly-rated assistant manager to receive such praise.

With this in mind, (Glasgow) Rangers famously played with ‘two no.10s’. We, funnily enough, have two very good no.10’s ourselves in Chris Willock and Ilias Chair.

‘Illy and Willy’ have quickly become QPR’s star players (Image: QPR FC)

There doesn’t seem to be the same level of interest or inevitability of either of those two leaving, the way there was when Ebere Eze departed for Palace. This could be down to the lack of teams playing in systems that allow for number 10s or a general feeling that neither are cut-out for this level just yet – whatever the case is, these two players staying will be a huge bonus to Michael Beale in setting up his side next season.

Keeping your best players in their best position is so important. Last season, our 3-4-2-1/3-5-2 allowed Chair and Willock to take up those spaces just behind the striker, floating in and out of the left and right half spaces and attacking the box from deep.

The modern game has seen attacking midfielders shoehorned into wide positions or as advanced 8s, but neither seem anywhere near as effective on the flanks. These roles may not make Willock or Chair more ‘sellable,’ but it does ensure they’ll play a role that is already suited to them.

The striker situation seems to be that Beale will have to get the very best out of Lyndon Dykes. The system will likely demand a hard worker out of possession, a role which Dykes and Bonne could fulfil, but with the onus on the the 10s in behind, Beale will be hoping the Scotsman can go up a gear in terms of his goal-scoring. To his credit, Lyndon over-performed his xG over the past season and with the addition of more forward-thinking, athletic full backs, he can add more.

I think the club will give Bonne a chance. His form seemed to jump off a cliff at Ipswich but he showed in the first half of the season that he can score goals. The thing with Bonne is, his movement has always been really good. The question is whether he can be a consistent finisher to match.

Could Bonne recapture his early Ipswich form? (Image: Ipswich Town FC)

The opposite seems to be the case for Charlie Kelman, who should get some pre-season action this summer. Albert Adomah proudly proclaimed him as the best finisher at the club a year ago – a big statement when you consider Charlie Austin was part of the squad at that point.

In his brief cameos and league cup starts, we’ve yet to see this, as he doesn’t quite assert himself into games the way you hope he would. This will come with age and, hopefully, a bit of fine-tuning from his new manager.

The defence

The full back position is going to need addressing.

With the new coach placing serious emphasis on his full backs, this should be a top priority. The rest of the squad is contracted and we have depth in most positions, but here we are seriously lacking. Niko and Kakay have yet to show that level of attacking threat and dynamism that this team severely lacks, so putting the onus on them for a season seems risky.

Our view is that Moses should be kept. West London Sport reported that the club holds an option to extend his current deal for a further year, essentially meaning he’s a QPR player if the club decide to keep him. The club is operating on a small budget and in a limited time frame and with the season starting earlier than ever, I’d prefer to address the right-position as soon as possible.

Odubajo has been inconsistent, but his energy, athleticism and instinct to get into the final third make him a fit for the new manager. Additionally, his ambidexterity and ability to play both full back positions make him a serious asset in terms of depth.

Odubajo was the classic ‘Warburton signing’ – but he could find a place in Beale’s plans (Image: QPR FC)

Whether Niko Hamalainen is the player the hierarchy believe he is or not, he would be the only left-back in over a 46-game season. Throw in the potential of Odubajo walking out the door, the prospect looks risky at best – especially when you consider we lost both of our left-backs to injury at various points over the season. There’s a strong case to make that Odubajo is better on the left side, with his ability to invert being the driving force behind his excellent assist at home to Hull.

The right side should be a priority – although there are strong links to Fortuna Sittard left-back George Cox. What this means for Moses remains unclear, but if he were to stay, it would likely be as a right-sided full back option. With Kakay deputising, this would leave Rangers with flexibility surrounding Adomah. Is he disciplined enough defensively to be a right full back?

With Beale wanting his midfield to stay in place and be flexible enough to drop into the back 3, will the team just naturally be able to cover for him? It’s a situation worth keeping an eye on, but his skillset combined with his age means he’s far more suited to being one of the no.10’s in behind the striker.

With Barbet departing and the switch to a centre-back pairing imminent, Rangers have 4 senior centre backs at the club. Masterson, a player we’ve been impressed by on several occasions, could see a lot more minutes next year. He is comfortable on the ball and has shown a Jimmy Dunne-esque attitude to defending – his heroic performance against Leeds in 2020 coming to mind.

The question will be whether he can compete over a whole season; we don’t know the exact reasons Warburton felt he wasn’t ready for first team action, but at the age of 23, you would hope he has begun to iron them out.

The departure of fan favourite Barbet leaves a gap – but we’ll always have that game against West Brom… (Image: QPR FC)

Will there be a direct Barbet replacement? Probably not without a sale happening and the valuable assists seem to be Dieng, Dickie, Willock and Chair. The latter seem likely to stay for previous reasons stated, but the former – Dickie especially – may be of interest to a number of clubs. Things get a little more complicated if Dickie goes, as he is our best centre-back at playing out and losing him will mean a competent replacement will be needed. For me, the very-highly rated Harry Darling seems like the best fit.

He and his centre-back partner, Dean Lewington, completed the most average passes per game in League One last season. Interestingly, when you consider the importance of pressing in Beatle’s system, Darling averaged the 5th most offsides won in his division, whilst being dribbled past 0.2 times per game. He seems a natural fit to replace the QPR number 4, but with his age and only playing in the third tier, there may be a period of adaptation for the 22 year-old.

There is reason to be cheerful in this new chapter at QPR. This coach seems to have a very clear blueprint for his style of play and this squad seems to fit really nicely into his plans.

The likes of Chair and Willock can really kick on and become two of the best players in the league – if they aren’t already.

The important thing is recruitment, and if we can back Beale with the kind of shrewd, low-cost signings that have brought us the likes of Field and Willock, we can be excited about some really good football at Loftus Road next season.

Twitter: @danlambert_ & @libaw

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