by Micah Chudleigh
I love Ilias Chair. He’s great. Footballing ability aside, I think he really does love the club. He is essentially as close to an academy product as you can get without being one. And to be honest, he seems like a really nice guy. Other than Shodipo and Owens (I guess), he’s our longest serving player and appearance-wise, he has more than anyone at the club.
He’s a QPR boy. One of our own.
He’s also judged to a ridiculously high standard. Ebere Eze was the most talented player QPR have had since Adel Taarabt, so the follow up act had a task on their hands. Up stepped another Moroccan to the prestigious number 10 shirt – shifting from the left of Warburton’s midfield to its focal point.
They play the same position but are far from the same player. Eze’s height and wider frame allowed him to hold his own physically – Hull away in 2019 being a great example. Eze scored twice and embarrassed established championship footballers that couldn’t even kick him. Eze was much more of a risk taker as well – remember that pass to Nakhi Wells at home to Cardiff? Yeah. He had a flair for the spectacular that very few in football have at Championship level.
Chair is a bit different. He’s smaller and, in his early QPR years, you would often find him outmuscled by sides looking to silence him physically. He’s a very high IQ player, but sometimes he feels too smart for his own good. His passing risks are more calculated; often times you’ll find Chair hanging onto the ball a too long in hopes of finding the ‘right’ pass. There’s are no ‘Eze’ moments, inevitably meaning he’s judged extremely harshly.
His movement is superb. Not to keep bringing up Hull, but his leveller at Loftus Road this year was the mark of an intelligent player. As Greaves was distracted by Austin, Ilias slipped between he and Alfie Jones finding himself unmarked at the end of Odubajo’s cross. There’s loads of moments where Chair finds little pockets of space, either to receive the ball or put it in the back of the net.
This makes him far more effective against the sides that used to kick him out of games. He looked more comfortable on the ball last season, attempting almost 5 dribbles per game according to EFL Analysis. His assist numbers (5 last season) aren’t spectacular, but you can argue he’s never really had a full season with a prolific goal scorer in front of him. Often times the Moroccan is the one the team is looking to when they need a goal.
Which brings me to what I love most about Ilias.
He’s a match winner.
It became a joke how often he was pulled moments out of nowhere for Stevenage and, despite some ups and downs, this has carried on here. Huddersfield at home was a cagey affair that was decided by a trademark Ilias Chair curler from the edge of the box. Birmingham were put to the sword by an excellent double from our little genius. Even Barnsley at home, scoring the goal to keep us in the game, he picked the ball up and said ‘I’m going past whoever I need to and I’m scoring’.
There’s some mystery surrounding Chair’s AFCON campaign, but those with short memories forget we were expected to ‘collapse’ when he and Dieng went off to represent Morocco and Senegal respectively. Or in Chair’s case, barely representing his country – playing 36 minutes in total. Ilias went to AFCON nursing an injury he clearly hadn’t recovered from whilst Rangers ironically won 5 out of 5 in his absence.
You know how the rest of the story goes. Chair’s fitness was a huge part of our demise last season, as he never quite looked himself again until we were truly out of the play-off picture. A step slower, his touch a little sloppy and his productivity dropping, he was not the same as the unstoppable Ilias from the first half of the season.
What never waned, however, was that trademark brand Ilias Chair grit. Much is made of his size, but you don’t make it in the English game at that height without an almost delusional level of determination and desire. He’s a mercurial, twinkle-toes dribbler with the heart of a Rottweiler. His willingness to harry the other team is a big part of the reason Warburton so was so comfortable using him as a ‘second striker’ next to Dykes for pressing purposes last season. With what Michael Beale wants to do with his number 10’s, it’s very likely that side of his game will be invaluable this season too.
Where he will be judged is the other end of the pitch. Early pre-season indicators suggest he’s added a bit more directness and incisiveness to his game – that will have to carry over into the season. 10 goals and 10 assists is the target set by his manager and I would argue that it’s a realistic one. His output has been good, but there’s still some room – 9 goals and 5 assists is impressive, but not exceptional.
Again, you could argue that the assist numbers might be better with a more prolific set of strikers – it’s fair argument. But playing Devil’s Advocate, with quicker decisions and a little less caution, could Chair have created even better chances for our forwards? That has to be the challenge – we know that Dykes and Bonne aren’t lethal, so how many great chances can you create for them?
Law of averages, right? That comes with that directness we’ve seen from him in pre-season. How many clear-cut, gilt-edged chances can you put on a plate for them? That run and gentle lay-off for Bonne in the FC Hallascher friendly is exactly what I’m talking about; purely by running at their backline, space was created for Bonne to receive the ball and slot home. Championship sides won’t afford him that much time but that’s what we need to see more of.
He laughed about it when asked about the targets at the club’s kit launch; joking around with the demeanour of a man who believes it’s achievable. He absolutely can. He’s been in and around 10 goals for the last couple of seasons – likely would’ve hitting it last term without AFCON and COVID. In terms of assists? He can look to famed nutmeg artist and his partner in crime, Chris Willock, as an example. 11 assists playing behind the same strikers Chair is, all that before his season was cut short in March. Mick Beale is building this team around the talent and creativity of his two playmakers – and with Willock still recovering, the onus will be on Chair from minute one at Ewood Park.
But he can handle it. He is undoubtedly one of the best number 10’s in the league – the next step is to separate himself as one of his best players, full stop.. If he can do well, then I’m almost certain QPR will do well.