After just a two-year absence from the Premier League, West Brom are back. A 2-2 draw at home to QPR, accompanied by Brentford’s loss to Barnsley, secured promotion. The Baggies ended up in second on 83 points with manager Slaven Bilić now able to have another shot at Premier League management after his previous stint at West Ham.
Mark Warburton’s men secured a 13th place finish in his first season in charge at QPR. It has to be said that this is an average achievement for a squad that had showed signs of early season promise. However, the loss of talismanic striker Nakhi Wells in January, alongside a defence that remained leaky throughout the season meant a mid-table finish.
This tactical analysis will cover the tactics of Bilic who made notable personnel changes to the system to counteract QPR’s expansive style of play. West Brom’s pressing from the front, alongside the naivety of QPR who continued to play out from the back, led to a dominant display. However, West Brom were unable to take a lot of their chances, whereas QPR were extremely clinical leaving the Baggies relieved that Brentford couldn’t pick up the three points they needed at home.
The xG reflects this as well. West Brom registered 1.98 xG throughout the course of 90 minutes, while QPR only had an xG of 0.42. It was a game that was befitting of the occasion with the drama of the Championship on show. The fact QPR very nearly went in at half time 1-0 up with an xG of only 0.10 reflected the pattern of this game.
Slaven Bilic made wholesale changes to his West Brom side. Kyle Bartley, Darnell Furlong, Filip Krovinović and Callum Robinson came into the side, in place of Ahmed Hegazi, Connor Townsend, Matt Phillips and Hal Robson Kanu going out of the side. The notable change among these was the inclusion of Robinson who came in for Robson Kanu. Robinson’s pace in behind and ability to press intensely was a key tactical change made by Bilić and one that we will explore in this analysis. Bilić went with his preferred 4-2-3-1, with the role of the front four key to the system that he wanted to implement throughout the 90 minutes.
On the other hand, Warburton only made one change with Bright Osayi Samuel coming in for Olamide Shodipo. This was most likely Osayi Samuel’s last game after attracting much interest from the likes of Club Brugge, Leicester and Brighton. Warburton also set up in a 4-2-3-1 with the extremely talented Ebere Eze playing a vital role in bringing his side back into the game in the second half.
The role of Robinson and the inside left channel
Callum Robinson’s return to the starting lineup was a brave move by Bilić at such a fragile time of the season, but it proved to be a masterstroke. Not only was Robinson a threat in behind the QPR backline, but at times he dropped deeper to draw out the centre-backs and create space for the likes of Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira.
His link-up play created numerous chances for the Baggies in the first half as he continued to drop in the half-spaces. However, his role changed in the second half as he played much higher and played beyond the centre-backs, which led to him scoring the decisive goal for the Baggies. His goal and assist are only a part of the overall impact he had on the game.
The first example is shown in the frame below. Robinson receives the ball from a throw-in and was able to hold it up, while attracting QPR’s right-sided players of Luke Amos and Osman Kaykay, inadvertently creating the space for Diangana to run into. Robinson finds the pass to Diangana and the chance eventually ends up with a Robinson header which evades the crossbar. This was typical of Robinson in the first half who continually dropped deeper with the aim of attracting as many defenders as possible to create space for their other flair players.
Kaykay’s defending left a lot to be desired in the first half and defensive tracking was not something that he always did successfully. Robinson identified this early on as the gap between the centre backs and full backs was extremely large. It wasn’t necessarily the space out wide for West Brom but the spaces in the inside channel between the centre- backs and full-backs which created problems and is perfectly demonstrated by the frames below.
West Brom’s emphasis on creating attacks in wider channels rather than through the middle is perfectly demonstrated by the graph below. A staggering 56% of West Brom’s attacks took place on the left-hand side as a result of the disjointed relationship between the centre-back and right-back.
The goal came from the space left in between the centre-back and right-back. Instead this time, Robinson dropped even deeper and more central before laying it off to Diangana who fired home to make the game 1-1 going into half-time. This was another example of Robinson’s effective hold-up play, but also the clear deficiencies in the defence of QPR who conceded 76 goals in the 2019/20 Championship season (the third worst in the league). Bilić clearly made a point of the large spaces left in the inside channel, especially on the right-hand side of QPR’s defence. It was fitting that the goal came on that side.
Long balls on transitions
As a result of QPR’s high full-backs and attacking mindset, long balls on transitions also proved dangerous for the Londoners, with Robinson yet again demonstrating his hold-up play. The frame below is from a long ball after a QPR attack which had petered out. Robinson was able to bring the ball down and instead of going for goal, chose to pick out on the ongoing Pereira who is seen by many as West Brom’s leading attacking player. Ultimately Pereira went for the wrong option and chose to go for goal which Joe Lumley comfortably saved.
However, this was another example of Robinson proving himself to be the link player between the front three with his pace, power and finesse to create the opportunities for the other two. The rate at which he was able to hold it up was key in creating situations like the second frame below, which was on a three on three. Decision making from Pereira especially meant that many of these attacks didn’t have the desired effect. In fact, Bilić had bemoaned the decision making of his side before the game with only two goals from the three matches preceding this game. Therefore, he would have been pleased at the rate of chance creation, but the final product was still lacking.
Robinson finds the spaces in behind
The second half saw a change in the role of Robinson. As a result of QPR’s extremely high line, Robinson played in between the centre-backs to run onto the through balls being provided to him from the likes of Krovinović and Pereira. In this instance, Pereira laid it off to Jake Livermore who had come from deep to play the ball through to Robinson. The 25-year-old striker found himself through on goal, but surprisingly missed the target in a chance that was a warning sign to Warburton.
However, Robinson continued to find spaces in behind as only 30 seconds later he found himself in a one-on-one situation with QPR centre back Yohan Barbet. This chance also didn’t have the desired finish, yet the QPR defensive line was being exposed. The spaces for West Brom’s creative midfield players was allowing them to play these balls frequently, and the PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) of QPR was 22.8, compared to first half’s total of 12.0. This highlights the lack of intensity from QPR off the ball especially, which should have been punished by a wasteful West Brom side.
QPR’s failure to play out from the back
QPR’s attempt at playing from the back and miserably failing was a feature of the first 15 minutes of the second half. They played with wide centre-backs with the full-backs extremely high and wide to try and build their attacks. However, the press of West Brom, alongside QPR’s lacklustre passing meant they struggled to get out and were overwhelmed by West Brom pressure early in the half.
There were notable examples of QPR’s failings in the second half, but the frames below highlight the problems they encountered. As Lumley received the ball, we can see that Robinson is pressing the goalkeeper, while Diangana is ready to pounce on the right-sided centre back and Krovinović is covering the spaces high and centrally. Lumley’s ball is sloppy and the centre defensive midfielder Livermore rushes forward to intercept the pass and create another clear opportunity. In the early parts of the second half this was common as the defensive midfielders were pressing high up the pitch in the knowledge that QPR wouldn’t play long. This led to a very one-sided game, with the majority of the play in the QPR half as they were unable to beat the aggressive Albion press.
The frame below is also a good example as we can see both defensive midfielders extremely high up the pitch. The above example was 10 minutes before this example, so West Brom clearly identified QPR’s shortcomings at playing out from the back. Livermore and Sawyers are occupying extremely advanced role in this example, with the lone striker Robinson charging the ball down to maintain West Brom’s second half dominance. QPR simply couldn’t get out.
Eze starts to drift effectively
Although Eze began the game in a left midfield position, his role drastically changed as he dropped deeper and wider to help his team build attacks. His goal in the 61st minute that came from a run on the right wing changed the game drastically as he began to drift effectively and help QPR gain some sort of control. The positions that Eze took up were mostly down the right-hand side, but he also drifted inside to a central role, in order to link the play for QPR on transitions.
The first frame is the build-up to the opening goal, where Eze is picked out by a long ball. Eze isolates Furlong in a one-on-one and goes on to emphatically finish in the top corner. It is important to note the positioning of Eze who decided to completely switch wings 10 minutes into the second half as a result of West Brom’s superiority. His drifting out wide to the right-hand side was something that caused West Brom lots of problems as the half grew on. This was helped by the fact that QPR went longer with the passing, meaning that they were able to pick out the likes of Eze on a more frequent basis. In fact, QPR’s long pass share percentage was 13% which was up on the first half percentage of 11%.
However, Eze also dropped deeper and more central to help QPR start their transitions. The example below shows Eze picking up the ball on the halfway line with three attackers providing him support against three West Brom defenders. QPR were starting to find a way out of West Brom’s high press with long balls, but also through Eze dropping off. Eze attempted more passes beyond his own third than any other QPR player with three successful and three unsuccessful. This helped Rangers gain greater control of the match and it is telling that they enjoyed 0.32 xG in the second half, compared to the first half’s 0.10. Ultimately this attack didn’t result in a significant opportunity but Eze was beginning to dominate the midfield battle in a match where he didn’t have much joy for the first 60 minutes.
West Brom dominated this game with the role of Callum Robinson vital in their build-up play, but also through their intense pressing. Bilić must be commended for making this change at this time of the season and would have felt extremely unfortunate not to win the game. However, a fifth promotion to the Championship from the Baggies means he will be a Premier League manager once more.
In terms of QPR, Warburton is clearly trying to implement a free-flowing attacking style with a core of young players. However, the inevitable departure of Osayi Samuel, coupled with the speculation surrounding Eze, mean that his job may become even harder next year as they prepare for the sixth straight year in the Championship.