QPR have installed Mark Hughes as their new manager after the hasty dismissal of Neil Warnock, and Sparky has a job on his hands to keep the newly promoted side in the Premier League. After a couple of plucky results at the start of the campaign, a run of eight defeats from eleven league games ended Warnock’s tenure at the club, and Rangers are two points above the dropzone at the time of writing. Despite the promise of new faces in January, it may well be Hughes’ handling of controversial characters Joey Barton and Adel Taarabt that will decide QPR’s fate this season.
After Barton joined the Loftus Road outfit in the summer, the temperamental midfielder was quickly given the captain’s armband and asked to lead the team to top-flight safety. The merits of this decision, on paper, are understandable; a home-grown, determined, all-action man that may inspire less experienced team-mates to follow suit. The 29-year-old’s ability has never been in question throughout his career, and the Merseyside-born player has the skill and calibre to compete at the top domestic level. That said, his actions both on and off the field at times are not that of a captain; the controversies that shackled his time at Manchester City and Newcastle have followed him to London.
It is just not Barton indiscipline on the pitch that makes him a detriment to his employers; it is his attitude. Newcastle got rid of Barton due to his constant bickering, negativity, scathing comments on Twitter and the general pattern of going against the grain. Barton’s altercation with Gervinho on the opening day of the season was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the midfield battler duly criticised the Tyneside club’s owners and executives for their foolhardy decision to punt him out.
In Warnock’s last Premier League game in charge before being shown the door, Barton showcased the best and worst of his abilities and character. QPR took a 1-0 lead through a well-worked goal, finished off with a powerful strike by Barton. However, the skipper was then sent off for a supposedly head-butting Bradley Johnson. Although replays show that the dismissal was harsh, a Premier League captain should not be caught in a fracas that could well hurt his team. In this instance it did hurt QPR and their manager, as Norwich went on to win the game 2-1.
Barton’s red card was harsh, and the refusal by the FA to overturn the decision also incorrect. That said, Barton’s reaction was one of a petulant child rather than a professional footballer. Deranged with anger he threatened to sue the FA, the referee, Johnson and anyone else he felt had a part to play in his great injustice. The bottom line is that he should not have put himself, or his team, in that situation in the first place; there is no smoke without fire.
Joey Barton’s baggage greatly outweighs his benefit to the team. Having someone so volatile as your captain is folly, and should Hughes desire an upturn in his team’s attitude and ultimately performances on the pitch he should banish Barton and replace him with someone more dependable and level-headed; with Tony Fernandes’ financial backing this is more than possible.
The second big personality that Hughes will have to deal with is that of Adel Taarabt. The Morocco international is undoubtedly the most technically able member of Hughes’ inherited squad, but also has a penchant for indiscipline. Taarabt’s departure from Craven Cottage at half time in QPR’s 5-0 defeat to Fulham to get a public bus home is an example of the African attacker’s mindset, and he must be brought into line, and quick. However, the playmaker is one of the few match-winners at Hughes’ disposal and has the potential to be an excellent player if correctly managed. Taarabt inspired the side to glory and promotion last season, picking up The Championship Player of the Year Award in the process, but has not played at the same level this term.
Although Taarabt may be finding the going a bit tougher against Premier League opponents, there are a number of reasons for his downturn in form. Ironically Warnock stripped Taarabt of the club captaincy upon Barton’s arrival, which would be demeaning for a normal player, but confidence shattering for someone with an ego as big as the attacking midfielder’s. Secondly, he is playing out of position, largely finding himself on a touchline and with limited space to manoeuvre.
Hughes has already identified his attack as an area of necessary strengthening, and an established front man should be on his wish list, despite the ageing Heidar Helguson’s commendable performances this season. However to get the best from his diamond in the rough, Hughes needs to deploy Taarabt more centrally. Playing the playmaker in a second striker role, similar to how Rafael van der Vaart is used at Tottenham, will get Taarabt on the ball in more critical areas of the pitch, and allow the attacker to play a more dominant role in the game. His ego needs to be fed and he needs to feel loved, but if he is given more of a free reign, he has the ability to salvage QPR’s debut season back in the Premier League.
With five points separating the bottom five teams in the Premier League, it is set to be a bitter fight to stay in the top flight this term. Despite the advantage that Hughes has in terms of investment and potential new faces arriving at Loftus Road, the Welsh manager must get affairs in-house in order first to stand a chance of success.