Adel Taarabt must remain central to QPRÃ¢ÂÂs great escape
A simple pass from Jamie Mackie: that's all it took. The rest was sheer fantasy. Adel Taarabt, already with one goal to his name on the day, bore down on goal after nutmegging Fulham's Brede Hangeland, who had pushed up in an effort to stop him.
Despite being surrounded by three defenders, Taarabt nonchalantly rolled the ball and stroked it into the corner of the net in one quick movement with his right foot at the edge of the box. He did it so quickly that Mark Schwarzer had no time to steady himself. Mackie subsequently put his hands on his head in utter disbelief. What he had just witnessed Ã¢ÂÂ what everyone watching had just witnessed Ã¢ÂÂ was a moment of pure genius.
What they'd also witnessed was the game-winning goal. Taarabt's brace for QPR against Fulham was enough to help Harry Redknapp do something in four league games that Mark Hughes couldn't in his 13 games this season: win. And Redknapp knew one needed to come sooner rather than later, admitting post-game that he set his team up to play an open game because "draws are no good." In doing so, he set the stage on which his 23-year-old No.10 would shine.
Against Fulham, Taarabt played just off lone striker Djibril Cisse in a 4-2-3-1 formation. With defensive midfielder Alejandro Faurlin passing the ball ahead to Taarabt seventeen times, making that the highest pass combination in the game, clearly the plan was to get the ball to the Moroccan at every opportunity for him to make things happen.
And make things happen he did. His movement into space, strength on the ball, dribbling ability in tight spaces, link-up play, and willingness to shoot were all on display, helping him prove a thorn in Fulham's side from the opening whistle. And even though he put too much weight behind a couple of his final balls and saw others unfortunately cut out, leading to just the one created chance all game, his eye for a pass was evident as well.
He revelled in his free role, so it came as no surprise when he reprised it for the club's next home game versus West Brom. Unfortunately, things didn't happen for him as they did versus Fulham.
He didn't get on the ball as much as he would've liked and found himself drifting from flank to flank in an effort to get involved: Taarabt's highest pass combination was with left-back Armand Traore.
What went wrong? It wasn't all about Taarabt. Faurlin, whose strong performance against Fulham so often got Taarabt on the ball in the middle, had a poor game this time around as he struggled to string passes together. Additionally, West Brom's Youssuf Mulumbu put in an excellent defensive shift in the centre of the pitch, doing well to restrict the home side going forward and put Taarabt off in the process.
The Moroccan still looked a threat on occasion, but would readily admit to having a hard time against a well-organised West Brom side that has impressed so far this season. On Sunday QPR are at home to Liverpool; given that the Reds are yet to convince and enter this game off the back of a humbling defeat away to Stoke, there is good reason for Redknapp to let Taarabt keep his free role.
There is a chance, though, that QPR may revert to a 4-1-4-1 system. That means that Taarabt would be shunted back out to the left. He has been deployed out wide by both managers this season, especially in away games, but also at home against Reading (under Hughes) and Aston Villa (under Redknapp). But is that the ideal role for him?
Playing on the wing means that he has to help his full-back defensively. Managers have always struggled with whether to ask their mercurial creators to dig in, but it's clear that while Taarabt puts in a tackle and makes an interception here and there, his focus is on his attacking contribution.
Rather than sticking to the flank, he cuts inside and drifts around the pitch seeking to get on the ball and make things happen offensively Ã¢ÂÂ as is shown by the positions in which he received passes in those two games. This leaves the full back exposed and given Armand Traore, for one, isn't particularly good at defending, this is a huge problem.
QPR need wide men who will put in a great defensive shift. A player like Park Ji-Sung is a huge miss in that regard. Taarabt's talents and mindset, on the other hand, are suited to a much more attacking role.
"We used to play in the French national team and he was just nutmegging the same guy for maybe four or five times," says Traore, who has known Taarabt since his early teenage years. "The manager used to tell him, 'If you don't give the ball, you come off.' And he didn't care. He was bringing us penalties, scoring goals."
Players like Adel Taarabt need freedom. They like to be able to drift where they please. They like to be passed the ball all the time Ã¢ÂÂ as Dimitar Berbatov's T-shirt message in Fulham's Boxing Day game against Southampton explained.
Most of all, they love being the centre of attention, the player through whom all the team's attacks go. They have the quality to match their unshakable confidence and prefer to spend the game showing off that quality. Defensive responsibility pegs them back. When shunted out wide, this is the case with Taarabt. It was also the case with Rafael van der Vaart, a player who Redknapp also used out wide in addition to centrally at Tottenham.
Van der Vaart was often used on the right flank by Redknapp and had put Spurs ahead at home to Arsenal last season after starting in that position, but his failure to track Alex Song's run down his flank resulted in the Cameroon international setting up Aaron Ramsey to equalise.
The Dutchman tried to put a foot in defensively during the game, but it was obvious defending isn't his strong suit. His focus was on drifting into central positions.
"When I have to track back, that does not really benefit my game," fumed Van der Vaart. "I received the freedom to come inside from the manager, but you can see from the goal they scored that my strength is in the centre."
Indeed it is. Van der Vaart, like Taarabt, is at his very best when freed of defensive responsibility and played just off the main striker, allowing him to cause havoc in and around the penalty area. On a number of occasions last season, he was given that role and shone.
Taarabt did the same against Fulham. His colossal performance left Redknapp, who considered him a "fruitcake" at Spurs due to his immaturity, purring.
"He's like Di Canio, who I thought was a fantastic player, one of the all-time greats at West Ham," gushed Redknapp post-game. "This boy is the same. He can do things that nobody else can do. No one can do what he can do. He's amazing."
Redknapp is right. Much of QPR's inspiration comes from Taarabt; no other player at the club can command the free role in the same manner, and that's why him not being called up by Morocco for the Africa Cup of Nations is fantastic news. He is key to Redknapp's hopes of hauling QPR out of the relegation zone and to safety. At least he will be if the team plays to his strengths Ã¢ÂÂ and if the powers that be can keep him at the club.
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Joel Ramey is a freelance writer focusing on player performance, styles, and emerging talent. HeÃ¢ÂÂs been published by Score MediaÃ¢ÂÂs Counter Attack blog among other websites and contributes regularly to footyplace.com. He also runs his own site: flixandtrix.com. Follow him on Twitter @FlixandTrix