Mark Hughes relaxed as QPR reel and odds on the sack shorten

Sack Race

For someone who is coin-toss odds to be the first Premier League manager to be sacked Mark Hughes is remarkably calm.

At his weekly press briefing on Friday questions intended as grenades were swished away as if confetti. Every fourth-estate doom-trumpeter pointing out Queens Park Rangers' woes – their three-week residency at the bottom of the league, the lack of a single victory, the failure of their expensive band of renegades to gel – was greeted with a relaxed counter-thrust. Wait until the injuries abate and the squad has more time together, he said, deferring his day of judgment to some undetermined point in the future.

Under pressure? Hardly. Hughes' answers carried the self-assurance of someone playing poker with marked cards. Little wonder: the QPR chairman, Tony Fernandes, recently gave him a vote of confidence that sounded more like a paean to an exalted idol: "My faith in Mark has not wavered," he said. "Not at all. I'm 1,000% behind him. I love him. "He's honest, hard-working, ambitious and he's a friend. He's a proven product."

Ahead of Sunday's game against Everton not everyone is so convinced. After their narrow escape last season, and heavy investment in players during 2012, QPR looked ready to kick on; instead they have suffered a sophomore slump. Is it a blip or something more significant?

QPR's seven games this season, taken in isolation, hardly represent a significant sample size. Yet Hughes's overall record since taking over at Loftus Road is not much more convincing. Rangers have won 22 points in Hughes' 25 games in charge, an average of 0.88 points per game. That is relegation form. Defeat against Everton would take that tally below Neil Warnock's 0.85 points a game last season. And look what happened to him.

The results are no clearer when you dig deeper into Opta's data. Hughes' QPR have a higher average goals tally than Warnock's (1.2 a game compared with 0.95), and slightly better pass completion stats (76.0% versus 74.4%). But they have also committed more fouls (11.4 compared with 10.3 a game) and conceded more goals (1.88 goals a game compared with 1.75). Before Hughes moved to Shepherd's Bush he was seen as an arch-propagator of traditional British footballing virtues: solid defence, backs-to-the-wall grit. Organisation, organisation, organisation. Now what?

Then there has been the tinkering – with players, formations, those in favour, those out. There have been games – against Spurs and Arsenal at home last season – where Hughes reaped the rewards for his managerial cunning. But sometimes it seems change for change's sake. Since 10 January, when Hughes took charge, QPR have used a total of 37 players in the Premier League, more than any other team.

Clive Whittingham, the editor of Loft for Words, is particularly critical. "He's got absolutely no idea what his best team or formation is," he says. "That was a problem last season as well. When Djibril Cissé got a red card against Sunderland it forced him to play another system, with Bobby Zamora up front and an extra man in midfield, which helped keep us up. But he found it by accident. At the moment he's just wildly thrashing around trying to find something that works."

Hughes would plead a succession of injuries – particularly in defence – as a mitigating factor. Clint Hill is a Rangers stalwart, for instance, but he lacks the legs to play left-back, as his recent performance against West Brom showed.

On the forums there is also exasperation that Park Ji-sung and, particularly, Shaun Wright-Phillips seem to have a permanent pass into the first XI, despite poor performances this season. Meanwhile Adel Taraabt and Junior Hoillett have started five matches between them. "It's what I see on a day-to-day basis," said Hughes, explaining his decisions. "Do I see a body of work leading into a game? In fairness Adel has come back and done really well. He hasn't been able to perform at the right level before. He is now – that's why he's playing."

It is not all doom and gloom. Esteban Granero and Alejandro Faurlín have impressed in midfield, as has Samba Diakité, when he has been able to stay on the pitch. And there remains optimism among fans that this team is, yes, too good to go down.

Still the question should be asked: why does Hughes look so secure? Especially with Harry Redknapp floating around. Partly it is down to Fernandes, who has shown no sign of wanting to commit hara-kiri. But there is a lack of anti-Hughes invective from the stands too. After years of petty drama and wild instability under Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, everyone craves normality.

As Whittingham explains: "If we sacked Hughes we'd get someone who would make another seven or eight signings in January. In the summer we got rid of Rowan Vine and Patrick Agyemang, who'd been sitting on massive contracts and not playing. Now it's DJ Campbell and Rob Hulse who we don't seem to have any use for. We have this massive squad with lots of players doing nothing. There's not a lot of love for Hughes but not many want him sacked either because they don't want more upheaval."

Still, that could change. The nightmare scenario for fans is that QPR could do a Portsmouth. Loftus Road is the smallest stadium in the Premier League, with a capacity of 18,500. Relegation could lead to the club's main bankroller, Lakshmi Mittal, pulling out. And with many players on big wages, that would spell trouble. "You don't know what clauses they have put in players' contracts," Whittingham says. "But if we went down, it would take a lot of bankrolling."

For now, though, it is all about the present. When asked to sum up his feelings about his team's predicament, Faurlín cut to the chase. "We are disappointed and frustrated," he said. "The quality is there, we are working really hard. But the first win will make a massive impact. We need that win." And they need it today.

Powered by article was written by Sean Ingle, for The Observer on Saturday 20th October 2012 23.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch