It was a tale of big changes but familiar faces on Tuesday afternoon. Gareth Ainsworth left Wycombe Wanderers, the club he led for 550 games across 11 years, to join QPR where he spent the longest part of his playing career and had his first taste of management. The Chairboys no doubt wanted to lessen the blow of losing their greatest-ever manager, by appointing one of their most revered players.
Matt Bloomfield was announced at the same time as Ainsworth’s departure, with the midfielder who never featured outside of a Wycombe shirt in his 500-plus appearances departing from Colchester United. Much has been made, rightly so, about Ainsworth’s reign at Wycombe. In the last few years, they have been one of the best-performing sides relative to their circumstances in the whole football league.
At the start of the 2019/20 season, Wycombe managed to gain promotion through the playoffs for the first time in the club’s history. They had started pre-season needing investment just to keep the club alive, and only possessed seven outfield players. Owner Rob Couhig surely added to their £1.5m a year wage budget when preparing for the Championship, but Wycombe only spent just over £200,000 in fees and managed to turn a profit of £3.2m pounds despite playing behind closed doors.
They were relegated – but only effectively two points behind Derby County, who Couhig thought should have had a points deduction. In 19th and 20th were Bristol City and Huddersfield, teams who had been in the second division for far longer and had budgets which would eclipse the club from Buckinghamshire.
Fast forward to this season, and Ainsworth had just put a stunning run of form together to leave his side narrowly out of play-offs. The sacking of Neil Critchley from QPR however finally led the longstanding rumour of his return to The R’s to come true. The new boss said he wants “to get Loftus Road absolutely rocking again” – fitting words for the man nicknamed ‘Wild Thing’ who fronts for a rock band in his spare time.
Ainsworth’s love for the ‘old-school’ isn’t hard to miss. He loves 60s rock, dons a leather jacket, and drives a classic mustang. He’s been told that he might get a bigger job if he would only cut his Geddy Lee-style hair. It is easy to see why his management and style of football could be seen on the surface as reflecting this. Wycombe under his management have been dismissed as long-ball, and accused of gamesmanship and excessive time wasting.
The 49-year-old’s claim that relationships are his ‘biggest strength as a manager’ do little to alleviate the picture of an old-fashioned man manager who goes against the tactical and data-driven approach that characterises modern football. But such a view is unfair. Ainsworth combined both older and more novel influences to produce the success he had at Wycombe.
Just as he himself has no desire to conform, the new QPR boss likes his players to feel free to express themselves as individuals. This was built on at his old club to create a tightly bonded, highly confident group of players who ultimately all worked hard towards their goal. Matt Bloomfield best summed up this approach when speaking to The Athletic:
“He took a group of players who were not wanted elsewhere or who had injuries or people who had been told they were finished in their career and he galvanised that group and really took us to a place where none of us imagined we’d be able to go and achieve.”
The group was then marshalled by the more experienced players in the dressing room, helping to protect the morale of the team and ensure that the club’s values and standards were being met. Figures such as Stefan Johansson, Albert Adomah and new signing Chris Martin could be asked to do the same for QPR.
To further emphasise the importance of the collective and the process, Ainsworth and assistant Richard Dobson used “performance-driven rather than outcome-driven targets”, a modern approach that breaks away from the norm of bonuses for goals or assists. Dobson himself was the architect behind Wycombe having the ‘‘biggest psychology programme in Europe”, when he was in charge of the club’s youth development programme from 2008 to 2012.
The Chairboys’ youth system was scrapped after this due to the cost, but being at the helm of a club with a functional academy and far greater resources could mean that QPR benefit from this experience – building on talent that has come through the club in recent years such as Eberechi Eze and Ilias Chair.
On the pitch itself, there is no doubt that Ainsworth played direct football. Wycombe have played the least amount of accurate passes per match so far this season in League One, and have averaged 44.2% possession. But they have combined this approach with pressing from the front to often win them possession in the final third. It would be naïve to dismiss this style simply as ‘long-ball’ or imply a lack of proper tactical nous. Ainsworth is all about winning.
His tweak in formation and personnel change secured a win against a flying Derby side earlier in February. He notably got the better of Liam Manning’s MK Dons in a game of contrasting styles in last year’s playoffs too – his tactics leading to a two-nil victory at Adams Park, which was enough to get his side into the final against Sunderland. This suggests a greater tactical flexibility and ability to adapt to a specific game’s requirements than a simple commitment to playing ‘long-ball’.
Of course, some questions still remain. The title of ‘head coach’, if it carries its normal connotations, would be a departure from the level of control Ainsworth had at Wycombe. It would also be interesting to see how much time the previously second-longest-serving manager in the football league would be given if results were not immediately good.
Nonetheless, the new boss should not be underestimated. To do so would give QPR the underdog feel that Ainsworth has shown he thrives in. Focus on his quirks and personality, misjudge or pigeon-hole his approach, and you risk losing sight of what his team are actually doing on the pitch.
To leave you with a quote from the man himself when talking to the Daily Mail:
“’When people say they are not a big fan of his, that’s what Jose Mourinho wants — for people to concentrate on him and then his team can get on with what they do. Everything is geared towards winning football games and everyone has their own way. I have my own way. At times, we have all to put on some facade.”
By: George Litchfield / @george_litch
Featured Image: Justin Setterfield / Getty Images