This is not how it was supposed to be for Mark Hughes. When Queens Park Rangers escaped relegation on the final day of last season, Hughes vowed that the team would never again find themselves fighting for their lives and that he would instead help them live it up in the top half of the table. Lavish expenditure in the summer even led to talk of a tilt at Europe, the club giddily pointing out after the capture of Júlio César from Internazionale that Rangers now had four Champions League winners in their ranks.
Hughes fancied that everything was in place for him to show he had made the right decision to walk out on Fulham a year previously in search of greater upward mobility. He may even have felt that he now had the scope to prove Manchester City were foolish to jettison him in favour of Roberto Mancini in 2009. Instead, it is the wisdom of Hughes's choices that currently looks dubious, as QPR are bottom of the Premier League and winless after 11 matches, eight points worse off than they were at this stage last year under the Welshman's predecessor, Neil Warnock.
"Our aim at the start of the season was to finish in the top half and I still think we can do that," says Hughes, but others are not so sure and doubt that Hughes will make it to the end of the campaign. game between QPR and 19th-place Southampton has been dubbed "el sackico".
Nigel Adkins's Southampton are one of the few Premier League clubs who spent more than QPR in the summer – the others were Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester giants – and they, too, had lofty dreams, Adkins declaring boldly their intention "not just to survive but to thrive" in their return to the top flight after a seven-year absence. With the clubs at the foot of the table, both now stand accused of wasting their money. Failure to provide evidence to the contrary could cost the managers their jobs and, particularly in the case of Rangers in view of the size of the salaries they offered to lure players such as César, José Bosingwa and Park Ji-sung, even imperil the clubs' future.
Both spent big, but in different ways. Whereas Southampton's recruitment has been derided as imbalanced – too much on strikers, such as £12m for the Uruguayan Gastón Ramírez, and not enough on defenders, plus too much on players who have never played in the Premier League – one of the criticisms of Hughes is that he has invested in big-name players who are so accustomed to success at glamorous clubs that they are of little value when a bid to break into the elite becomes a battle to avoid relegation. Supporters have already questioned whether players such as Bosingwa, Park and Esteban Granero have the stomach for a fight after coming from Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively. Hughes insists such concerns are misguided.
"They come from clubs that are used to winning … but the fact that they've played at those clubs tells you that they have all the attributes to battle," says Hughes, who believes his own playing career provides proof of his point. "I came from Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea and went to Southampton and we had a shocking start to the season. It was a shock to the system because it wasn't what I was used to, but we turned it around. You do that by using the qualities that got you to the top in the first place. I see things every day at training that don't allow me to doubt the players in any way."
Questions have also been raised about Hughes's method. Or rather, supporters have wondered whether he actually has a method. A comparison with newly promoted West Ham United seems apposite: Sam Allardyce also recruited new players in the summer but each one has slotted into an obvious plan. There has been less evidence of such clarity at QPR.
At Blackburn Rovers Hughes earned acclaim for producing a well drilled team that exceeded the sum of its parts, and the same, perhaps to a lesser extent, was true at Fulham; but the QPR experience is more akin to his Manchester City days, when his team occasionally looked shoddy defensively and incoherent going forward. One wonders whether having greater resources panders to Hughes's ambitions of grandeur and leads him to neglect the rigour on which he made his managerial name. Offering Rob Green high wages to join from West Ham and then putting him on the bench as soon as César becomes available could be considered an indication of a club high on ambition but short on focus.
Hughes, however, rubbishes that notion. "When you have a bad period people will ask questions like 'What are you doing on a daily basis?' and 'What are you doing to address the weaknesses of the team?', but I am very confident that anyone who comes here and questions how I prepare my teams, how we train, the intensity we work at, I can answer every question anyone asks."
One persistent question relates to set-pieces: only Fulham have conceded more goals from them than QPR this season, but Hughes scoffs at claims he does not work on defending corners and free kicks. "That's not right. That would be a huge oversight."
So why are QPR so low? Why have they scored eight goals in 11 matches and conceded more than anyone except Saturday's opponents? Hughes reckons it comes down mostly to bad luck in the form of injuries. "We haven't yet had the opportunity to play the best 11 consistently. If I had been able to keep the same back four and same team for 11 games then I would suggest we would not be in this position," says Hughes, who protests when it is put to him that his summer investment should mean he has the squad to cope with injuries.
"People say that but I have 25 players like everyone else. I don't think we've had any one player in the squad who has played in all games. I'm sure the likes of West Brom and Everton have had four or five players that they've been able to pick for every game. Even in games where we've had a little bit of continuity we've had to change personnel in the back four and five in the early parts of the game. If you don't have stability then it will affect you."
While injuries have been a factor, it is also true that QPR have destabilised themselves, either as Hughes willingly juggled his lineup or, most alarmingly, because of needless red cards, such as the one shown to Stéphane Mbia that changed the course of October's 1-0 defeat at Arsenal.
Southampton, too, have been guilty of sabotaging themselves, mainly through defensive blunders, and the outcome of this match could come down to which team keeps their heads most at a time when there is talking of the losing manager's rolling.