I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp of football, and football tactics in particular. I think I understand my 4-4-2s, my catenaccio, my Christmas Tree and so on. And one of the great joys of football is seeing what the manager is trying to do with a team, and even more so when it’s a new manager trying to impose his own style onto a new team. But I have a confession to make … when it comes to understanding what Nigel Adkins is trying to do from a tactical point of view, I just don’t have the faintest glimmer of understanding. Every week, every game, I’m absolutely mystified trying to work out exactly what he’s trying to do – and if I’m mystified by the starting line-up and formation, my head virtually explodes in confusion once substitutes are brought into the equation.
Because there just seems to be no pattern, no consistency. One day we’re playing 4-4-2, another, at home against a team at the bottom of the league, we’re starting 4-5-1, and whilst the back four is admittedly fairly stable, the six players in front of them vary on a match-by-match basis.
This leads me to two possible conclusions. The first is that Nigel Adkins is a tactical genius, so subtle in his thoughts and stratagems that mere mortals like me can’t hope to understand what goes on in his mind - the second is less charitable, and suggests that, nearly halfway through the season, he just doesn’t actually know what his best team is, and is constantly shuffling up the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle in the hope that one day those pieces will come down in a pattern that makes sense.
The same applies with formations and tactics – does he really know what his best style of play is? Is he constantly trying out subtly different things in the hope that one works, or does he have a plan – again a plan so deep and well-hidden that no-one can deduce what it is? That may be the case, but if it is I think he’s overlooked the major problem with this constant tinkering with players and formations – and that’s the sad fact that the players don’t seem to be able to adapt to the constant changes.
So what we have as a result is a team that seems ill-at-ease, ponderous, and one where many players seem unable or unwilling to play with urgency or to take responsibility. It’s also a team obviously not enjoying themselves – it’s rare to see a smile on the face of a Reading player these days – and they look just like a team under instructions to play a game they’re not used to or not happy with, rather than their natural game.
And these instructions I’m sure, take away the spontaneity and creativity of the team, not to mention the urgency. There’s a definite over-reliance on Danny Guthrie as the midfield pivot, so several times I’ve noticed players in a good position to setup an attack have instead passed the ball backwards for Guthrie to set it up – but by that time the opportunity has gone. Similarly, numerous times this season there have been instances where Reading have been on the break and have won an attacking throw - and have waited for the nominated player to come forward to take it, and for everyone else to get into their set positions. Of course, this has meant the defence have also had time to form up properly. I can’t help but think that one of Steve Coppell’s team wouldn’t have given a damn who actually took the throw – they’d have just taken it and had the ball in the back of the net whilst Adkins’s players were still waiting for the right player to come forward.
And that highlights one of my biggest worries about this team – they don’t look like a team able to make their own decisions on the pitch, or one given the authority to do things. They look like a team playing by rote – so slavishly following a game plan that they don’t necessarily subscribe to (or even understand) that they can’t adapt or create. In that, they very much remind me of the team under Brendan Rodgers – a team obviously unhappy with the system imposed upon them. But at least they knew what the gameplan was – it didn't change every week, and Rodgers even put it down on paper via PowerPoint into a beautifully bound dossier. Adkin’s players don’t have that luxury – they seem to trying to play a gameplan that changes on a match by match basis.
But sometimes, that gameplan changes within the match also, and here we come to the thorny issue of Adkins’s substitutions. These really confuse me, and I find myself being constantly astounded by them – it’s very rare that I can understand what Adkins can possibly be thinking of – and I’m completely convinced they cost the team dearly. They may well partly explain the marked difference in quality and effectiveness between Reading’s first half and second half performances, but this is another mystery, another part of the Adkins Enigma. Most teams come out for the second half fired-up and more effective – Reading seem to invariably play so much worse after the break than before it. Just what is said in that dressing room at half time?
Of course, it’s only fair to point out that the vast majority of this set of player aren’t Adkins’s own choice, they’re Brian McDermott’s. And that leads to a whole other debate about transfer funding and so on which I won’t go into here. It’s also worth pointing out that injuries have been extremely unkind to the team so far this season. But that doesn’t change the essential point that this team look like they’re being made to play in an ever-changing style that they can’t – or won’t – adapt to. And that is reflected in the results we’ve been seeing.
Yes, the team is still close to the play-off positions, but I think that is more a reflection of the quality of this league than it is of Reading’s performances, and if you look at the manner of the wins, you have to be worried for the future. There’s just no apparent development – if anything, things seem to be going in the opposite direction.
One of the apocryphal stories of the breakdown of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett is that when the band were trying to get rid of him, Syd tried to teach them all a new song he’d written, called “Have You Got It Yet?”. But every time the others tried to learn this, Syd would make a few subtle changes to what he was playing them and they were back to square one, unable to follow. Roger Waters called this the “act of mad genius” – and I just can’t help but feel that this is what it must be like for the Reading players, trying to follow along with a gameplan, a team and a set of tactics that are constantly changing every time they get close to learning them.
So Nigel, please – decide what your best team is, decide what your tactics are, sort out your substitutions, and let the players go out and express themselves on the pitch. But above all – stop changing things every single game!