One of the criteria Steve Coppell always looked for in potential signings was intelligence – he believed that his players needed the ability to take responsibility for what happens on the pitch and to make their own decisions there. After all, once the players have crossed the white line, there’s not much influence a manager or coach can have during that game, short of substitutions, the half-time team talk and the occasional few snatched words during an injury break. If fact, Coppell is on record as saying that he tended not to make substitutions unless they were absolutely necessary, in order to give the players a chance to get themselves out of the mess they’d got themselves into.
As such, they’d adapt to the circumstances in the game, they’d take personal responsibility on the pitch, and they’d generally have the nous and the footballing brains to seize the initiative and make whatever changes were necessary to redeem the situation.
Oh, for that now! The Reading team this season seems to be the exact opposite, and it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of watching this team match-in, match-out. Because there doesn’t seem to be any great level of intelligence out on the pitch – when things go according to plan the team looks good, and can beat the opposition comfortably (as Bolton found out in January).
But when things go badly, there seems to be no-one on the pitch who can think their way out of the problem, no-one who can adapt the style, pace or tactics to suit the situation. Instead, the team just does the same things over and over again, a sort of football by numbers, and it’s so predictable that generally the opposition just can’t believe their luck.
A little variation, a change of style or tactics or any one of a number of small adaptations might make all the difference but sadly the only change when Reading fall behind seems to be a negative one. The mentality seems to be a knee-jerk "We’re behind, we need to chase this game, so that means we need to get the ball forward as quickly as possible" – and that manifests itself in "hoofball."
But pumping the ball forward in the air for the 5’9" Adam Le Fondre to win against Championship level centre-backs is so often just playing into the opposition’s hands. We’re better than that, and we can win matches by playing the ball around on the ground, with quick passing and use of the flanks – but we don’t think it through on the pitch.
A great example of this came yesterday, where in the period before half-time the defenders were hoofing the ball forward and getting nowhere. It’s obvious that they came out after half-time having been told to pass the ball around more, rather than just hoofing it forward - but what this actually meant was numerous occasions where the defenders passed the ball across the back between themselves eight or nine times – and then hoofed it forward. Aimless, mindless, football - and just one of many examples of players just not showing any signs of intelligent thought out on the pitch.
I’m convinced one of the big areas where this Reading team is deficient isn’t their footballing skills – but in lack of footballing brains. On a player-by-player basis we have the skills required to succeed in this league, but far too often we just don’t use those skills intelligently enough to succeed.
I’m not sure what’s behind this, but it may be any of a number of things, or more likely a combination of them all. It may be that Nigel Adkins just doesn’t share Steve Coppell’s mentality of giving the players on the pitch the responsibility to make their own decision and to vary things – perhaps he rules the squad with a rod of iron and doesn’t delegate an ounce of autonomy to the players.
Alternatively, it might be a lack of leadership on the pitch – individual players may be looking to change things to adapt to a situation, but their individual efforts might be lost by the whole team’s tactical inertia, with a captain unwilling or unable to embrace any changes, or maybe even to understand what is being suggested. Leadership at Reading is a whole other discussion, though – the holder of the armband seems to change every week, but even then looks to have no clear responsibilities once the referee’s coin has been tossed and the ends chosen.
Lastly, it may just be that the players we have in this squad just aren’t particularly clever players. They may be blessed with an impressive range of footballing skills but they may just not have footballing brains to match. I’m not saying that footballers need to be Mensa members or mastermind contenders – just that they need to have the nous and the footballing intellect to read the match, understand the problems and adapt to them, and I’ve not seen much evidence of that recently.
I don’t know how much of each of these factors applies – but I do know that if the team keeps playing in such an unintelligent way as we’ve seen in so many games this season it’s unlikely to be successful. It’s maddeningly frustrating to watch, too – and even more so when on so many occasions the majority of the supporters can see exactly what’s wrong and what needs to change – but seemingly the players out on the pitch can’t or won’t see this.
Because successful teams don’t just have good players – they have clever players too, and in a league as tight as the Championship it’s the ability to identify what’s wrong and adapt to sort it out on the pitch that’s often the only thing that separates teams in games.
And that, I hate to say, is where this Reading team seem miles behind many of the others in this league. And so I’m sure I’m not the only one looking back wistfully to the days when Reading players were selected as much for their footballing intelligence as for their footballing skills.