A Slipping Crown?
I was surprised to see Clarke moving so swiftly to bring in more deep-lying midfielders to the club in Chalobah and Aké, especially as Oliver Norwood had appeared to make such a strong start to his Reading career.
The Northern Irishman's first few games were gilt-edged, and he looked the kind of quality passing midfielder that Reading have missed since...I can't even remember when. The first half of the season was very much the Norwood show, with his performance against Fulham standing out in the memory, and justifying his winning 3 out of the 5 coveted The Tilehurst End Player of the Month gongs before the new year.
I can't have been alone, then, in being surprised that one of Steve Clarke's first moves as the new manager was to swiftly replace the seemingly masterful Norwood with the admittedly classy Nathaniel Chalobah. I'm now starting to understand his decision...
Norwood has looked off the pace recently, both for club and country, and this game shows more clearly than most that his confidence appears to be shot.
Norwood's passing accuracy averages at 78% for this season, a decent return given that he is in the top 20 in the league for number of passes attempted, but his accuracy against Blackpool reached only 54%. That is a poor return for a ball playing midfielder no matter what way you dress it up. Aké fared somewhat better, with an accuracy of 63%, but he also attempted roughly 20 fewer passes than Norwood.
I hope that this is just a blip for Norwood, and that he can regain the level of influence that he had on games earlier in the season. He is still an exciting player, but his inaccuracy must take some blame for the result at Blackpool. Let's hope he regains his confidence soon.
Feed the Yak?
We need to talk about Yakubu.
Everyone knows that if you feed the Yak, he will score, but I'm starting to doubt that. Reading swung in 25 crosses against Blackpool, and even though we've been crying all season that crosses do not equal goals, with a front line of Yakubu and Pogrebnyak I think we are deserving of a little more aerial dominance. In his 75 minutes on the field, Yakubu only managed to win one aerial duel—and that one wasn't anywhere near where we want to be getting him on the ball (Reading shooting right to left).
It gets worse for Yakubu when you compare him to the rest of the team: the Atlas-esque figure of Zat Knight won 11 aerial duels, more than anyone else on the pitch, but that isn't a fair comparison given what position he plays. It doesn't get any better for the Yak, though, when we compare him to his competition up front: in their respective 45 minute stints, Pogrebnyak managed to win 3 headers while Mackie managed to win 4. Even Simon Cox, not renowned for his aerial prowess, managed to equal Yakubu's tally in a 15 minute late cameo. I'm not asking for Yakubu to win every header that comes his way and I'm sure that not all of Reading's 25 crosses were aimed inch-perfect at the Yak's imposing forehead, but we need him to pull his not-insubstantial weight a little more.
The food is there, I'm just not seeing much grazing.
One final quick note about the shape of the team and the way we attack. One interesting anomaly that jumps up from the stats against Blackpool is that all of Reading's 11 shots in the game came through the middle. No shots taken from the right hand side of the box, and none taken from the left (discounting the own goal).
Are we seeing a narrowing of Reading's play style? Clarke may be trying to cut the number of crosses, and increase the ambitiousness of his midfielders (64% of Reading's shots against Blackpool came from outside the box, with only one of these coming from a recognised striker).
This is something we haven't seen done since Sigurðsson left the club, and will be something to look out for in the coming weeks, especially if it yields a few end of season screamers!
Well, we can always dream...
(Stats and images courtesy of Squawka and WhoScored)