Ask most Reading fans what worries them most about the current team, and it is very likely that defence will be mentioned. Ask Nigel Adkins to describe himself and he'll probably mention the word "positive". A look at Adkins' managerial career shows the two might be linked.
None of his teams have ever been low scorers. Even his Scunthorpe teams managed to score 46 and 62 times in the Championship. On the other hand, with the exception of Southampton's League One promotion winning season, Adkins' teams have also never been tight at the back. His mentality is to be positive.
This brought him major success at St Mary's, but it could also be argued it showed him up. In the Saints' first ten games of the 2012/2013 Premier League season they conceded a whopping 28 goals. Despite conceding six at Arsenal and four at West Ham, Adkins continued to persevere with his favourite 4-2-3-1 formation. To put it bluntly, Adkins was too positive!
Southampton's 2-0 defeat at West Brom, though, was clearly a nadir for even him. For Saints' next match he dropped Jay Rodriguez and changed formation to 4-1-4-1. The result was four matches unbeaten and a brief stay of execution.
Was Cardiff a point of no return?
I mention all this, because Reading's second away victory of the season at Norwich saw a similar change in formation and mentality from Nigel Adkins. Was Cardiff another point of no return? Or was he just wary of the threat from the Canaries? Given his guarded interview style, we may never find out.
What we do know was that his starting lineup for Saturday's match did not get much of a positive reaction from Royals fans. In particular, the decision to leave Simon Cox on the bench left many fans scratching their heads. My fellow Tilehurst Ender, Hoops', tweet below, probably reflected what quite a few Reading fans were thinking before kick off.
TOP TIP: Looking to be sacked as manager? Start your top scorer on the bench. #readingfc— Hoops (@RoyalHoops) November 29, 2014
The decision to leave out Cox also left fans wondering how the team would line up formation and position wise. The expectation was that Hal Robson-Kanu would play centrally, with Garath McCleary and Jordan Obita on the wings in Adkins' favourite 4-2-3-1 formation.
What actually materialised was very different. Reading lined up with their usual flat back four, Oliver Norwood sat just in front of the defence, a four man midfield, with Glenn Murray having the thankless task of being the lone striker. It was a previously unseen 4-1-4-1 formation.
It seems that Adkins felt it was time to go back-to-basics. For perhaps the first time since taking charge at the Madejski Stadium, he decided that being steady, defending deep, and in numbers, would be the basis to build on.
The most noticeable change from this decision was how the Royals controlled the centre of park. Against Blackburn I highlighted how Reading's two man central midfield were unable to cope with Rovers' narrow style of play.
The picture above shows, Norwood trying to close down Tom Cairney rather than cover the runner from midfield. Against Norwich, though, he could sit behind Danny Williams and Jordan Obita, marking the space in front of the defence.
The graphic below shows the Royals' average positions. The importance of having the extra central midfielder is clear. Unlike in the picture above, Williams and Obita could close down Norwich's central midfielders, Jonny Howson and Alexander Tettey, knowing that Oliver Norwood would cover the space in front of the defence.
The image below highlights this even more, and also shows how effective, and disciplined, Reading were defensively.
I could have chosen numerous shots of how Reading always had men in the centre of the park, forcing Norwich to go wide. If they did try to play through the middle then they had to get through Reading's three man central midfield.
The image below shows Williams and Obita looking to close down Norwich's central midfielders. Jonny Howson is looking to play the ball though the middle, but Reading have Norwood who can close down Gary Hooper, meaning the centre backs can stay in position. If Howson had decided to pass to Tettey then Williams would have been able to quickly close the Norwegian international down.
Of course having the fourth worst defence in the league, means the opposition only have to venture into Reading's third of the pitch for us fans to get worried. But in hindsight Reading were never really in much danger after going in front. Apart from Josh Murphy's late miss, Norwich struggled to create any real opportunities.
Instead they fell into the same trap that Reading themselves have fallen victim to on occasions this season. Namely, lots of possession simply resulting in lots of hopeful crossing. The 45 crosses the Canaries attempted were the most the Royals have been barraged with this season. Reading's 52 clearances and 18 blocks were also season highs.
Now no report on Saturday's game can of course fail to mention Jake Cooper. The Bracknell born defender made 16 clearances (six more than Norwood, the next highest player) and won six aerial challenges. Perhaps the most impressive statistic, and damning for Norwich, is that he did not make a single tackle. Instead his positioning and strength meant he was (almost) always in the right position.
The difference from Cardiff
Now before we think we have found the solutions to our problems, it is probably worth remembering how out-of-form Norwich are and how distinctly average they were. It often feels like Reading are the perfect team to regain form against. Thankfully for once it was our turn to break a bad run.
It should also be noticed that whilst Reading defended well, it could be argued our quality on the ball left a lot to be desired. 37% possession, 314 passes with a 63% success rate, shows we were happy to see Norwich on the ball. This was a big contrast to the previous game when against Cardiff, Reading had 53% possession, made 507 passes with a 78% success rate, despite playing a whole half a man down.
Such a difference clearly indicates a change in mentality (of both teams). Against Cardiff, Nigel Adkins wanted his team to get on the ball and dictate the game, which Russell Slade was happy for his team to allow. Against Norwich, Adkins' team sat deep allowing the Canaries to dominate possession.
The Adkins' roulette
Despite the win and improved defensive performance, I still expect Adkins to change personnel and formation for next week's home match against Bolton. I think he might risk another outing for the young Cooper Hector centre back partnership, but I would be surprised if he doesn't recall Cox and revert to his favourite 4-2-3-1 formation.
The Norwich game has put him in a "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" situation. Play 4-1-4-1 again and fail to win, and he'll be accused of being too defensive at home. But if we lose after changing back to 4-2-3-1 then questions will be asked as to why he did not stick with a winning formula. Of course every game needs a different approach. The Norwich game saw a new one from Reading, and it worked.
All stats courtesy of Squawka and WhoScored.