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Steve Clarke's First Game: The Verdict

Rounding up our coverage of the Watford game, @WilliamOwain analyses Reading's new manager's first game in charge.

Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

Captaincy

It has been said many times this season, but there is a real lack of leaders in the current Reading team. Nigel Adkins' choice of club captain, Jem Karacan, has been injured all season. In Karacan's absence, Chris Gunter has been the man with the armband this season, simply by being one of the few players who is nearly always fit, vocal, and on the back of him having a successful year last season. But this season Gunter has been out of form.

On Saturday, Steve Clarke made the decision to choose Alex Pearce as the Royals' captain. The Ireland international has had a pretty tough start to the season, and this was a big show of faith in him. Clarke said he made the decision as he wanted to have a captain who identified with the club.

This was a bold move from Clarke. Pearce has done little this season to suggest he deserves starting let alone captaining the side. The move could have also adversely affected Gunter. Instead, Reading's defence looked solid, and Gunter responded superbly, putting in his best performance of the season. This decision showed that Clarke is keen to put his identity on his team as soon as possible.

Team Selection

With six players out injured, and Hal Robson-Kanu unavailable due to him becoming a father on Friday, Clarke did not have many options when it came to team selection. Not surprisingly he went for experience at centre back with Michael Hector and Pearce chosen over Jake Cooper.

Clarke's biggest decision was probably on the full back positions. None of Reading's three right backs have covered themselves in glory this season. There would have been few arguments from fans whoever Clarke chose. He went with Gunter, though, who put in a performance to justify his selection.

Clarke's decision to move Jordan Obita back to left back was a sensible decision. The 20 year old has looked uncomfortable playing further forward and is easily the best left back at the club.

With Obita in defence, the left wing position was probably a straight contest between Nick Blackman and Jake Taylor. Clarke perhaps knows more about Blackman, and the ex-Sheffield United man is a more natural wide player than the Reading academy graduate. All in all a sensible team selection that reflected what the fans had voted for in the Tilehurst End poll.

Tactics

With only two days training, Clarke was never going to be able to make too many changes tactically. He continued with Adkins' favourite 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 formation.

In Watford, Reading faced a very technical team with a clear strategy: build slowly from the back, keep possession, but always be alive to the opportunity to launch a counter attack by going long. As a result Reading sat deep in the first half, happy to allow Watford to control the game.

One noticeable change from previous performances, was how quicker Reading looked to play the ball wide once in possession. The Hornets' 3-5-2 formation will always give teams chances down the wings, and when your best player is a winger it makes sense to use those opportunities.

The sending off of Gabriele Angella just before half time changed the game though. Little has been said of Slavisa Jokanovic's tactical change at half time, which ultimately won Watford the game. Rather than replace the sent off centre back, the Serb removed a striker, Matěj Vydra, and brought on the right back Juan Carlos Paredes. The substitution saw a change to a 4-4-1 formation and meant Reading could no longer counter attack so dangerously down the wings.

After Watford's goal, Clarke seemed to change Reading's formation to a right-heavy diamond with Blackman going up front. That or Blackman just gave up trying to do anything on the left flank. The Royals continued to look dangerous down the right, but Blackman's move to the centre did little to help Reading through the middle or down the left.

Nick Blackman heat map

Nick Blackman's heat map from the 70th minute

If there was criticism of Clarke on his first game, it might have been his decision to wait until injury time before bringing on a sub. Blackman and Cox were having little impact, and it could have been worth throwing on Jack Stacey, Craig Tanner or Jake Taylor. But Clarke will know little about the young trio and wanted to show faith in his senior players. They will know they need to quickly justify that faith.

Performance

As mentioned, Clarke's two days of training were never going to change the team that much. Reading were far better than against Birmingham, but that was surely always going to be the case. This was a familiar performance from the Royals this season, a few glimpses of potential but ultimately they showed why they have been mid-table since September.

What was encouraging was the improvement in individual performances. Clarke's decision to reunite Gunter and Garath McCleary on the right brought out the best in both of them. At centre back Hector and Pearce looked much better. Glenn Murray was also unlucky not to score in his best display for a long time. The desire to impress the new manager was no doubt a factor.

Interviews

Poor Nigel Adkins was always let down by his interview style. Some thought him arrogant for somehow always avoiding to actually answer any question posed to him by the press. Personally, the more I listened to him the more I thought he came across a shy defensive man who grew frustrated by his team's failings. Whatever, your thoughts, Adkins' interviews were not really worth listening to.

Steve Clarke by contrast, gave proper, thought out and precise answers in his first interviews as Reading manager. He may have been a tad too optimistic mentioning the play-offs, but who can blame him trying to give hope to the supporters. It was also pleasing to hear Clarke respond firmly and respectfully to Tim Dellor's attempt at trying to get him to join in with his "banter" about how much Micky Gooding has aged in appearance. It was hopefully a sign that the Scot won't accept nonsense from "the voice of Reading Football Club."

Conclusion

Overall, it's been a confidence lifting week at the Madejski Stadium. Clarke hasn't had long enough to have a real influence on the team, but he has already shown he is not afraid of making big decisions. That alone might be the kick up the arse that some players need.

For perhaps the first time since Steve Coppell was in charge, Reading have a manager who doesn't divide supporters. Sure there will be some who would have liked another candidate in charge, but by appointing Clarke so quickly after sacking Adkins, the Thai owners did not allow supporters a chance to properly debate on who they wanted appointed. That might be the best thing about his appointment.