Backs to the Wall
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Reading play better when they are put under pressure. More often than not this season Reading have dominated games and lost, but when the opponent has held the lion's share of possession and chances, Reading have managed to nick a result out of nowhere. These past two games (especially Norwich) are good examples of that.
Norwich held 53% of possession, while Brighton really showed up Steve Clarke's new ‘game management' strategy by holding a whopping 63% on Boxing Day. But for some poor last minute defending against Brighton, we would have walked away with all three points, so it can count as yet another example where Reading faced tough opposition and came away with, statistically at least, more than they deserved.
I don't know what it is about this team, but they struggle right now to convert a controlling position into a winning position. Perhaps Clarke has realised this already, and is allowing the team to play in a more defensive, direct style, or perhaps we have just come up against some very controlling sides in the last couple of games and have thrived as a result.
The stats support both: Norwich and Brighton are third and fifth in the league, respectively, in terms of their possession, while Reading's passing stats suggest that we have adopted a more direct style. With 24% of our passes against Brighton and Norwich going long, contrasting to, for example, 18% and 21% against Cardiff and Bolton.
As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, we came up against some possession-minded teams, but we also adapted our own style of play to play to our strengths. So, for now, don't expect Reading to be going out and dominating games of football, but do expect them to start picking up more points.
Lord of the Wings
One of Reading's main strengths over the last few seasons has been their wing play, and this season has seen a similar reliance on the wings, with a season average of only 22% of attacking play coming through the centre of the park. One particular stat that has bugged me from the start of the season, however, is the lack of balance that Reading demonstrate. The last two games have been even more painful viewing for me.
In the Brighton game, 46% of Reading attacks came down the right, compared to 33% on the left. In the Norwich game, it was even more right-heavy, with 52% on the right against 28% on the left. Our season average is 45% right with 34% left, so the past two games have gone beyond our usual in terms of reliance on the right.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Debatably, our best players sit on the right hand side, with Garath McCleary and Chris Gunter often combining to good effect. I just worry that we will become predictable, and opposition teams will learn to shut us down as an attacking threat by packing their left side with defensive players. Hopefully Clarke's apparent desire for a balanced back four (hence the return of Jordan Obita to left-back) will help to resolve this imbalance, although the early evidence does not seem to point this way at all.
New Manager, New Problems
Ask any Reading fan what our main defensive woe has been this season and they are likely to cry over our inability to deal with crosses. Discounting Greg Halford's long throw for Brighton, in the last couple of games we have not seen Reading concede headed goals from crosses. A new weakness seems to be appearing, however, that is quite worrying. I'm talking about pull backs to onrushing midfielders.
I know the Watford game is behind us now, but cast your mind back to Almen Abdi's goal. After some good movement down the left, the winger pulled the ball back across the face of the box and Abdi caught the ball on the run, smashing it past Adam Federici.
Think back to Brighton's second goal now. The ball makes its way to the left side of the box, where the player then pulls it back across, and Íñigo Calderón is charging in to smack the ball on the run. It was basically a re-run of the Watford goal, and just as much of a sucker punch.
For the Brighton goal it is painfully obvious that Reading's defenders were packed far too centrally, and allowed the cross to come in too easily. This is something that we will hopefully see tightened up in the coming weeks, and even though it's partly Gunter's fault for not marking his winger tightly enough, the midfield and central defenders need to take responsibility for stopping or blocking the shot as it comes in.
Clarke is doing something right, clearly, and is getting our guys playing more effective football. There is work still be done, but after two good results, and fairly reassuring stats, I have hope that we could see this team reach the potential we know that it has.