If you're a regular reader of the Tilehurst End's statistical analysis of matches then the following statement will feel familiar: lots of crossing does not win you games!
After 27 games Reading average 26 crosses per game, or 6% of all their passes attempted. What is interesting is the different results that arise either side of that 6% threshold. The table below not only shows the futility of crossing for results but also goals. The Royals have only scored in just over a third of matches where they have attempted a large number of crosses. So maybe I need to rewrite that statement: lots of crossing does not win you games or guarantee goals!
|CROSSES AS % OF TOTAL PASSES
|GAMES NOT SCORED
Of course whilst endless crossing may be an exercise in futility, one good cross can make all the difference. Reading's winner on Saturday is a case in point. But some things are best in moderation. Endless crossing is a bit like artillery fire. You're hoping it will cause damage but you're not too worried about being precise.
Steve Clarke will have been more than aware of that after the Royals' defeat at Fulham, when 44 crosses yielded just one goal. It may explain why he brought in Nathaniel Chalobah and changed to a 4-3-3 formation against Cardiff. A distinct feature of the Royals' FA Cup win was how often Nick Blackman cut inside. Whilst Garath McCleary played right wing it would be hard to say Blackman was on the left wing. He thrived in a free role, linking up with Reading's three man central midfield and Pavel Pogrebnyak, which gave Jordan Obita space to bomb forward.
McCleary is far more a natural winger than Blackman and Hal Robson-Kanu, maybe because he doesn't claim to be a striker. But that does mean he stays out wide more. Clarke may have been worried that without Chris Gunter he would be isolated and ineffective against Millwall, which maybe was why he was dropped. He may have also been hoping that Robson-Kanu could replicate Blackman's Cardiff performance giving Reading two inside forwards.
Neglectful wingers or inside forwards?
It was interesting reading @hughvmarxist's match report and his comments about Blackman and Robson-Kanu neglecting their duties as wingers. The graphic below shows both players touches in the first 60 minutes. Blackman's touches (in yellow) show that he was looking to continue his wandering role. Robson-Kanu on the other hand seems to have stuck to his wing.
The most noticeable thing is how few touches both players had out wide in the final third. Another interesting stat for the pair from the opening hour is that together they only attempted four crosses of which only one failed.
Too much of the other extreme?
With Millwall a man down, Clarke decided he could do without Chalobah, his holding midfielder, and brought on McCleary. He may have also felt that his team needed to stretch the opposition by having a traditional winger on the pitch. The contrast between McCleary's performance with Blackman's and Robson-Kanu's is striking.
Whilst Blackman and Robson-Kanu looked to cut inside, and when in possession often looked to play the ball inside, McCleary looked to attack down the right flank. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a winger at full speed, that is until his dangerous run ends in a wasted cross! And that's what seemed to happen on Tuesday.
The graphic below shows McCleary's nine crosses. Every single cross failed. Was McCleary guilty of being too one dimensional and even lazy by putting over endless crosses? It was a similar story against Fulham. Of course he is far from the only guilty party. Obita put over 16 crosses at the New Den with only three not failing.
Play like Brazil! I'd settle for Wales at the moment
At this point like a Reading winger I have realised I have gone down a blind alley with an all too familiar ending. We know crosses don't work you're thinking (that's if you've continued reading) so tell us something new! Well I'm going to follow the example of Reading's wide men and hope for the best (by throwing out an idea).
Fans will often comment about how much better Robson-Kanu is for Wales. When in red he will line up either on the left or right up front in Wales' usual 4-3-3 formation. Of course playing with Joe Allen, Garath Bale, Aaron Ramsey, etc. helps. But it also helps that Wales get Robson-Kanu onto the ball in dangerous areas.
Watch his goal against Cyprus below and think about the last time a Reading player was put through on a one-on-one. I'm not sure I can even think of a single case this season.
The arrival of Chalobah has seen Reading move to a similar 4-3-3 formation. The change in formation has seen Clarke encourage Reading's wide forwards to play more like inside forwards than wingers. Having a holding midfielder also allows Oliver Norwood and Danny Williams more licence to get forward. Like Wales this could allow Reading to get more players on the ball through the middle in the final third.*
Give it time and this could be an exciting prospect. If Reading have one player capable of playing through balls like the one above then it's Norwood. We also know Williams has the ability to drive forward through the middle. Unfortunately against a Millwall side happy to sit deep, it seems Reading fell back into bad habits.
But Clarke deserves our patience to bring about this change. If you need one reason to have faith in the Scot it might be this: asking your wide players to cut inside is a very obvious way at stopping them attempting endless hopeful crosses. And we all know we'd like to see an end to that (and to this article you're thinking)!
All stats from Squawka and WhoScored
* - Yes I am fully aware that suggesting Reading play like Wales both sounds crazy and shows how mediocre Reading have become!