Controlling the game without controlling the ball
On looking at the basic stats for the game against Middlesbrough, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we were playing away. After all, the 39% possession Reading had on Saturday mirrors the 38% the Royals had in their triumphant trip to Turf Moor just a week earlier. Consecutive wins with such a low control of the ball would normally suggest that Reading have gone back to how they typically played under Brian McDermott: keep things tight at the back, nick a goal down the other end, take all three points.
If that were true, Reading's dominance in chance creation doesn't fit the narrative, Reading having 14 shots to Boro's 6. So how do the Royals manage that attacking prowess whilst the other side bosses the ball? I put it down to a pair of hard working, energetic midfielders that have highly impressed this season: Oliver Norwood and Danny Williams. Their performances of late show them to be the archetypal 'all action' midfielders that excel both in defence and going forwards.
The dynamic duo of Norwood and Williams attempted six and five tackles respectively on Saturday, putting them both in the top five performers between the two sides in that category. That's certainly a good explanation for why Reading not only kept a clean sheet, but only faced one shot on target in the 90 minutes - very impressive when you consider that 'Boro were the league's top scorers going into the weekend's fixtures. We may all have our doubts about Ali Al-Habsi, but even he can't fumble shots if they're not coming at him in the first place.
Up the other end of the pitch, Norwood and Williams also performed to a high standard. The former has been orchestrating the play from deep excellently this season, and pulled off three 'key passes' on Saturday (second on the day behind Hal Robson-Kanu). As for Danny Williams, his maiden strike at the Madejski Stadium made the headlines, but in hindsight we shouldn't be surprised that he added a goal to his tally. For a tough-tackling centre midfielder, Williams loves to be involved in the final third: with three shots, he was the second most involved on the day behind Nick Blackman. As it happens, he did even better last week, firing off five shots at Burnley's Tom Heaton - and these shots aren't all hopeful punts from distance: of his nine efforts in the last two games, a third of them have been from inside the box. Don't be surprised if the ex-Hoffenheim man runs up a good tally before May.
Piazon vs Quinn
One of the Royals' stand-out performers so far has been Stephen Quinn, who very much made the left wing his own before succumbing to injury. The ex-Hull City man has impressed me not only with his attacking contributions, but also his defensive work-rate. On Saturday, his replacement in the side appeared to be Lucas Piazon, who started the match in Quinn's space on the left side of a four man midfield. But, in contrast to the previously mentioned pair of Williams and Quinn, I don't think think that Piazon had a particularly good afternoon.
Much of that is down to playing style: whereas Quinn is a natural orthodox left winger, Piazon is a different prospect. Physically speaking, he's more lightweight, and is probably better suited to a central attacking role that doesn't need the same level of defensive work and positional discipline. Therefore, it's not surprising to note that Piazon approached his duties on the left flank rather differently to Stephen Quinn. Here are the heat maps for the pair's last two home games - Stephen Quinn vs Ipswich first, and Lucas Piazon vs Middlesbrough second. In both cases, Reading are shooting left to right.
On comparing those two images, Stephen Quinn is clearly the more orthodox of the two - despite tucking inside quite a lot, the Irishman hugs the touchline a lot more than Piazon, who covers less ground (although he was substituted on 63 minutes to be fair). Going from that, I don't think Lucas Piazon is the natural replacement for Stephen Quinn.
In Steve Clarke sides, the whole midfield has to work hard and cover a lot of ground - part of the reason why Danny Williams and Oliver Norwood are vital to this team is that they're so good at that. Certainly, Lucas Piazon could fit into a more advanced free role behind the striker that requires less defensive work, but I'm not convinced he's a good fit for anything tougher than that.
Reading's magnificent seven
Much has been made in recent weeks about how much strength in depth the squad now has after a very impressive summer transfer window. With the exception of right back, there's competition for places all over the pitch, which naturally drives up the quality we see from those that actually manage to make it into the first team. But it's becoming clear that Steve Clarke can rely on a core of regulars to build the rest of the team around. So, who are those players?
Well, statistically speaking, there are seven of them - in this case, I'm counting everyone that's appeared in 75% or more of the available minutes in the league this season. They are... Jonathan Bond, Chris Gunter, Paul McShane, Jordan Obita, Oliver Norwood, Danny Williams and Nick Blackman. As it happens, Stephen Quinn missed out by one minute.
If I'd asked you to name those seven without knowing who they were, you'd have been able to guess without too much difficulty. After all, they're the ones we've become most accustomed to during the 2015/16 campaign. What sticks out for me is that those players are spread all across the pitch - defence, midfield and attack - if you included Stephen Quinn, you'd get an even broader range. In contrast, last season saw five players get into that category - granted, not a big difference to this season's seven, but the spread of players in that group very much is. In fact, they were all part of Reading's back five: Adam Federici, Chris Gunter, Michael Hector, Alex Pearce and Jordan Obita. Noone in the midfield or attack got a look in, perhaps because they were all so inconsistent?
The point I'm trying to make is that you need a group of consistent, reliable performers all over the pitch - we haven't had that in recent seasons, and the team has suffered as a result. With the likes of Nick Blackman and Oliver Norwood being as regularly impressive as those at the back, it seems that Steve Clarke has solved that problem.