Out of touch
Reading's stats for how well they controlled the ball on Tuesday night were impressive to say the least. The 68% possession that the Royals enjoyed against Huddersfield dwarfs the team's season average of 48.6%, whereas pass accuracy leapt up from the average of 76.8% to 87%. At the heart of that, unsurprisingly, was Oliver Norwood. Facing his former club, he racked up 137 touches and 131 passes - in comparison, Huddersfield's best were 57 touches (Huws) and 49 passes (Davidson). In fact, a whopping seven Reading players made more passes than the Terriers' most frequent passer - even including Alex Fernandez who only played the second half.
It was a terrific display of ball domination - I could rattle off plenty more stats to reinforce that - but, as I've said before in this column, the key factor is end product. And, as the scoreline obviously tells you, there wasn't enough of that - but why was that the case?
Flying without wings
I'm not usually a fan of the old saying 'the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting things to change', but in some cases it's fairly accurate. Tuesday night was one such case. The problem last season, as we all know, was that Reading would repeatedly get the ball out wide and then send over as many crosses as humanly possible. Well, we now seem to be doing the opposite - frequently trying to pass the ball through the middle to work a goal-scoring opportunity - it doesn't work.
Positioning-wise, the team seems to be set up far too narrowly to generate any proper width - and the variation in attacking play that comes with it. Here are the heat maps for Reading's two wingers - who were both substituted at half time having had no effect in the opening 45.
That top graphic belongs to Lucas Piazon, with the bottom representing Garath McCleary - in both cases, Reading are shooting from left to right. As you can see, despite both in theory being Reading's wide players on Tuesday night, neither spends that much time out wide. Piazon's image shows that he's playing more in the hole behind the striker, whereas McCleary, despite being a bit better than his Brazilian counterpart, hardly hugs the touchline in the same way that he has done before.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not having a go at Piazon and McCleary here - it's Steve Clarke's tactics that I'm calling into question. For sure, the front line needs to be interchanging and adding some variety to its movements, but what I saw against Huddersfield was the attacking unit all being funneled through the middle where they get crowded out by a tightly packed defence. In recent weeks it's been happening more and more - and with the plethora of wide option available to the gaffer, it must be by design rather than necessity.
Breaking down a disciplined defence at home when it's been set up with the express purpose of seeing out the game is never an easy task. Now, I'm obviously no expert, but surely the way forwards is to keep the ball, move it about quickly, probe for weaknesses, then exploit them when they appear. To do that, you need to stretch the play across the final third - something you can't do if you're not playing with any proper wingers, as Reading currently seem to be doing.
Player in focus: Ola John
The best way of proving a rule is to find its exception. In this case, 'Reading don't get results without width and variation' can be proved by this man - Ola John - who popped up with the equaliser six minutes from time. To compare him directly to Piazon and McCleary, here's his heat map graphic, with the loanee having come on in the 74th minute.
A casual glance at that shows you the crucial point - John played with far more width than the team's original winger Lucas Piazon did. Whereas Piazon spent most of his time drifting infield, John patrolled up and down the left flank, supporting Jordan Obita and then getting forward himself. Is it really any coincidence that, having knocked on the door for so long, Reading finally got the equaliser when wide play on one side found the other flank's winger? It went to show that moving the ball around and adding variation can yield dividends.
John's individual stats are also impressive. The Dutchman only played for 21 minutes, but during that time he had the second highest number of shots of any player in the whole match (3) and the most dribbles (3). That's not only a big boost for John, who must now surely be in with a good chance of a start at Cardiff, but also a damning verdict on Piazon and McCleary - both of whom need to be contributing more to the attack.
Oliver Norwood added another superb strike to his Reading collection with a very clever free-kick. His strike from wide caught Steer (who was presumably convinced that he was awaiting a cross) completely off guard.
The second and third views available in that video give the best indication of what I mean. Look at the sheer panic that grips Steer as soon as he realises the ball is sneaking in at his near post. If Norwood did mean it, he's a very clever player.
We also now seem to be seeing some fighting spirit back in the team, with the last two games seeing the Royals battling back from a goal down to rescue a point. Would we have seen anything like that under Nigel Adkins? Our time under the last manager was blighted by an inability to get back into matches in which we were losing. We were hardly at our best against either Brighton or Huddersfield, but I'd argue that in both cases we looked capable of finding a goal or two. Under the previous gaffer, the last week would have seen two losses, not two draws.
All stats and heatmap graphics are taken from WhoScored.com, whereas the gif was made from the game's official highlights, which you can find here.