It was often said that Reading struggled under Nigel Adkins because the players failed to understand his style of football. What that style of football was meant to be was never clear. Reading's awful defensive record is a testament that it was not to be hard to beat, but the huge variation in passing statistics seems to suggest that Adkins wasn't trying to turn the Royals into the new Barcelona either. That may have been the problem, it just wasn't clear what Adkins was trying to do.
We all knew, though, that Steve Clarke on the other hand would have a clear idea of how he wanted Reading to play. The former West Brom manager has made his name as a defensive coach and said plenty of times in interviews he wants his teams to be hard to beat. He may have been in charge for only 12 games at the Madejski Stadium, but Clarke is already well on his way in turning the Royals into difficult opposition.
Towards the end of the Adkins era there was probably a consensus that Reading were becoming too easy to play against. The opposition were not made to work hard for their wins let alone goals. In Adkins' last 12 games in charge Reading conceded 22 goals and only managed three clean sheets. In the same number of games, Clarke's Reading team have conceded just 11 goals and had four clean sheets.
Defending in two banks of four
Clarke has clearly installed a defensive discipline that was badly missing under Adkins. He has drilled not just his defence but whole team into good defensive habits. Players are working harder and covering team mates in defence. Under Adkins it was not unusual to see a Reading defence all over the place and out of position. As the two pictures below show, Clarke wants his Reading team to defend in two banks of four.
In the first picture, only Jordan Obita is not conforming to the two banks of four as he tries to tackle Cyrus Christie. In the second photo Reading's defence and midfield is again two clear banks of four. Another noticeable thing in both pictures is how narrow Reading's midfield is.
Derby play a 4-3-3 formation and in the home games earlier this season I highlighted how that enabled them to dominate the midfield. By asking Jamie Mackie and Hal Robson-Kanu to cut in, Clarke is trying to squeeze the space that Derby have in the middle of the park. It also allowed the Royals greater freedom on the counter attack, something I will cover later on.
Possibly the most noticeable change in Reading's play under Clarke has been how much more dirty work Reading's wide men are getting through. The Scot is asking players who traditionally would only be concerned with attacking play to not just be a part of, but key components of his defence.
The picture below shows the moments just before Stephen Warnock was stupidly sent off. Reading's right back Stephen Kelly has followed Simon Dawkins high up the pitch. He can do this because Mackie is dutifully covering him. Robson-Kanu has also tracked back to cover Danny Williams who is trying to win the ball back near the touchline.
The importance of concentration
Whilst the pictures above show the improvement in the Royals' defence, there were also a few occasions which show that Clarke's Reading are still a work in progress. Within the first few minutes of the game Derby almost took the lead through Craig Bryson. It was a lovely passing move which showed why the Rams may be the league's best passing team.
It also highlighted how against the best teams, losing concentration can be fatal. The picture below shows Reading's defence in a solid line. Robson-Kanu is tracking Jesse Lingard whilst Reading's central midfielders are close to their Derby counterparts.
Mackie however is ball watching and has allowed Dawkins to run into the space between Reading's defence and midfield. This allows Lingard to play the ball to him almost leading to an early Derby goal.
Mackie could also have been accused of being guilty again in the build up to Derby's second goal. The picture below shows Christie's cross mid-air. Once again Reading's defence is in a good bank of four and the whole team is very narrow.
Derby's full backs, though, play very high up the pitch. This is shown by Christie in the first two pictures in this article. In the one above Craig Forsyth is just about to enter the box and will receive Christie's cross before crossing into Lingard whose shots deflects off Darren Bent into the goal.
You will see below how Nathaniel Chalobah covers Kelly who goes to close down Forsyth. Mackie has taken up a decent position but at the crucial moment just pauses to watch Forsyth instead of making a couple of extra steps closer to Reading's goal and which would have allowed him to clear the eventual cross.
In truth this is nitpicking but it does show how goals are scored and conceded from brief moments of loss of concentration. The goal also shows the dangers of playing narrow against teams with attacking full-backs. Clarke seems to want the far full back to cut in to act as a third centre back. This requires Reading's midfielders to be constantly aware of imminent danger. It is perhaps not surprising that they are still getting used to this task.
Mackie may look the guiltiest party but I dare say they are plenty of other examples from other players. The Scotland international had a quiet second half but his hard-work in the first half got Warnock sent off and his dangerous runs forced Derby to bring Forsyth on before half-time.
Perhaps a surprising effect of playing narrow is that it has allowed Reading's wide midfielders to have greater freedom to roam. Under Adkins, Reading tended to play with two wingers who stayed wide. With Clarke in charge they are asked to do far more defensively but in return they are being allowed to cut inside. The effect is that they are far more involved in the attacking build up.
No player has benefited more from Clarke taking charge than Robson-Kanu. The Wales international has always liked to cut inside but for most of his time at Reading this hasn't been particularly effective. Under Clarke he is starting to become an important player and for the first time is starting to work well with his full-back.
The picture below shows Robson-Kanu laying the ball off to Chalobah. Derby's right back Christie has followed Robson-Kanu giving Obita space to bomb forward and put a dangerous cross over from which Simon Cox should have scored. Mackie has also taken up a position far more centrally than he would have under Adkins.
This ability to get the gifted Robson-Kanu on the ball in dangerous areas was to play dividends with both of Reading's goals. Just look at how far over the supposedly left winger is below. Mackie has also cut inside again, giving space for Kelly to get forward. Cox's willingness to run saw him rewarded with a clever pass from Kelly and Robson-Kanu was able to finish off a lovely move.
The winning goal is again noticeable for the positions of Reading's two "wingers". The right winger Nick Blackman heads the ball on the left side of the pitch to Cox, who passes to Robson-Kanu who from the centre circle plays the perfect ball for Yakubu to score the winner.
The Derby game showed that Clarke is managing to improve Reading's defence without reducing our attacking threat. Of course there will be the occasional bore fests like the Fulham and Cardiff first halves, and disappointing defeats like the one to Leeds, but this Reading team is a work in progress. So far the progress is encouraging.
All images taken from BBC's Match of the Day.