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Reading FC v Bradford City: Tactics Insight

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So what did we learn from the original tie at Valley Parade? What lessons did Steve Clarke get from Bradford's previous FA Cup opponents? @WilliamOwain investigates.

Image taken from "Bradford City 0-0 Reading - FA Cup Sixth Round" video on FATV on YouTube
Image taken from "Bradford City 0-0 Reading - FA Cup Sixth Round" video on FATV on YouTube

I thought it during the game and I thought the same watching Match of the Day that evening: Steve Clarke got his tactics spot on at Valley Parade. The decision to match Bradford's 4-4-2 diamond formation with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation was a sensible move.

Telling his team to be compact, hard to beat and use the long ball was just common sense. Reading have shown plenty of times this season that they are not a good passing team so trying to play nice intricate football on a pitch like Valley Parade would have been stupid. There were other tactical moves by Clarke that made sense, some of which have been overlooked.

One was the selection of Stephen Kelly over Chris Gunter. The Wales international had started the previous two league games and been the highest rated player on both occasions by The Tilehurst End's match reporter. I myself was surprised by Clarke's decision but writing this article it became clear why Clarke made the decision and what a wise move it was. Gunter wasn't injured or tired, this was a deliberate move by Clarke.

James Hanson: An old fashioned inside left

As we all know Gunter is far better going forward than Kelly. Against a team playing a diamond formation it would seem obvious to use the more attacking full back. However, the key to Bradford's success using the diamond formation though is the fluidity of their movement. This is perhaps surprisingly best illustrated by James Hanson.

Hanson is as a traditional footballer as you can find. He wears black boots, wears his shorts high and always smartly tucks his shirt in. It's easy dismiss him as being a typical lower league striker. He's 6 ft 4, strong and good in the air. You don't average one goal every three games though without being a good player.

Hanson has an important role to play in Phil Parkinson's team. Whilst he plays up front it is noticeable how wide he plays. It doesn't matter how far back an opponent's throw in is, he will back there helping his team out. Despite not being the most mobile he often manages to cover both left midfield and striker positions.

Take the two pictures below. The first shows him dutifully defending during the last few minutes against Chelsea. The second picture shows him on a Bradford counter attack against Sunderland. His tendency to drift to the left was also evidenced in Bradford's second goal against Millwall at The New Den.

Hanson's positional play against Reading was very similar but this time he was often marked by Kelly. The picture below both highlights how wide Hanson drifts and how close Kelly stayed to him. You will see the same in the other pictures I use later on.

At Valley Parade Kelly's natural cautiousness going forward was useful as it took away the space that Hanson usually drifts to when Bradford are on the counter attack. Kelly is also better in the air than Gunter so don't be surprised if the Ireland international keeps his place in Clarke's FA Cup team.

The point of Bradford's diamond

Hanson's movement helps Bradford on a number of fronts. His tracking back obviously helps out defensively whilst drifting out wide gives the Bantams another outlet offensively and also creates space for the attacking midfielder at the top of the diamond midfield.

No picture better illustrates Bradford's diamond midfield than the one below and it also shows how far forward their attacking midfielder gets.

The man who has recently been playing that role is Billy Knott, but the most celebrated example of Bradford's diamond formation at work was Mark Yeates' goal against Chelsea. The image below is taken from Match of the Day and shows Yeates busting a gut to support Jonathan Stead. Also notice how wide Hanson is once again.

The same is shown below against Reading. Hanson is standing next to Kelly and Knott is challenging for the ball against Nathaniel Chalobah. The players circled in purple are the other three Bradford midfielders.

To combat Bradford's diamond midfield Clarke chose three central midfielders: Chalobah, Oliver Norwood and Danny Williams. As shown above, Chalobah played the holding midfielder role. It was his job to keep an eye on Knott, and then Yeates when he came on, whilst Norwood and Williams were encouraged to close down Bradford's other midfielders.

The picture below shows why sacrificing a striker was a wise move by Clarke. Michael Hector is out of position having won the ball out wide but Chalobah is covering him. Norwood is about to close down the man on the ball. With a midfield two that would have left a huge space in front of Reading's defence.

Instead with Chalobah covering him, Hector can move to cover that space. Oh and look, there's Hanson and Kelly together again!

Bradford's wingless wonders

One problem that is often raised with playing a diamond formation is that it gives teams a lack of width even with as attacking full backs that Bradford have. That is not a problem for Phil Parkinson's team though. As already mentioned Hanson gives the Bantams an outlet on the left.

On the right side the drifting player comes from the right sided player of the diamond. At times Filipe Morais almost plays like a natural wide midfielder but he only moves out wide when Bradford are in possession.

The picture below is from Bradford's 4-0 replay win over Millwall. On the left you see Gary Liddle, the player at the base of the diamond, playing the ball the ball through Millwall's midfield to Knott. Seeing that pass, Morais makes the run into space which Millwall's left back has left closing down Knott.

The picture on the right shows the move coming to fruition and Andrew Halliday, circled in green, shows how tight the midfield diamond are.

The picture below is an example of Morais getting wide against Reading. As you can see his position is more of a winger than a central midfielder. This explains why Jordan Obita rarely ventured forward during the match.

Bradford's attacking full backs

One unmentioned success for Reading at Valley Parade was how the Royals stopped Bradford's full backs attacking as much as they usually do. Despite that I was very impressed with both Stephen Darby and James Meredith. They both looked like players who could handle a step up to the Championship with ease.

Their normal attacking tendencies are shown in the picture below. What Sunderland are doing positionally I don't know, but Bradford's midfield diamond and attacking full backs are clear for all to see.

To stop Darby and Meredith, Clarke selected Jamie Mackie and Hal Robson-Kanu. Both were encouraged to play high up the pitch. This was intended to both support Pogrebnyak and force Bradford's full backs to defend.

In the end there were few if any opportunities for Reading to counter attack, but Reading's wide attackers could be vital in the replay. Even against Chelsea, Darby and Meredith still looked to get forward as often as possible. The picture below shows a Chelsea counter attack.

Darby is desperately trying to get back whilst Meredith is so far forward he's not even in the picture. Being ruthless with such chances could be the difference for Reading in their attempt to reach just a second FA Cup semi-final.

Will the replay be the same?

The importance of the FA Cup for Reading was shown by Steve Clarke's team selection against Watford. All of the starting line-up from the first tie against Bradford were rested. So were Nick Blackman, Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary.

Phil Parkinson also rested players. Six of the players who started against Notts County did not start against the Royals. Three of the players I have focused on were on the bench: Hanson, Knott and Morais.

In this article I have used images from four matches Bradford have played in the FA Cup. In every game Parkinson sent his team out using the diamond formation. As I've mentioned Bradford play a flexible system whereby a diamond formation can easily become 4-2-3-1, 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. It would be a surprise if Parkinson changes his system.

With that in mind you would think that Clarke would once again use the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation he used at Valley Parade. Having started against Watford we know Simon Cox and Yakubu won't start. Blackman or Mackie could partner Pogrebnyak up front but going with only two central midfielders would be a brave mood against Bradford's diamond.

That's why it wouldn't surprise me, injuries permitting, if the only change we see from Reading's starting line-up is McCleary in for Robson-Kanu.