If any Reading fans thought the sacking of Nigel Adkins would lead to predictable and consistent team selection then they have probably been disappointed with Steve Clarke. The former West Brom manager has already become known as bit of a tinkerman with Royals fans and Saturday's match against Blackburn saw him conform to that reputation.
Clarke made five changes to the starting line-up with the first start in 18 months for club captain Jem Karacan being the most eye catching. The team selection suggested a 4-4-2 formation with Jamie Mackie once again partnering Pavel Pogrebnyak up front. However, it soon became clear very early on that Mackie was playing on the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation.
That Clarke might try a new formation ahead of our FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal was not that big of a surprise. It doesn't take much imagination to come to the conclusion that packing the midfield against as good as team as the Gunners makes sense, especially considering the possession game they often look to play.
Reading's central midfielders
What was surprising was who Clarke chose to use as part of Reading's three man midfield. Nathaniel Chalobah has proved already that he is a player of real promise in the holding midfield role whilst Karacan's energy makes him a natural candidate for the box to box role, particularly as Danny Williams was injured. However, the selection of Hal Robson-Kanu as the Royals' third central midfielder was certainly an innovative and unexpected decision.
As the image below shows, Robson-Kanu lined up alongside Karacan with Chalobah behind. The Wales international was as much a central midfielder as Karacan and not playing the number 10 role that may have been expected. This was very much a 4-3-3 formation and not a 4-2-3-1 one.
The midfield roles
Each player in Reading's midfield seemed to have a specific role. Chalobah sat in front of the defence rarely venturing forward. As the image below shows, he was tidy if unambitious in possession: 63 passes with a pass success rate of 85.7%.
It seems he was asked to recycle possession and it meant the Royals played far more of a possession game than they often have under Clarke. 508 passes were attempted and only 60 of those were long balls. It made for an easier on the eye game than Cardiff but it also showed that Clarke had only had a few days to implement this new style and formation.
The 47 touches made by Karacan show his usual energy and effort to get up and down the pitch. The area of his touches also seem to show how much Chalobah controlled the game from deep allowing Karacan and Robson-Kanu to play further forward.
One criticism for Karacan might be his lack of touches on the left side of the pitch. If a possession based 4-3-3 formation is to work then your central midfielders, particularly the forward two, need to have good movement. Reading will also be looking for more attacking passes into dangerous areas than Karacan managed.
Saturday though was an encouraging return for the club captain. He got 72 minutes and to me looked like he easily could have continued. He had the best passing success rate in the team, blocked the most shots and did the joint most interceptions. If his role was to be the high energy presser then it was one he did well.
The reaction to Robson-Kanu's debut in central midfield was mixed if not fairly muted. It is perhaps a good sign for HRK that the level of criticism he now gets after a game is far far less than it used to be. Is he improving or are fans now so blasé about the league season that they cannot even get themselves worked up to criticise the boo boy?
Given that this was his first ever game in central midfield I thought he gave a half decent performance and it's an experiment that I'd be happy to see again. Robson-Kanu has shown he likes to roam the pitch, has good close control and has the physique to cope with a central midfield battle. His touches of the ball show how much he moved across the pitch.
The image of his passing shows he was more adventurous than Chalobah and Karacan, and also managed to get on the ball in the final third. However, as the playmaker of the midfield trio it would have been nice to see more of him on the ball. His 41 touches were the least made by an outfield starter.
Overall, the touches and passing of Chalobah, Karacan and Robson-Kanu show that the three players had specific roles and they showed signs that there is something to work with. It would be easy to see Danny Williams coming into a three man midfield.
It might be harder to think of a role for Hope Akpan and Oliver Norwood in such a system. Norwood could probably play the Chalobah role though he would need to reign his tendency to monopolise possession and play Hollywood passes.
What Reading really miss is an attacking playmaker like Will Hughes who can open up opposition defences. Robson-Kanu has as much potential to be that man as any other player in the current Reading squad (which I'm aware is not much praise).