It’s fair to say that Steve Clarke’s decision to play a 4-4-2 formation fooled us all. It had been widely expected that he would play three central midfielders. However, what formation a team plays is often given too much importance. There is far more to football tactics than just formations.
The width of a team is just one example of the many ways a good manager can change his team’s shape and tactics, and this is what Clarke used to allow Reading to play two strikers.
This is something he has done before. Away at Derby in the fifth round it was noticeable how narrow our midfield was set up. This was designed to combat Derby’s three man central midfield.
Clarke used the same tactic against Arsenal. The two pictures below show how Reading’s midfield was always in one half of the pitch or the equivalent distance apart. This required supreme discipline from our wingers, Garath McCleary and Hal Robson-Kanu, and this was a job they fulfilled throughout the game.
The result was that, despite only playing two central midfielders, our midfield was always narrow enough it was never outnumbered by Arsenal’s three central midfielders, who were often joined by Aaron Ramsey.
In my tactical preview I had mentioned that one of the most important things Reading would have to do was be compact and hold their position. This doesn't mean you have to sit deep the whole game but it does mean you should be compact when defending to avoid giving your opponents space.
Reading’s narrow midfield played a crucial part in that but an equally important part was the distance between the Royals’ defence and midfield. The two pictures below show how effective this tactic was, as well as how meticulously Reading were at carrying it out.
Two pictures separated by nearly 80 minutes of football and yet the gap remains minimal. The mental fatigue of playing with such discipline is rarely mentioned but deserves to be in this case. Despite all the effort Reading put into the match they never wavered from their manager’s tactical plan.
By being so compact the Royals mostly successfully stopped Arsenal’s danger men getting onto the ball in dangerous areas. It is a testament to how well Reading defended that Arsenal never had a period of real domination.
The picture below underlines the point about being compact not forcing you to defend deep. In fact, in the first half all the BBC pundits mentioned how high Reading were defending. One thing that remained consistent, though, was the space between the defence and midfield. They went up and down the pitch together.
This of course did leave us open to the through ball but in the end this only happened a few occasions and did not result in a goal. Even when we did defend high up the pitch, Arsenal were forced to try and play through two banks of four.
The attacking threat
For all Reading’s solid defending in the first half they did not really offer any serious attacking threat. A speculative drive from Jordan Obita was the Royals' only serious shot and even that was a comfortable save.
Such was the effectiveness of Reading’s defence and midfield defensively, Jamie Mackie and Pavel Pogrebnyak were pretty much given licence to roam. Pogrebnyak regularly dropped deep without really helping out defensively. He did not need to though.
Instead it was his job to hold the ball up and play in his team mates. Mackie’s role was to play on the last defender looking for the ball over the top. The picture below shows this working to perfection but sadly he was incorrectly ruled offside.
At halftime I expected Clarke to continue to keep things tight until at least the 70th minute. I could not have been more wrong. Clarke realised that Reading’s first half performance had encouraged Arsenal to play a slow tempo.
He correctly predicted that they would continue this after the restart and encouraged his team to play even higher up the pitch. He told his midfield to press higher up the pitch whilst retaining their shape.
The picture below shows this in place. Reading’s midfield has stepped forward ahead of Arsenal’s attacking midfielders Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sánchez. Only Ramsey, in the top left, is in the picture below, whilst Mackie and Pogrebnyak have effectively covered Arsenal’s other midfielders Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. Per Mertesacker, on the ball, does not have many options.
This subtle change meant Reading won the ball higher up the pitch. This crucially allowed Nathaniel Chalobah and Danny Williams to support attacks. In the first half they had always stayed deep, whilst McCleary and Robson-Kanu often had big distances to make up when supporting Mackie and Pogrebnyak. The image below highlights how Reading were able to get more men forward.
The effect was incredible. For the first 20 minutes of the second half Reading controlled the game and the ball rarely entered into the Royals' third of the pitch. This was partly helped by Arsenal’s attacking players, Özil, Ramsey, Sánchez and Danny Welbeck, going missing.
I would love to know how many touches of the ball they made in that period because it cannot be many. Coquelin also struggled to cope with Reading playing higher up the pitch.
The picture below shows another key moment in the game. Reading have won the ball and Coquelin, Özil and Sánchez are strolling back. McCleary could play the ball to Robson-Kanu, near the centre circle, but instead plays the perfect through pass to Pogrebnyak who, along with Mackie, is continuing to play on the last defender. Pogrebnyak has timed his run to perfection but again the Royals are wrongly penalised.
With Reading tiring Clarke made a late change just before extra time. Jem Karacan came on for Robson-Kanu and the Royals moved to the 4-1-4-1 formation which they had been expected to start with.
It seems a cautious change but it made sense. Reading were tiring and were beginning to sit deeper. The addition of Karacan meant that there was another man in the middle of the pitch and Chalobah, squared below, was able to sit in front of the defence.
The one drawback of this change was that it meant Reading had no one to chase the long ball. This gave Arsenal’s defence more time on the ball and pushed the game into Reading's half. It’s hard to criticise Clarke, though, especially as there were no pacy options on the bench.
The mental and physical tiredness the players would have been feeling at this point would have been far more than in a normal league game. When players tire they inevitably track back slower. The introduction of Karacan meant Chalobah could cover any tired legs.
Reasons for hope
It was hard not to leave Wembley feeling proud and optimistic for the future. Our league season has been a major disappointment but our cup run offers much hope, particularly on Clarke as our manager.
He has shown on more than one occasion that he can get it right tactically both defensively and offensively. In the fifth round his narrow midfield stifled Derby’s possession game. In the quarter final he nullified Bradford on an awful pitch before blitzing them in the replay.
Clarke makes subtle tactical changes unlike Nigel Adkins, and further in the past Brendan Rodgers, who were not unknown to try formations and systems that seemed trendy but were far too big a change from our normal system.
Perhaps most encouraging is that Clarke has proved he is not as defensive or cautious as West Brom fans made out. He also seems to be more pragmatic than Brian McDermott without being too negative. When he thinks we can attack we attack, even against the top sides. Our league season has been a concern but on the basis of our cup adventure I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with us next season.
All images taken from BBC Match of the Day.