Pre-season is a time for experimenting. With no pressure to win, managers can try out new tactics and formations as well as players in new positions and roles. It also offers valuable time. No manager will want to do what Harry Redknapp did last season when he directed the whole of QPR's pre-season, including summer transfers, towards the plan of playing three at the back only to then ditch the plan before the end of August.
So far there has been little evidence that Steve Clarke will make a similar mistake. In fact so far this pre-season Clarke has lined the Royals up in a similar way as last season. Reading's march to the FA Cup semi final was down to tactical discipline and the unlucky semi-final defeat saw one of the finest tactical displays for a long time from a Reading team and manager.
That match saw Reading line up in a compact 4-4-2. The defence and midfield played close together forcing Arsenal to play through eight players. The midfield, including two players in Garath McCleary and Hal Robson-Kanu who are not known for their defensive work, played superbly. They never pushed too far away from the defence, closed Arsenal down at the right times and were always narrow.
That sunny afternoon in Wembley showed Clarke knows how to line up a team defensively. The challenge for him is to get Reading playing effectively on a regular basis in the Championship. The 3-0 away win on the last day of the season at a sorry Derby County gave Royals fans hope going into the summer. It was also perhaps the first time we witnessed a system that Clarke has continued to use this summer.
Danny Williams playing up front
Take a look at the picture below from Reading's first pre-season friendly in Thailand. Reading appear to be playing a 4-4-2 formation except the second striker is Danny Williams; a player who, as far as I know, has never played up front.
An almost identical picture can be seen below against Swansea. Williams is playing so high up the pitch he is almost level with the striker. Behind him is a four man midfield that is flat and narrow. The midfield's shape and positioning is similar to what we saw in the FA Cup last year.
It is the positioning of Williams that seems to be new and given his qualities it makes sense. The defence and midfield can hold their position allowing Williams, along with the striker, to press high up the pitch. This worked to perfection against the Swans when Jonjo Shelvey lost the ball and Nick Blackman scored a wonder goal that he thinks silenced his critics.
It probably went unnoticed at the time, but a similar sort of thing happened in the run up to Reading's first goal at Derby. The picture below shows Jem Karacan, playing what in pre-season has been the Danny Williams role, closing Will Hughes down. Richard Keogh then slipped and Kwesi Appiah, who put in a display that deserved more praise, went on to score.
The average positioning of Reading from that match shows how high up the pitch Karacan played. As all Reading fans know, Karacan was never known for his attacking ability. Instead Clarke wanted to use his energy as a high presser.
Do formations exist in the modern game?
The average positions at Derby also show how talk of what formations team play is a bit naive in the modern game. Reading did not play a 2-4-3-1 formation at Pride Park. They also did not play a 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation. If you want to talk about formations then the best answer is to say they played multiple formations.
The friendly against the Thai All Stars is an excellent example of that. Below is a picture of Reading again defending in a 4-4-2 formation with Williams as high up the pitch as Blackman.
When Reading were in possession Williams often dropped deep. In the picture below he is running towards the Reading goal creating a three man triangle midfield with Oliver Norwood and Aaron Tshibola. The wingers are nowhere to be seen, showing how when in possession it is there job to get forward and support the striker.
Playing Williams as a high presser seems a defensive move. It could even be described as a full circle from Carlo Mazzone's innovative move of Andrea Pirlo, an attacking central midfielder, to deep-lying playmaker. Williams is being played high up the pitch for his defensive qualities. He will chase and tackle far better than any attacking midfielder or striker. He should also feel more comfortable dropping deep when need be.
Of course playing further up the pitch will mean Williams will be more involved when Reading are attacking. We all know that Williams has the ability to drive through teams. Playing him high up the pitch allows him to do this in more dangerous areas. Stephen Quinn is another central midfielder who could do this. The player operating in that role can also make late runs into the box to support attacks, like Williams did below and where Reading's formation could probably be best described as 4-2-4.
Problems in possession
The system I have highlighted is great when you play against teams that allow you to counter attack. It may not be so effective against teams who sit deep and let you dominate possession. This is a problem that Reading have had for nearly a decade now. We have a great tradition as a counter attacking team but have long struggled when asked to dictate play.
There were signs last season that Clarke was trying to remedy this. For too long Reading have tended to attack in a fixed 4-4-2 formation with the only flexible movement coming from overlapping full backs. The wingers would stay too wide and the central midfielders would rarely support the strikers - who lacked support and often ended up being criticised for their team mates failings.
Under Clarke, the wingers, in particular Hal Robson-Kanu, started to cut inside far more often than they did under Nigel Adkins. Against Swansea it was Blackman and Quinn who played out wide. In the attack below they are both in the left side of the pitch as is Williams (in yellow) and Obita (in red).
Another example is shown below in Thailand. Norwood is playing a through ball to Nick Blackman (green), who has dropped deep, with Tarique Fosu and Jake Taylor (both red) both joining him in the centre of the pitch. The width is provided by the full backs who are circled in a rather fetching pink. Here Reading's formation looks more like a 4-3-3.
What to look out for this season?
A good friend of mine, who manages a team in the American fourth tier, said he considers "a formation just a shape that your defend in." Clarke has shown that he prefers that shape to be two banks of four with a narrow midfield. This summer it looks like he wants Reading to defend in a 4-4-2 formation with a high presser in Danny Williams. Whether he will continue with this when all his strikers are fit, and/or gets the new striker he seems to want, remains to be seen though he has played the striker Dominic Samuel out wide in some friendlies.
In my opinion it is the attacking side of Reading's game where the questions remain. The defeat at Crawley seems to show the Royals still struggle when they are the dominant attacking team. Despite that, as I hope I have shown, there are signs that Reading are starting to show more flexibility going forward. It may sound odd but I found it encouraging that fans have found it hard to say what formation Reading have played in our friendlies so far. We want our fullbacks, midfielders, wingers and strikers to make runs and swap positions.
If you can make out an obvious attacking formation then the likelihood is so can the opposition. That may be something to consider when the inevitable moaning starts after a defeat on Twitter and Radio Berkshire about what formation Reading are playing.
What are your thoughts on how Reading might line up next season? What tactical moves would you like to see? Let us know below.