So begins a new feature on the Tilehurst End: Further Reading (pun intended). The brief for this new slot is to delve further into Reading's recent games by looking at a mixture of stats and general analysis. The makeup for each edition will change from week to week, but on this occasion I've chosen to focus on the biggest issue that came out of the Birmingham game: width. That said, I'll start with a brief look at the team that Steve Clarke put out at St Andrews, and how it compared to what we saw in pre-season.
On Saturday, Reading lined up in a very conventional 4-4-2, although the players picked for that lineup made it far less conventional in practice.
Due to the absence of Pavel Pogrebnyak, Orlando Sa took up the target man role, with Nick Blackman the mobile strike partner. Considering the, ahem, interesting history of Nick Blackman playing up front, it was a touch surprising to not see Dominic Samuel get the start, considering that he's played well in this position both last season and in pre-season.
The big tactical move by Steve Clarke in this game was to play centre mids Danny Williams and Stephen Quinn as right and left wingers respectively. Although the latter's performance against Swansea on the left wing gave some justification for his role against Birmingham, Danny Williams hadn't to my knowledge played on the flank for Reading before Saturday.
Besides that, Steve Clarke gave the early nod of confidence to newbies Jonathan Bond, Paul McShane and Aaron Tshibola. Good form for Bond and Tshibola in the previous couple of weeks had suggested they could be in the running for the season opener, but we were all very much expecting Anton Ferdinand to be chosen ahead of Paul McShane. Having seen Ferdinand's full 90 minutes in Wycombe, the former West Ham man's experience and composure was reassuring to see. Nonetheless, McShane took his place for this game, and even got the captain's armband - suggesting that we'll see a lot of him this season.
Flying without wings
It's probably best if we get the biggest gripe about Saturday's performance out of the way - a hopeless lack of width. It's been a staple part of any good Reading side in recent years, but the Royals had very little of it against Birmingham. Ironically, it was a clever use of width (a pinpoint cross from a marauding Chris Gunter) that allowed Nick Blackman to open his account for the season. Let's take a look at some of the crossing stats from the match.
Reading actually made 18 crosses to Birmingham's 14 (a further indication that the home side were hardly at their best), but the player-by-player breakdown is telling. The Royals' top crosser was actually Oliver Norwood, who delivered the ball from wide on six occasions. Chris Gunter did the same four times, and Jordan Obita three. As for Reading's 'wingers', Messrs Williams and Quinn managed a paltry three crosses. The following graphics give a bigger impression of the lack of width.
The above image is the heat map of Birmingham's (left) and Reading's (right) wingers. As you can see, there's a much bigger presence in central areas for Reading than there is for Birmingham, and there's no significant build up on either wing. In contrast, the splurges of green and light blue show how much Gray and Cotterill hugged the touchline. But how did that positioning from Williams and Quinn affect chance creation? Well, like this...
That image is WhoScored's graphic for 'key passes' (they define that as the 'final pass leading to a shot at goal from a teammate') carried out by both sides on Saturday. Although the 11-4 margin shows Reading were the dominant side, it's a tellingly narrow set of 11 passes. It shows that Reading failed to create chances from wide areas - as a result the home side wasn't stretched, and attacks became predictable.
Who could solve the width problem?
It's hardly fair to criticise Reading's wing play (or lack thereof) without mentioning the options available to Steve Clarke. In truth, there was probably no wide player that could have started on the flanks that didn't. Nick Blackman was the closest to that, but he was picked to play up front. Looking elsewhere, the likes of Hal Robson-Kanu, Dominic Samuel and Jake Taylor have some of the qualities of a winger, but none seem to want to play there.
It's in looking at those who are due to come back that we see some cause for hope. Although they were sidelined with injury on Saturday, Garath McCleary and Tarique Fosu will be key to Reading's hopes in the 2015/16 campaign. Moreover, Steve Clarke is expected to add Chilean winger Paolo Hurtado to the ranks before the end of the month. Just having one of those wingers available at Birmingham could have allowed Reading to play a very different game, even if just for the closing 20-30 minutes when chasing the match.
Bringing that all together
This match actually reminds me a lot of Reading's trip to Fulham last season. Like on Saturday, Reading dominated the game and created plenty of chances, but came away empty handed (2-1 to the home side on both occasions). Against Fulham, Reading's attacks came almost solely down the wings, with Garath McCleary causing absolute chaos, but the Royals simply didn't take their chances. That seems to be different to the Birmingham game, but I don't think it is. Although the problem at St Andrews was the opposite (no width rather than too much of it), it was also evidence that a lack of variation in attacking play makes it easy for the home side to defend against you.
Thinking about it, Reading are in a much better position than they were after the Fulham game going forwards (in both senses). Steve Clarke had little to no central creative talent last January to work with, but the same cannot be said of his wide options now. Once the missing section of the squad is back (how many times did we say that last season?), there'll be plenty of attackers available to Clarke - certainly better than what we saw on the bench on Saturday.
What did you make of the Birmingham game? Where did Reading go right, and where did they go wrong? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.
All stats and graphics are taken from WhoScored.com.