Just what is behind Reading's Jekyll and Hyde defensive woes this season? How can a team that sits third in the Championship, with just 16 goals conceded at home have conceded 46 on the road, with one game left to play. Is it personnel, strategy, management or just plain bad luck?
Well, let's try and figure it all out.
Stats are taken from WhoScored.com, with video highlights & stills taken from respective official YouTube channels
Has It Really Been That Bad?
Before we delve into why, let's look at just how bad it's been. As mentioned, it's 46 goals conceded away from home in 2016/17 our highest total since the 1997/98 season where 47 goals on the road helped see us finish BOTTOM of the then Division One.
Before that, you have to travel back to the 45 shipped in 1987/88, a campaign that also ended in relegation from the second tier. Going back even further, you had the 51 conceded in 1982/83 or 49 in 1976/77 that both ended with, yup you guessed it, relegation.
However, sandwiched between those last two relegations was a strange 1983/84 campaign that saw a Reading side with a woeful away record actually win promotion. We conceded 42 away from Elm Park, with just five away victories, yet still win a place in the third tier by finishing third. That promotion was built off another fantastic home record, where Maurice Evans' team went unbeaten at home, with 17 wins and six draws, conceding just 14 goals.
So while this season has been horrible, it wouldn't be totally unprecedented to see such a campaign end happily.
Are We Too Nice Under Stam?
Before Stam's arrival, one of the main complaints levelled at Reading had been that under Nigel Adkins, Steve Clarke & Brian McDermott, we'd been a bit too friendly. There didn't seem that dogged leadership or fire in the team that had been such a hallmark of the previous decade.
Of course there's a fine line between being too nice and being a team of thugs (Oh hi Neil Warnock!) Nobody would accuse the Reading team of 2005/06 of being too nice yet centre-backs Ibrahima Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson earned just one booking between them.
This season's squad have earned 87 bookings so far, the third highest in the league, so on the surface they've been pretty dirty. Yet if you delve into the numbers, we're actually one of the cleanest teams in the division, conceding just 494 fouls, the 6th lowest in the Championship.
Yet those 494 fouls have been costly for Reading. Of the 252 we've given away on the road, 16 of them have directly led to goals, a total only surpassed by Bristol City.
This has led to a bit of a quandary for Jaap Stam. On the one hand, the team's lack of height and power has played a big part in our weakness from set pieces, yet in recent weeks I'd argue a lack of fouls to prevent those set pieces, has actually contributed just as much to our downfall.
Too often we've let teams get into the penalty area, seemingly for fear of giving away a foul, leading to 67% of the shots we've faced being from inside our own penalty area. Compare that to our home record, where that percentage drops by 10%. Quite simply, teams have been getting much better chances away than at the Madejski and it's helped lead to some painful scorelines.
Limited Defensive Protection
Will pointed out a glaring issue back in his summer tactical analysis, that seemingly still hasn't been fixed, the gap between defence and the midfield. All season long, especially on the road, we've seen this issue crop up, both in general play and especially with Reading being hit on the counter.
Here's a couple of recent examples. Take the third goal from Norwich in our 7-1 mauling. Here's Liam Kelly supposedly in control of Alex Pritchard.
Kelly gets distracted when the ball is half-cleared, leading to plenty of space for Pritchard, who finishes very well.
What about at Derby? Notice how much space Tom Ince is in on the edge of the box.
By the time McShane has to come out of the defence, it's too late.
Is the solution for Stam to have two sitting midfielders in front of a back three? It might seem extreme but away from home where grinding out a result is the only objective in the play-offs, it might work.
Alongside the 'too nice' accusations, there's a nagging feeling that we're missing leaders on the pitch. Stam's acquisition of Joey van den Berg appeared to be a move to correct this, as he, alongside Paul McShane, added some more bite to the defensive line. Sadly the pair have missed large chunks of the season due to injury, but what difference do they make away from home? Here's how our defensive record works out on the road starting with each combination of the three.
|Moore solo||McShane & Moore||McShane & Joey||Joey & Moore||All Three|
The lesson here seems to be, take Moore out of the team and things go bad pretty quickly. The best combination on paper is Joey and Liam but the three games they played together without McShane, included a trip to Rotherham where McShane came off the bench and scored the winner.
In games where you'd had Moore alongside either McShane, Joey or both. Here's how it breaks down.
|With Moore +1/2||12||7||1||4||19||18||1.5|
|Without Moore +1/2||10||2||1||7||10||27||2.7|
That's quite some difference, with Reading winning more than three times as many games and conceding half as many goals when you've got Moore and at least one of Joey and McShane alongside him. Neither McShane nor Joey are the magic answers on their own, but when all three of those men are fit, we've been playing far, far better away from home and have been much less likely to capitulate.
There are lots of little things you can point to as to why we've been so atrocious defensively away from home this season, only a few of which I've properly covered here. Yet the best thing about this Stam side has been the ability for them to put such disappointments behind them, reload and go again.
While there remains a massive, gaping problem with this side on their travels, the reality is that if we get a point against Wigan, we've only got that one away trip left that matters. Stam seems to think he'll have Joey and McShane back for that game as well, which if the case, should give us a bit more confidence heading into that play-off semi-final wherever it may be.