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Why Poor Set Pieces Hindered Reading FC In FA Cup Quarter Final

Were Reading as disappointing as some thought? We watched Friday's quarter final again to see if a second viewing changed any perceptions of the game.

Bright Start

It's now been long forgotten but Reading actually started Friday night's game brightly. In the first 15 minutes they dominated possession and territory.

They made 98 passes compared to Crystal Palace's 56. The visitors were also forced to make more tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks.

Alan Pardew has been expected to line his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Yannick Bolasie, Yohan Cabaye and Wilfried Zaha supporting Emmanuel Adebayor. Instead they started in a 4-4-2 with Joe Ledley playing wide left and Bolasie through the middle.

It's clear that Pardew had told his team the importance of keeping their shape when Reading were in possession. In fact they started rather cautiously and were happy to sit deep.

The image below shows Michael Hector picking the ball up in Reading's half. It is noticeable how much space and time he has on the ball.

The image below shows this again as well as how compact Palace defended. Their four man midfield is narrow and staying close to their defence.

All this allowed Reading's three central midfielders time on the ball. When in possession Reading could rest, set themselves up and gain momentum.

Unfortunately Reading's bright start didn't last as they started to get sloppy and made a number of poor passes even when under little pressure. Palace's best chances in the first half mostly came from careless play by Reading.

Cautious Palace

Despite that, though, Palace never really gathered momentum. As the image below shows, Cabaye, circled in red in the middle, often started from so deep, he was unable to support the attackers. Ledley is in the top right hand corner of the picture and his position shows why he offered little attacking threat from the left.

This is shown again below. Cabaye and Mile Jedinak are sitting deep forcing Palace to play the ball long to Adebayor and Bolasie.

This suited Reading as they outnumbered Palace's attack and knew that any headed clearances or loose balls would likely be picked up by Hector, Oliver Norwood or Stephen Quinn.

The first half, maybe even most of the game, can probably be summed up by the picture below. The priority for both teams' midfields was to stay in shape in front of their defences. This meant it was extremely rare for midfielders from both teams to get into shaded areas in front of the defences.

Both teams were set up to be hard to beat. The main difference, and this continued in the second half, was that Reading had an extra man in midfield which made it harder for them to attack. Unlike Palace they did not have the option to go long because Cox was isolated.

This also highlighted the main difference with this season's team with the one that went one stage better in the FA Cup last season. That team was similarly limited and set up by Steve Clarke to be hard to beat. Clarke, however, played a much narrower midfield to free up an extra man in attack.

Palace showed how effective that can be. Adebayor could drop off knowing Bolasie would be on the last man. Similarly Bolasie could drift wide because Adebayor would stay central. Any long ball from Palace could be aimed at two players.

Reading never had that option which, in the second half in particular, meant they didn't have an outlet to relieve the pressure. The 4-1-4-1 formation used was very effective in the previous round against West Brom but Reading's two attacking central midfielders found it much more difficult to get forward against Palace.

The image below shows this. Palace's four man midfield is very narrow making it difficult for Reading to play through the middle. Both Ola John and Hal Robson-Kanu are very wide which meant Oliver Norwood and Stephen Quinn had to be a bit more cautious so as to support Hector.

This meant Reading's only real opportunity to attack was down the wings. For most of the game Palace were very good at never leaving their full backs isolated. The image above is actually one of the few occasions when Joel Ward and Pape Souaré were left one on one against Reading's wingers. John had the beating of Ward on that occasion but wasted the opportunity to cross.

No Super Tactics From Super Al

When I started to watch the second half I expected to see a change in the way Palace played. On Friday Palace had looked the far more dangerous team after the break whilst Reading offered little if any threat.

Whilst that remained true on my second viewing, there wasn't anything that stood out which I had missed at the game. Normally when I watch games or highlights I find images of interest every few minutes. In the second half I struggled to see any particular move by Palace or mistake by Reading which explained why Palace were the dominant team.

Quite simply the game continued as it had in the first half. It's just that as time passed, Palace's superior quality started to shine through.

Nowhere was this shown more than in set pieces. Reading's were woeful throughout the match. Palace's on the other hand were always dangerous and Reading were made to work hard defensively.

This was crucial as it gave Palace momentum. The importance of set pieces when it comes to resulting goals is sometimes exaggerated, but their impact on the psyche of a game isn't much discussed. Palace may not have scored directly from a set piece but it always felt like Reading's goal was under danger. That lifted Palace whilst putting fear into Reading.

Reading's set pieces had the opposite effect. Palace barely had to break sweat. When players start to tire defending becomes much harder. Attacking is done on adrenaline, which explains why late in games you often see players, who only moments okay were sprinting forward in attack, barely able to run back to defend.

When the game gets to that stage set pieces become important. A dangerous one for your team is a psychological boost whilst the opposition feel under siege.

That's certainly how Friday's game panned out. Palace's set pieces gave them little periods of pressure while Reading started to look increasingly leggy.

It may not be a particularly sophisticated piece of analysis, and an obvious thing to say, but the game really did just come down to Palace's superior quality (and a certain referee decision). Palace didn't do anything special and Reading didn't do much wrong.