Oliver Norwood is, yet again, redundant
For much of this season, Oliver Norwood has been one of Reading's most consistent performers. Usually, despite how well the team as a whole performed, you could rely on the Northern Irishman to provide a creative spark with his range of passing, and defensive steel with his hard work off the ball. To be fair, those elements haven't completely gone from his game, but recently I've noticed him making less and less of an impact in each match. Why is that? Because he doesn't fulfill any obvious purpose in the midfield.
That's a trend I saw continue on Saturday against Fulham. Sure, Norwood wasn't bad per se, but what did he actually contribute to the team? Not much at all, as far as I saw it. As Wimb said in his player ratings...
"...the question marks about his ability to influence the game enough in a midfield trio are only going to increase the more games go on without him creating opportunities from open play."
As he's been doing consistently in recent weeks, Brian McDermott chose a midfield three to take on Fulham: Michael Hector, Stephen Quinn and Oliver Norwood. Looking at things simplistically, Hector anchors the midfield and Quinn provides the energy. So what does Norwood bring to the equation which neither of those players can? Really, nothing at all.
Examining the stats, essentially Michael Hector's reintroduction to the team has absorbed Norwood's abilities. Against Fulham, Hector comfortably made the most passes (79) and touches (94) of anyone on the pitch - two things that, a few months ago, were Norwood's specialities. Evidently, we don't need a separate midfield anchor and quarterback - Hector can play both parts simultaneously.
So, where does that leave Oliver Norwood? Does he have a future in the team? For me, not while Michael Hector is around - unless we need to play with two defensive midfielders - which isn't necessary at this level. Alternatively, I'd advocate a return for Danny Williams, as he'd add something unique to the equation. If Hector is the anchor and Quinn is the energy, Williams is the drive - there's no one else in this team that's quite as good at Danny Williams at making strong runs forward from deep to support the frontman. Unless Oliver Norwood can adapt his game, he'll lose his place in the side.
Player in focus: Ola John
In contrast to Norwood, Ola John is certainly showing his usefulness to the side, putting in another lively display to add to his sparkling performance against Charlton. As he has on several occasions this season, John scored highest in the Reading team that faced Fulham for a number of attacking traits. Notably, he recorded the most dribbles (three), and the second highest number of shots (also three).
However, for me, the most important stat was that this was the first time this season that Ola John has completed the full 90 minutes for Reading. Indeed, the Dutchman's fitness has been a source of concern throughout the campaign, leaving him largely reduced to substitute appearances. Seeing him improve on that is obviously a big boost for Brian McDermott.
Ola John seems to have undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent weeks. He showed sparks of brilliance under Steve Clarke, but seems to be coming into bloom under Brian McDermott. Here's what the current gaffer had to say about John recently...
"Ola's an amazing player, he's got great ability, he can go past people, he can score goals, he can make goals - so why would I tell him to run back all the time?
It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Having played that position myself and having had certain managers telling me to run back all the time I know what that feels like.
We just have to get the balance right."
Looking at the winger's touches against Fulham, Brian McDermott has worked out what that balance is.
That graphic shows the touches Ola John made against Fulham, with the three lines representing his shots (Reading are playing from left to right in the image). A couple of things stick out for me - firstly, in relation to McDermott's comments, John clearly isn't spending too much time in his own half - only making about 17 of his 59 touches there. This isn't the performance of a winger who tracks back at all, is it? That could indeed be why John managed to complete the full 90 minutes on Saturday. After all, if he's not running up and down the pitch as much as others, that helps his stamina.
Secondly, and this is more playing to my own personal opinion that anything else, but it's nice to see Reading playing with some proper width now. Particularly under Steve Clarke, the two wide men were often briefed to play quite narrowly rather than hugging the touchline. Brian McDermott seems to have reversed that.
Reading have some steel about them now
To reuse an oft-used argument in football, Reading wouldn't have picked up a point against Fulham if this game had been played a few weeks ago. Not only did they manage to fight back from 1-0 down, but they also avoided a potential Fulham fightback in the second half (despite the equaliser). Performance wise, Saturday was far from vintage Reading, but often you can tell a lot about a side from what you don't see happen. We didn't see Reading's heads drop after Moussa Dembele's opener, and we didn't see a Craven Cottage-esque Fulham rally after half time that put the game to bed.
That of course is in stark contrast to the Reading performance that infamously saw a two goal lead evaporate against the same West London side back in October. In the final few weeks of Steve Clarke, we saw Reading implode at the City Ground having led 1-0, and fall to a late winner at home to QPR. Those results are, as far I see it, a thing of the past now. In recent weeks, Reading have picked up a solid clean sheet and point against Burnley, ground out a 1-0 win against Rotherham, and fought off Charlton in a seven goal thriller at the Valley.
For me, this is where we're seeing progress under Brian McDermott. Reading aren't buckling under pressure anymore, even when performances aren't great. In truth, besides the opening 45 minutes at Charlton, the football hasn't been that great recently - but the points have kept coming. If that's not the mark of a potentially very good side, I don't know what is.
All stats are from WhoScored.