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Further Reading: Aimless Crossing and Pointless Passing

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Is the 4-1-2-1-2 formation working, or were its limitations exposed by defeat to Birmingham? Here's some analysis of where it went wrong for Brian McDermott's Reading.

Martin Willetts/Getty Images

The last three matches have seen the Royals try out a new 4-1-2-1-2 formation, with Oliver Norwood at the base of the midfield and wing-backs Jordan Obita and Chris Gunter playing much further upfield to provide width and put crosses into the box. Whilst Reading did manage to (eventually) overcome Bolton Wanderers and Nottingham Forest, we were ruthlessly brought down to earth by a Birmingham City side that had won just once in their previous seven matches. What went wrong?

Aimless Crossing

Since the move to the 4-1-2-1-2, there's been far more conscious effort on the part of Obita and Gunter to bomb forward and get crosses into the box, trying to provide Yann Kermorgant with the ammunition he thrives on. Indeed it seems now to be a major part of the game plan, with the rest of the team conscious of delivering the ball in at height for the strikers. Here's the five matches with the most Royals crosses (including set-pieces) under Brian McDermott in the league.

Nottm Forest (H) 43
Birmingham (H) 40
Sheffield Wednesday (H) 39
Bolton (A) 38
Fulham (H) 32

As you'll see, the last three games are in the top four, and some way ahead of the Fulham match in fifth. Over the last three matches we've attempted an average of 40.3 crosses per game (including set-pieces) - whilst in McDermott's other 16 league matches that average figure sits at just 24.3.

Is it working? We're creating chances - put enough balls in the box and you're bound to get on the end of at least one - but none are particularly clear cut. Certainly in the last three games, no goals have come from crosses (unless you count Norwood's speculative long-range shot deflecting in off Matej Vydra against Forest). It becomes clear watching the highlights just how reliant on this tactic we've been, with a weak long range Danny Williams shot the only chance that didn't come from a swing into the box. Let's run through some.

First up - Gunter with the first time cross, Stephen Quinn arrives to meet, but a big ask to net from 15 yards out with his head.

Kermorgant rises to meet Obita's cross, and Vydra (played onside by Ryan Shotton) just can't connect.

Norwood with the free-kick, Jake Cooper rises highest but can't get it on target.

And in the final few minutes, Garath McCleary floats a cross to the back post which Kermorgant heads straight at Adam Legzdin.

As you can see Reading are getting chances but that's always going to happen when you put 40+ crosses into the box per game. It was a similar situation last time out against Forest, with Kermorgant narrowly missing a number of good opportunities to grab a goal. If McDermott wants to stick with this tactic it's going to take more practice and more refining because at the moment, it's not getting the rewards.

Pointless Passing

The last three games have also seen the most passes made by a Reading team under McDermott in the league.

Birmingham (H) 663
Bolton (A) 640
Nottm Forest (H) 569
Sheff Wed (H) 569
Burnley (H) 483

The reason for this is partly down to the match situations. In all three games we've faced sides happy to sit in and defend a lead (or in ten-man Bolton's case, defend a point). But with Reading being challenged to seize the initiative and take the game to sides, we've instead decided on a slower, more methodical approach. That gives the opposition defence time to organize themselves and is probably why we've struggled to break these teams down, despite the perceived individual quality in the side.

I wanted to focus on one player here, and that's Oliver Norwood. There's no doubting that the Northern Irishman has an impressive range of passing but in the last two matches, with Reading attempting to recover from going behind, his enforced limitations as a forward threat have been exposed. Here are his heat-maps against Forest and Birmingham.

Forest

Birmingham

As you'll see from both heat-maps it's clear he's been told to stay back and distribute the ball from deep. This is in part down to his passing range but also, no doubt, due to the wing-backs playing far higher up the field. It's useful to have that safety valve and distributor but I question whether it's necessary for Norwood to play quite so deep.

Below is centre-back Paul McShane's heat-map from the Birmingham game - whilst he obviously doesn't venture as far forward or as central as his midfield teammate, he still gets pretty high up the field to pick a pass.

And here's Stephen Quinn's heat-map - he's also been told to stick back and cover Jordan Obita in case the wing-back gets caught out up field.

Bearing in mind this was a match where the Blues were quite happy to sit deep and defend their lead, it's concerning to see a lack of forward adventure from two players in the centre of midfield.

Norwood has also had by far the highest number of touches and passes of any Reading player in the last two games. Again, he has the ability to find a player from just about anywhere on the park, but if your "key" player is playing most of the match inside your own half then how can you expect to consistently put pressure on the opposition? Here's where Norwood made the interception before his long-range winner against Forest:

You'll also see Danny Williams, Chris Gunter and Stephen Quinn tracking back in the knowledge that they may have to cover the counter-attack, giving Norwood the license to challenge further upfield and "gamble". In this sense Norwood's positioning was unpredictable, it gave Forest a different threat to worry about and ultimately it led to the Royals gaining possession high upfield and getting the winner.

It seems that Oliver Norwood has been told to stay back and play the "quarterback" role, always keeping himself open as an option to re-distribute and re-focus the point of attack. But it might be that with Quinn and Williams in the side, two energetic midfielders have the speed and nous to cover the occasional foray forward from the Northern Irishman. Rotating the angle of attack gives the opposition something new to worry about, rather than constantly getting the ball wide and pumping it into the penalty area.

The predictability and slow speed of the Royals' attacks have been the problem in the last few matches, despite guiding us to two victories previously. It's a new system, granted, but Reading certainly need more cutting edge, more directness and more ideas if they're to grind out more victories this season.

What do you think? Can the 4-1-2-1-2 be successful or is it time to revert to traditional wing-play? Let us know below.

All stats and heat-maps courtesy of WhoScored. All match action stills courtesy of YouTube/Reading FC.