The big thing that I took away from Tuesday night's win over Nottingham Forest was Reading's formation - the 'four four two diamond'. Although it's a familiar enough system (especially to me, seeing as I wrote this piece a while ago on why we should be using it), it's not one that Reading have had a lot of success with. Being a set-up that requires specialists in certain positions, it's very easy to get the diamond wrong.
For me, although the display in midweek was hardly vintage Reading, it did show encouraging signs that Brian McDermott had worked out how to make the diamond work (rather than shoehorning players in regardless of suitability). In this article, I thought I'd take a more detailed look at the diamond, by examining its effect on Reading's defence, midfield and attack. But, first of all...
The change here isn't in set-up, but in balance. Indeed, Reading's consistent back five (Al-Habsi, Gunter, McShane, Cooper, Obita) doesn't need to be altered at all. Where we do see an improvement is at full-back - in the absence of natural wingers, Chris Gunter and Jordan Obita are required to push on more. Here are their heatmaps against Forest (Reading shooting left to right).
You'd be forgiven for thinking that they were playing as actual wingers, not full backs with the additional job of providing more width. Crucially, this plays to their strengths - both are athletic players with plenty of stamina, who love bombing forward and whipping in a cross. Impressively, Gunter managed 12 crosses, whilst Obita put in 15 - for context, Forest as a whole could only muster seven.
The big winner here is none other than Tuesday's man of the match Oliver Norwood. Despite looking impressive for much of this season, the ex-Huddersfield Town player has dropped off in form in recent weeks. However, reinstated to his favoured role as deep-lying playmaker, Norwood bossed the game against Forest.
As you can see from this graphic (Reading again playing from left to right), Norwood didn't play as a typical central midfielder - spending relatively little time in the centre circle. Instead, he drifted around two important areas of space - in front of the defence, and in an advanced role in the middle. This shows that he wasn't simply a holding midfielder patrolling the back four. With the diamond having a flexible midfield, due to the presence of Quinn and Williams, Norwood had the freedom to drift up the field when it suited him. As a result, he racked up some highly impressive stats - 116 passes and 128 touches.
Despite appearances, the roles of Danny Williams and Stephen Quinn aren't simply ones of standard central midfielders. Having these two extra men in the middle meant not only that Norwood or Piazon could be supported quickly, but Gunter and Obita had someone to cover them if they bombed forward.
In the case of Stephen Quinn especially, Brian McDermott found a way of getting a lot out of someone that has played in central midfield, on the left wing and at left back this season. Being so versatile, Quinn is ideally suited to helping out centrally, pushing out wide and covering his left back - all in the same game. Here's his heat map - showing him doing all of that.
There's less of an impact up front with the introduction of the diamond, but enough to notice a change. Since arriving from Bournemouth in January, Yann Kermorgant has found life pretty lonely up top - usually playing as a lone striker. However, not only did the diamond give him a partner who could do the running (in this case Simon Cox), it also - conversely, for a formation with ostensibly less width - got him more service from out wide.
With the likes of Lucas Piazon and Simon Cox doing much of the leg working in deeper positions, this freed up Yann Kermorgant to get into the box more. Below are his heatmaps from Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest (you've guessed it, Reading shooting left to right in each one).
Vs Cardiff City
Vs Nottingham Forest
As you can see, the result is pretty remarkable. Against Cardiff, Kermorgant had no strike partner, but was (in theory) being supported by two wingers and two full-backs. However, he had a much more productive game on Tuesday night, benefiting from the 43 crosses that were put into the box. Despite not finding the back of the net, he had eight shots - seven of those headers, two of which went pretty close in the first half. How many shots did he have against Cardiff I hear you cry? One. I rest my case.
Of course, no formation is perfect, but I was pretty impressed by how well this system suited Reading in midweek. Both on paper and in practice, it made the most out of players who are natural fits for the diamond, with the likes of Gunter, Obita, Norwood, Quinn and Kermorgant, amongst others, all doing better.
As far as I see it, the diamond is an ideal system for playing at home when a tightly-packed defence needs to be broken down. Not only is it more flexible than a standard four four two, it also provides creativity from a number of outlets. The fullbacks bomb forward to swing in crosses, there's more movement up front from the second striker, and playmakers at the base and point of the diamond.
As we saw against Forest, it allows for plenty of chances to be created - Reading got a whopping 27 shots away, with only 11 of those coming from outside the box. Time will tell how suitable it is going forwards, but I for one think that Reading may have stumbled on something very useful.
All heatmaps and stats are taken from WhoScored.