Pretty often in football we can get drawn into long pub conversations of what happens off the pitch looking at every minor detail of what may cause a dip or a rise in form. At the end of the day though football is a game played between two teams of 11, where one manager has to try to out-think the other.
So here in this article I intend to look at the different tactics used by Steve Clarke, and then Brian McDermott in a second part, as Reading stumbled from the dizzy, buzzing at midnight heights of second; down to the arguments and shouldn't have had that kebab at 2am of 17th place in the Championship. For the last three seasons now we've heard the phrase "team in transition" and the formations and changes show that this has very much been the pinnacle of that phrase.
I'm going to look at four key games that epitomised each system used by Reading this season, and look at the strengths, weaknesses and why the system was dropped. Today I'll examine two examples from Steve Clarke's time, and tomorrow it'll be two games from under Brian McDermott. Let's start with where some were unashamedly throwing money on Reading to win the league:
Reading 5-1 Ipswich Town; 11th September 2015
Reading had started the season slowly, but a 3-1 win away against Brentford and deadline day signings of Lucas Piazon, Ola John and Matej Vydra had boosted morale in the camp. Ipswich hadn't been slow starters - they arrived at the Madejski in second place. Many fans would've happily taken a draw before kick off, but what would follow was one of the best attacking displays I have ever seen from a Reading side.
As soon as the whistle was blown for the start of the game Reading dictated the tempo, essentially showing Ipswich how they would play and telling them to deal with it. Time and time again the front three played intricate passes and found gaps in the defence, as Sa got the Madejski's first hat trick since Alfie left, with Blackman and Norwood scoring goals that left fans pinching themselves that they were watching Reading.
The narrow 4-3-3 works perfectly for teams looking to attack from the first minute of a game who feel they can gain the upper hand. Furthermore a front three who can interchange positions become very difficult to mark as Sa, Blackman and Vydra would rotate positions at such pace that even the fans would struggle to keep up with who was where on the pitch.
The advantage of playing as a narrow three means the full backs of the opposition are forced to tuck inside as you look to exploit the gaps between full backs and centre backs, instead of traditional wide play where you look to move around the outside of the defender. This allows the attacking teams full backs to push up the pitch and if necessary exploit the gaps left on the outside of the full backs.
Defensively the team could form two banks of four, as Blackman would drop to the right wing and Quinn would drift to the left to support Obita, making the Royals hard to break down when they needed to dig in. See games against Burnley, Bristol City and Middlesborough where a similar system was used. In essence this formation was perfect, so why did it stop working?
The problem with this formation is that it requires a specialist for each position, and it just so happened that those specialists would be the players to pick up injuries. The narrow 4-3-3 needs a midfield consisting of a ball winner, a playmaker and a Duracell bunny; in Tshibola, Norwood and Quinn this is exactly what Reading had. Tshibola would win the ball with great success and look for the simple pass, despite being 21 he played much like his predecessor in that role of Mikele Leigterwood, and I struggle to think of Tshibola having a bad game before his unfortunate injury at Craven Cottage.
Quinn would be hit with an injury shortly after too and replacing him as the left central midfielder with Lucas Piazon (shudders) left Obita horribly exposed at times. One could argue that had we not allowed Hope Akpan to leave we may have had a player who could play the backup role to Tshibola but as it was our midfield suddenly looked very light weight and teams would be able to run through at ease. The low point being when at Fulham one of the goals coming as Sa, Blackman, Piazon and Vydra stood shoulders slumped by the halfway line.
Reading 0-1 QPR 3rd December 2015
The atmosphere at the Madejski in Clarke's last few matches couldn't even be described as toxic - it was just silent. To the point you could describe it as an eerie silence though it didn't feel like you were there to watch a game of football on the frosty days vs Bolton and QPR. The Fulham debacle meant it was if not when for Clarke's sacking, but it seemed the fans couldn't be bothered to demand the owners to hurry up and swing the axe.
We were happy to just sit in silence almost stunned by the fact that Reading had resorted back to type after showing us what was possible early on in the season. Against Nottingham Forest, Bolton and QPR, Reading played a very fixed 4-4-2, there was no fluidity and no one seemed to want the ball. This carried on into the first few games of McDermott's reign until Blackman was sold and changes had to be made.
It's worked before. When a 4-4-2 works well it can be unstoppable but it relies upon each player being the best at their role, sadly that was not the case this season. Burnley and Leicester showed what a simple 4-4-2 can do with the right players in their respective divisions. Looking at the games it was used it's hard to see its strengths for this year's Reading side, one positive was that against weaker opposition we were able to create chances. Also playing on the counter utilised the pace of Blackman and Vydra upfront, as seen with goals against Hull and Bolton.
Where to begin? When not executed properly a 4-4-2 can just seem like lazy tactics from a manager as it is the simplest way to play. Furthermore buoyed by his goalscoring start to the season Blackman seemed to be intent on scoring every game, when it worked fine, but more often than not shots began to fly into the crowd with Vydra (no laughing) better placed.
Also, when playing a 4-4-2 quite often the two central midfielders have to do the work of 3 players. For perfect Royals centre midfield pairings see Sidwell & Harper, or Karacan & Leigterwood. Alas the pairing of Williams and Norwood was far from perfect and after two seasons of trying to see it forced upon us it may be time this summer for one or both to move on. The issue was that neither provided the perfect cover for what the other was doing, Williams would hare around the pitch looking for any loose ball but instead of looking to pass to the forwards would attempt a shot that nine times out of ten would've made him a better London Irish than Reading player.
Norwood is an intriguing conundrum - he started the season brilliantly in the three man midfield where his passing range was appreciated as Reading bombed forward. However the lack of fluidity and the lack of cover in the middle often left Norwood isolated and he would lose the ball in dangerous areas leaving the back four suddenly over-exposed in games. This was far from the perfect 4-4-2s of 2006 and 2012.
That's what I made of Reading's tactics under Steve Clarke this season. Look out for the second part tomorrow, in which I'll be analysing how Brian McDermott managed the team.