Whatever your opinion of the state of Reading FC, something’s not right. With Jaap Stam’s preference for a 4-3-3 or 5-3-2 formation over the course of his tenure, I put the case forward for 4-2-3-1 as the way out of this rut.
The basis for this is largely our porous defence. Create a sturdy foundation and we’ll have the basis to attack from. The heatmap below (via Squawka) shows how Reading failed to make a tackle in the centre of our own half against Millwall, with the game winner eventually coming from just outside the D.
Against Norwich it was no better, as the Royals didn’t complete a tackle in their own half for the duration, and only one was made at home to Bristol City. Versus the Canaries, only 18 percent of tackles were completed. To give this some relevance, Norwich managed 38 percent and Millwall 43 percent in the same respective games.
Having one midfield loner dedicated to this task, often the unpredictable Joey van den Berg, is not enough, with his midfield partners lost in no man’s land. It would be much more effective to have two midfielders dedicated to defending, leaving one central midfielder dedicated to attacking and supporting the wingers/striker.
This would also help the frontline, as our current central midfielder’s often lack the willing or timing to burst into the box. Positioning one man to constantly provide something different frees up space and gives extra options for the wingers and striker.
Why Joey Isn’t Enough
Let’s focus in on VDB, with his positioning for goals scored by Millwall and Brentford. Below, we see the initial cross delivered by Millwall before the winning goal. Reading have five men in the box with Roy Beerens out of shot tracking the crosser, and van den Berg (circled) marking his man. All seems rather fine.
The cross is cleared and suddenly we notice that the area outside the D is empty. A potential second defensive midfielder may have mopped this up, although centre-back Tiago Ilori is covering a deeper attacker fairly well. Alas, Joey is alone in cleaning up the second ball’s actual destination, and as we see below, he’s far behind his man as Reading concede and lose the game.
It’s not the first time this has happened. Away to Brentford the No. 4 inexplicably stops after being beaten in a tackle.
What’s left is Dave Edwards all alone and Garath McCleary rushing back from behind. Edwards is out of shot in the screen capture below, as he picked the wrong runner and allowed the Bees’ Clarke to pick up the one-two. As for Joey, he’s hardly moved.
Brentford away is a particularly important game in this argument, as Stam effectively went 4-2-3-1 by placing Kelly ahead of Edwards and van den Berg. However, Edwards isn’t suited to that deeper role, in my opinion. He’s a bombastic runner from deep and fits the attacking midfield mandate far more, with George Evans and Leandro Bacuna better partners for VDB. Stam could even drop his countryman, but I’m willing to back him given his steel and fight that remains unmatched in this department.
Kelly and Swift are the hot nominations for that No. 10 role, as is Sone Aluko. Having this many options is a blessing rather than a curse and the various levers to determine our defensive/attacking outset should vary depending on the opposition.
What about 5-3-2?
A popular alternative and one deployed by Stam a lot recently is the five-man defensive system. I feel this works better when Reading are underdogs and fighting off the back foot, because as we saw at home to out-of-sorts Hull, big gaps in the midfield appear too easily when the onus is on the Royals. Below, we see how Dave Edwards and Liam Kelly (top of the picture) are drawn into a situation that opens a huge central gap to run into.
The danger forces Paul McShane (circled, orange) to push forward and close up the space, which allows for a precise through ball that Chris Gunter (circled, blue), whose job is to cover the right flank, remember, cannot slide in to deal with.
Again, a second deep midfielder can cover this gap far more ably, allowing Kelly or Edwards or whoever to linger just off the centre circle, pressurise opponents and pose a threat on the counter.
The time, for me, is not right to dislodge Stam from the manager’s dugout. But I firmly believe the tools are there for him to reignite the side and our wealth of options in this formation display exactly why I think it should be our go-to system for the weeks ahead.
What’s your ideal formation for Reading at the moment? Vote below (poll doesn’t work on AMP).