No striker, no problem
A few weeks ago, and even on Saturday, the team announcements that revealed three wingers being played up front in a 4-3-3 were met with howls of disdain all across West Berkshire. At Pride Park, however, it finally clicked into gear.
Early on in the game, when it was at its most ‘natural’ and the scoreline at its most even, Reading’s lack of a central striker actually caused far more problems for Derby than it did for themselves. With Roy Beerens the man in the middle, the Royals knew that lobbing a ball into the box was a waste of time. And yet, that was what the Rams set up to defend against.
What that meant was that Swift, Barrow, Gunter and Aluko in particular had plenty of room around the 18-yard line to craft moves and drum up pressure. As we see with the second goal, it’s exactly this that allows Aluko to rush onto a nice through ball in between the lines (blue arrow, below) and score, while the centre-backs attended to Beerens (red circle).
Were Derby just bad?
As we’ve discussed many times over the Jaap Stam era on the TTE Podcast and website one of the most important things you have to do when playing Reading is put pressure on our passing at the back. Derby did not do this.
For me, this was because the likes of Winnall, Nugent, Lawrence, Huddlestone and Johnson are either too slow and ponderous or too lightweight to really chase down the away side’s ball-keeping tactics. Naturally, this was emphasised when in the lead, but while Derby’s personnel suit playing certain teams they certainly did not suit playing Reading.
Matej Vydra would have been an ideal man to hussle and harry us, but thankfully he remained on the bench. And, of course, it helped that Curtis Davies gifted Roy Beerens an early Christmas present to make it 3-0.
Who needs Joey?
Take a look at WhoScored’s ratings from Saturday’s match and one might think that Leandro Bacuna had a poor game, given his measly award of a 6.6/10 (which is worse than five Derby players). Quite the contrary, Bacuna had a fantastic game at central defensive midfield, dropping into the backline when necessary and throwing his weight around with aplomb.
How satisfying it is, then, to have a defensive midfield option who seems to lack the liability label that Joey van den Berg carries around with him. In addition, Dave Edwards, who effectively played in between Bacuna and the more advanced Swift, is among the highest tacklers and interceptors in the division.
Indeed, I know I’m not alone in thinking this as Bacuna’s name was probably the one that rang out the most around the away section at Pride Park as the all-action Dutchman continued a cracking run of form.
A Swift return
A key ingredient to the consecutive wins under Stam has certainly been Swift’s comeback from injury. A threat off the bench at Sheffield United, the midfielder hit top gear with a brace against Forest as his timing and vision reached Premier League levels.
In Derbyshire, Swift was the omnipotent menace that floated around the 18-yard line and earned a beautiful assist for Aluko’s goal having already put the ball in for Moore’s opener.
In the second half, with the game in a different mood to beforehand, he dropped off somewhat and rarely made himself known in counter attacks, but it’s fair to say that John Swift is back to his best.
Spreading the load
The aforementioned striker drought that has befallen Reading has meant a lot of chopping and changing up top, with Yann Kermorgant only now fit enough for the bench and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson experiencing a niggling calf problem. Fortunately, plenty of players are around to get their name on the scoresheet in their stead.
Mo Barrow is now Reading’s leading scorer having almost had a hat-trick at Derby and he sits on three goals ahead of Swift, Bodvarsson, Kelly, Moore, Aluko and Beerens all on two.
I feel that this spreading of the load is very deliberate in Stam’s ideal way of playing and it’s good to see it begin to pay off with four different scorers as we net seven goals in two games. One look at the table reveals that our defence has not, in fact, been our downfall. With 11 goals in our opening 13 games, it was the attack letting us down.
Finally, a quick mention for Omar Richards’ strong first league start in professional football. The youngster was calm on the ball, strong in the challenge, and disciplined in attack. Aside from one error that came about due to a hesitancy of clearing with his weaker foot, he’s certainly earned the right to expect plenty more starts in the season ahead.