Once again the stats showed Reading dominated possession. However, once again they also showed that the possession was not in the right areas.
Nothing illustrates this better than the below graphic. This is the heatmap from Reading’s touches yesterday against Burton Albion.
As per usual there is high activity around the halfway line but next to nothing in the opposition half. The stats are damning.
Just three Reading players touched the ball more than once in Burton’s penalty area. To make it worse, Mo Barrow, Dave Edwards and Yann Kermorgant only did it twice each.
Three other outfield players did not even manage a solitary touch. It is not too surprising that Paul McShane is one. A bit disappointing that Joey van den Berg is the other, but near on unacceptable that Sone Aluko is the third player.
To be fair to Aluko where he did touch the ball shows he was getting around the pitch, but just could not get into the game in the final third.
It is the touches and passes from Reading’s centre back and central midfielders that show where the game went wrong. The heatmap above shows Liam Kelly sitting on top of McShane, and van den Berg doing the same to Liam Moore.
Their passing was unambitious and never asked questions of the opposition. Paul McShane had a 95% passing success rate in the first half, but didn’t make a single pass in Burton’s half.
Perhaps most worryingly Kelly’s passes from the opening half are almost as bad. Not a single pass in the final third and going by the location of the passes, not doing much that McShane couldn’t do the same himself. This from a player who was supposed to be our playmaker yesterday.
The below graphics show it was the same with Moore (top) and van den Berg. All Kelly and van den Berg were doing in the first half was stepping on McShane’s and Moore’s toes. When they did get on the ball they mostly did the same sideways passing as their centre back colleagues.
This duplication of players taking the easy option made Burton’s life easy. It is not just passing, which Reading players seem to naturally go sideways at best, backwards at worst.
As we’ve seen the midfielders and attackers will quite often go deep to get possession. The problem is that the others players, Dave Edwards aside, don’t use that as an opportunity to get forwards. It was infuriating to see Stam take Edwards off, when the Welshman had been the only midfielder looking to get forward.
At one point yesterday I stopped watching the ball and instead looked at the players in front of the player in possession. To a man they were either standing still or walking.
Even worse they were all occupying the exact areas you would expect. No one seemed willing to take the initiative and force Burton to decide between marking areas or players.
Aluko or Barrow could have doubled up on one side so Reading overloaded, potentially offering space for other team mates. If they dropped deep then the full back and midfielders could have made more forward runs. Little moves like that force the opposition to decide whether to track the man or mark the area.
Another great problem is that Reading are too predictable in possession. There is nothing wrong with wanting to play a passing possession based game. However, you need to vary it at times and you have to play it in right areas.
As we have seen too many times, Reading pass the ball too often and too much in the wrong areas. Sometimes football has to be about territory and not just possession.
Why not push players close to Kermorgant and play it long looking for flick ons or the second ball? The Frenchman is good in the area and holding the ball up. These are qualities that are being under utilised, especially when you consider that Edwards has made a career of late runs resulting in goals.
The predictable, boring nature of Reading’s play is affecting attendances, making life easy for the opposition and on the evidence of yesterday is making players’ lives joyless. Jaap Stam’s style of football may be a world away from Tony Pulis, but if the man from Newport can be sacked for boring his fans and players, you can bet that the man from Kampen could suffer the same fate.
When analysing Reading’s many faults it is only natural that the focus is on the passing and (lack of) movement. The often comical defending also never goes too long without rearing its ugly head.
However, there is another important part that has been overlooked and is crucial if you want to play a possession based game. Namely, defending and pressing from the front.
Think of the great footballing teams and it is their hardwork off the ball that is often the most impressive trait. The current Manchester City team are a joy to behold and their high pressing is the cornerstone of their success.
It was the same with the Holland team of the 1970s and, possibly the greatest team of all time, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Now comparing any Championship teams with those greats is a bit unfair.
However, hardwork and trying to play the game in the opposition half are hardly revolutionary or difficult tactics. We have already seen that too much of Reading’s possession takes place in their own half.
It makes life easy for the opposition and one of the main reasons is that Reading’s defensive game in the opposition half is not good enough. Below is an image of the number of tackles Reading attempted yesterday. Not one in the final third.
It’s not much better when it comes to the number of blocks. Just two in Burton’s half.
Not surprisingly that meant the number of times Reading won the ball was very poor. According to WhoScored, they did it just six times; Bacuna thrice, Moore twice and van den Berg once.
The not surprising result is that Burton (blue) only lost the ball three times in their half in the whole game and only one was near their penalty area.
The stats show that around a third of Burton’s total passes (212) were long balls. So they were trying to avoid making mistakes and playing for territory rather than possession.
Even taking that into consideration, the lack of blocks, interceptions and tackles in their half is damning. Is there any wonder that Reading have to start so many moves from inside their own half, when they seemingly make so little effort to win the ball quickly when they lose it.
To offer a comparison here are the stats from Manchester City’s win over Bournemouth, a game also notable for the complete dominance of possession by the home team (79%-21% compared to Reading’s 76%-24%). Just 19% of the game at the Etihad Stadium took place in City’s third (compared to 29% in Reading’s third at the Madejski Stadium).
In the opposition half City made 10 tackles (Reading four), six interceptions (Reading one) and caused the opposition to lose the ball seven times (Reading three). The value of City’s high pressing was shown in their first goal when they forced a mistake, which led to Sergio Agüero scoring.
It may be unfair to compare an out of form and under confident Reading to one of the greatest teams the Premier League has seen. However, it is hard to think of times in the Jaap Stam era when goals have come about from forcing the opposition to make mistakes.
Whether it’s a lack of hardwork, poor coaching or tactics, Reading need to up their pressing game if they are to make Stam’s style of football work. You cannot separate attacking, defending, passing and pressing. If you do, you give the opposition an easy life.
It’s all well wanting to play a passing game where you dominate possession, but you have to do it in the right areas. The best time to rest is when you have the ball and control the game.
Reading do that. The problem is that they also allow the opposition to do it as well, which you cannot if you really want to control the game and force the opposition into uncomfortable situations. You are more likely to score from the opposition giving the ball away than starting moves from your centre backs with everyone in front of them.
With players like Aluko and Barrow, Reading have the pace to play a counter attacking game. They just need to start creating the opportunities to use them.
All stats are taken from Squawka and WhoScored.