When Jaap Stam arrived in Berkshire last summer, he made no secret of his desire to have his side play 4-3-3 - the traditional Dutch system. Handily, last June, he told GetReading: "We like to play 4-3-3".
Over the subsequent months, Reading have indeed used that formation in most games although, as Royal Hoops discussed on this site last week, we've also switched to a back three on a few occasions. In that piece, he proposed that playing with a back three is the best way to go. I disagree, and here's why.
The personnel issue
I'm not saying that Reading don't have the personnel at all to play three at the back - they quite clearly do, evidenced by the basic fact that we've used the system before. What I am proposing is that we don't have the specialists required to make a 'three at the back' as effective as it truly can be.
Take two examples: Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Both sides have been playing three at the back a lot this season and have done very well with it - in fact, at the time of this article coming out, they're first and second in the Premier League respectively. But why are they having such success playing this way? For me, it comes down to three key areas of the pitch:
- Solid centre halves.
- Tenacious central midfielders.
- Adventurous full backs.
At the back, the likes of Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are some of the best centre halves in the division. As a result, Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino can rely on them to hold their own against most attacks that come their way.
Nonetheless, those managers shore up their sides' defences with effective midfield screens. N'Golo Kante, Nemanja Matic, Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembele do provide some creativity, but that's not their main job. They shield the back three, giving the defenders more time and security to do their job.
Out wide, the impressive stamina, pace and attacking thrust of Marcus Alonso, Victor Moses, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker make them offensive weapons in their own right, unlike standard full backs. They're expected to go on rampaging runs in the opposition's half, and are capable of wreaking havoc.
Now, compare all of this to Reading
Do we, at least in the context of the Championship (because comparing our squad to that of the two best sides in the country is hardly fair), have players who are similarly good in those roles I've just mentioned?
I agree with Hoops when he says that Reading have good centre halves, but mostly that's a case of unfulfilled potential. In the long term, Liam Moore and Tiago Ilori will no doubt go on to be excellent ball-playing defenders, but in the here and now, this side is leaking goals. Of the top dozen sides in the Championship, only Norwich (56) and Barnsley (55) have conceded more times than us (49). For context, Newcastle set the bar with a miserly 32.
(Those stats come via the BBC's Championship Table.)
With that in mind, Jaap Stam needs to be giving his centre halves as much protection as they need. Switching from a back four to a back three won't help that.
"But Bucks! What about the midfield and wing backs?" I hear you cry. Well, first of all, please don't rush me, I'm getting to those positions. Hold your horses.
It won't come as any surprise to hear me say (well, read me write, but that doesn't make much sense) that Reading don't have N'Golo Kante. However, obvious statements aside, we don't really have an equivalent - when Chelsea and Spurs can call on high-energy, physical midfielders to do the dirty work in midfield, who do we call on?
Danny Williams is a fair answer - the American does have muscle and stamina, but I'd argue that he doesn't have the necessary defensive discipline to protect the back three. Conversely, Joey van den Berg has the defensive discipline (in terms of positioning, rather than 'not flying into tackles', which he does a lot), but probably not the stamina.
On the whole, pairing those two could work, but it would mean excluding at least one of Garath McCleary, Liam Kelly or John Swift, some of our best creative players - more on them later.
The biggest difference is out wide, where we're in the position of having full backs who have converted to wing backs, not specialist wing backs. Chris Gunter is a fine right back (an unpopular opinion at the moment judging by the Twittersphere but anyway), but he's not a specialist wing back. True, he has the stamina to bomb up and down the right flank until he retires, but he doesn't instinctively want to beat a defender, which is where the wing back is really supposed to do damage.
Similarly, on the other flank, Jordan Obita seems to be forgetting his winger origins, and seems more cautious nowadays about taking players on. For a full back, that's fine - caution is a virtue - but for a wing back it's not.
"More on them later"
Garath McCleary, Liam Kelly and John Swift don't fit well in a Reading team that plays with a back three. As I've argued above, to make the system work properly, you need: three dedicated centre halves, two hard-hitting central midfielders protecting them and two wing backs. That leaves... gets calculator out... three more outfield players to come.
It's a given that one of those three will be Yann Kermorgant - after all, Reading need someone to lead the line. Then, depending on whether Reading start with a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2, Kermorgant will either be joined by two wide forwards or a strike partner and a number 10.
The former suits Garath McCleary just fine, as he's a much better wide player than an out-and-out striker. However, there's no room for Liam Kelly or John Swift. Although Jaap briefly tried to play Swift as a wide left forward, it didn't really work (see Wimbledon away in pre-season).
On the other hand, a 3-5-2 (with the strike partner for Yann and a central creative midfielder behind them) means an ideal slot for Kelly or Swift to stroll into. However, there's no room for McCleary as a wide forward, so we'd be left with either a) McCleary out of position or b) no McCleary. I don't like either.
The virtues of a 4-3-3
Staying with four at the back, three in the midfield and three up top is the way to go. For starters, it cuts out the problems I've outlined with Reading trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Gunter and Obita don't have to play as wing backs, and are instead given more withdrawn roles, which is better for both them and the centre halves, who get more protection having full backs either side.
With that increased defensive stability, Reading only have to play one dedicated defensive midfielder (van den Berg), freeing up a spot for John Swift in his preferred position.
Similarly, up top, neither Yann Kermorgant nor Garath McCleary need to be shunted around to fit the system.
No formation is perfect, but 4-3-3 is far more suitable for Reading's squad than a system with a three at the back. That could change as players develop, are sold or are brought in, but none of that will happen before the summer. In the meantime though...