Reading returned to competitive football at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday night with a solid, if unspectacular, 2-0 win over League One side Gillingham. The Royals controlled the ball for vast swathes of the game (no surprise there), but largely failed to open up the visitors and create chances (no surprise there).
In truth, it was a comfortable, fairly routine victory, but there’s plenty more to be said about a game that will slip out of the mind quickly before Fulham come to town on Saturday afternoon.
The formation is increasingly irrelevant
If I asked another fan who watched the game what formation Reading lined up in, they’d probably say 3-5-2: a back three of Chris Gunter, George Evans and Liam Moore, wing-backs Pelle Clement and Omar Richards, midfielders Liam Kelly, Andy Rinomhota and Josh Barrett, and strikers Sam Smith and Joseph Mendes.
I’m not saying that’s wrong per se, but that wasn’t always an accurate assessment.
Sure, by default, that set-up is how Reading lined up on the pitch - particularly in defence when the home side needed to stay organised. However, regularly enough to be significant, the shape was abandoned.
That back three - which already included a right back and a central midfielder - sometimes incorporated another midfielder or wing-back as Liam Kelly or Pelle Clement (respectively) dropped deep to get on the ball.
Similarly, Rinomhota, Barrett, Quinn and Barrow all had the freedom of the beautiful Mad Stad pitch (more on that later) to pop up where they liked and keep the ball moving.
It’s a big move away from sticking rigidly to a set formation. It’s dynamic, it’s fluid, I like it.
All of that happened on a lovely new pitch
We’ve got used to a pretty horrific playing surface at the Mad Stad in previous years. With the pitch last undergoing major surgery a decade ago, it’s since been regularly shredded by a combination of mis-timed tackles from footballers and rugby players alike.
Tuesday night’s clash was the first run-out Reading have had on the new grass, and boy did it go smoothly. The surface has a smooth, velvety quality, and to my eyes it allowed the players to ping the ball about that fraction quicker than last season.
With Jaap Stam continuing his Ajax ‘total football’ revolution at RG2, he’ll be helped a lot by a pitch that’s very much fit for purpose.
The kids come of age
The line-up against Gillingham contained four academy players making either their first or second appearances for Reading’s senior team: Omar Richards, Andy Rinomhota, Sam Smith and Axel Andresson.
With all due respect to Gillingham, they didn’t pose a big threat to Reading on the night, so the game was a good one for young players to get match practice. Nonetheless, all five of the academy graduates looked very comfortable against their more experienced opponents.
That’s a big boost for Jaap Stam, with the manager’s squad under pressure after a string of first team injuries. The gaffer can be confident that he’s got a supply of very capable players who, due to the possession-based playing style taught by the academy, can already play as he wants them to.
Reading finally have some proper wing backs
To do well in that role, a player needs to not only have the energy to get up and down the flank, but they also need to be an attacking threat going forwards. In Chris Gunter, Tyler Blackett and Jordan Obita (to a lesser extent), you have three full-backs who can do the former, but seem reluctant to try the latter.
How many times do you see Chris Gunter take on a defender and burst into the box? Not many. That isn’t a criticism - after all, it’s really not the Welshman’s strong suit - but it does show he’s not destined to be a wing back.
On the contrary, Omar Richards and Pelle Clement displayed a refreshing willingness to attack the final third. In particular, Clement in the second half not only linked up well going forwards, but also himself burst forward to get into dangerous positions. In fact, one of Reading’s best moves came when Clement played a quick one-two with Barrow before darting to the edge of the box and curling a shot just past the far post.
We didn’t see an awful lot of that from Gunter and Blackett/Obita last season (again, not a criticism), so it’s good to see Reading doing it better in the new campaign.