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Preston North End 1-0 Reading FC: Tactics Insight

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Did the Preston game once again show that the approach in the playoffs against Fulham is the way to go?

Once again Reading's defensive frailties under Jaap Stam were there for all to see in just three minutes of highlights on national television.

Preston's goal was just one of numerous examples of bad defending. That incident though was striking not just because it settled the match.

The picture below shows the cross leading up to Jordan Hugill's goal. As you can see just two of Reading's back four, circled in red, are in the picture.

Preston goal

Paul McShane, covering for Chris Gunter, has followed the initial long ball out wide. Now there is a debate whether it would have made more sense for McShane to leave that to his right back. However, once McShane did make that run, Gunter should have covered for McShane.

Either way the picture above clearly shows how spread out Reading's defence has become. It also highlights the lack of support the defence gets from the midfield. There is just one midfielder, circled in yellow, in the picture.

There should be a Reading midfielder in that triangle and because the defence is spread out and the midfield is too far up the pitch, Hugill has all the time in the world to control and shoot.

The issue of Reading's defence not holding its position and remaining compact is not hard too find. Below is another example from the first goal conceded this season against QPR.

This time Reading are playing a back three, circled in red, and once again there is far too much space between them. At least on this occasion Reading's four man midfield, circled in yellow, is back, but you are always are going to have problems when your defence is all over the place.

QPR first goal

Contrast the above pictures with the one below from when Reading played Arsenal in the FA Cup semi final in 2015. Here the four man defence is nice and compact, as is the four man midfield. The defence and midfield are playing as two separate units that are supporting each other.

Arsenal FA Cup semi

Of course playing Arsenal is a very different game from your normal Championship game. However, such defending was the norm under Steve Clarke.

When Reading didn't have the ball they got men behind the ball and made it difficult for the opposition to create chances. They remained close together and stopped the opposition getting space.

That has changed under Jaap Stam and was something I picked up as early as pre-season last season. The below picture is from the 2-0 defeat to AFC Wimbledon.

Reading played a 4-3-3 that day that more resembled the old fashioned W-M formation. The three man midfield was split into two units - the holding midfielder, here the middle player circled in yellow, and two more attacking midfielders, circled in purple.

Wimbledon friendly

As you can see the two attacking midfielders are high up the pitch considering the opposition have the ball. That has forced Jordan Obita to step up from left back to close down the opposition.

Oliver Norwood, the holding midfielder, is marking a huge space on his own in front of the defence. There is a Wimbledon attacked between him and the defence, whilst Reading's right back is marking two players.

Reading surrendering the middle of the pitch to the opposition is not unusual. Below is a picture taken from Reading's League Cup tie against Arsenal last season.

The Royals, circled in yellow, are in possession and building from the back. The desire to get forward and give options to the player on the ball, means there is just one Reading player in area occupied by five Arsenal players.

Arsenal League Cup

If Reading can get through those five players then they will outnumber Arsenal in attack. However, the downside of so many players running forward is that it leaves you very open if you lose the ball.

It was a regular occurrence last season to see the opposition getting on the ball centrally outside Reading's penalty area with no midfielder covering the defence. The humiliating 7-1 defeat to Norwich was an example of how easy it is for the opposition to get into dangerous areas with ease.

In the picture below, the ball is being played to an on running Alex Pritchard. There is no Reading player in that yellow box and with little pressure and no one in his way Pritchard scores from just outside the box.

Norwich 7-1

You can see a similar situation against Fulham this season. In the below incident, Norwood is shooting from distance.

This time there is a Reading midfielder between the player on the ball and the goal. However, the opposition player still has lots of space and the other two midfielders are too high up the pitch to be able to help defensively.

Fulham 1-1

It is clear that Reading's defensive weakness has a lot to do with Stam's desire to see his players to make runs in a possession based game. It is good to see players making positive runs, but the lack of defensive constraints means they are out of the game if Reading lose the ball.

Below is an example under Steve Clarke, on the advantage of having players having defensive responsibilities even when their team is in possession. In this picture, Norwood and Aaron Tshibola are playing defensive midfield while Michael Hector brings the ball out of defence.

Both Norwood and Tshibola are in good positions if Reading lose the ball. Under Stam it is likely that at least one of them would be running forward or out wide, whilst Danny Williams, circled in yellow, would be unlikely to be dropping deep.

Thai All-Stars

Reading's midfield is supporting the defence above. The team is compact, but Hector still has options to pass to.

It is clear when you watch Reading that defensive considerations do not come into Stam's thinking when his team are on the ball.

That is admirable though stubborn. Either he is loathed to change his ways even though his players are not good enough for such an approach, or he is too stubborn to accept that defending is not just about when you lose the ball.

I have no problems with a manager not making the defence a priority. However, with such an approach you would expect an all out attacking game with excitement and goals.

That is something we have not seen under Stam. No one is doubting that he has been a success in his time at the Madejski Stadium.

I still think though that the football seen in the first three months of the 2015/2016 under Steve Clarke is better than anything I have seen under Stam.

The Dutchman's team has spirit and talented players. That showed by them finishing third and not just having a purple patch.

At times some of their football is a joy to watch, but at the moment it is hard not to be concerned that those times are not regular enough to warrant the current approach of not giving more thought to defensive positions.

Perhaps frustratingly the rare occasions Stam has set up Reading's midfield more defensively have coincided with some of the best displays in his tenure. In both of the legs of the playoff semi final last May saw Danny Williams take a more defensive approach.

Reading's central midfield had more of a 2-1 look compared to usually when a defensive midfielder has two players in front of him. In the picture below, Joey van den Berg is about to play the ball long.

Reading's central midfielders are circled in red. As you can see Williams is much deeper than he usually would be and is close to Evans who is also in a good defensive position.

Fulham home PO

The advantage of such an approach was twofold. Firstly and most relevant to his article, it made it harder for Fulham to create chance.

The below picture below, shows both Evans and Williams sitting right in front of Reading's three man defence. Even John Swift is in a good defensive area.

Fulham A PO

The second advantage was that it actually gave Swift and Reading's attack more space. More Fulham players were pressing high, leaving space behind for Swift and the option to play the ball long.

It's far too simple to say that Stam telling two midfielders to be more defensive minded will turn Reading into world beaters. However, Reading do need to make it harder for the opposition to create scoring chances.

Until they do they that they will always leave themselves open to disappointing results like they have already suffered this season on the road. Stam clearly felt Fulham deserved a more defensive approach. Maybe it's time other team do too.