I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that Reading aren’t very good at scoring goals at the moment. In all competitions so far (10 games), the Royals have found the net just eleven times. That’s six goals in seven league matches, and five in three League Cup games.
Why is that? There are the two answers that probably popped into your head: Reading didn’t sign a goalscorer in the summer transfer window (sorry Jon Dadi, you don’t count), and Yann Kermorgant is injured.
Those issues are irrelevant for at least a few more weeks, if not several months. Jaap Stam and Brian Tevreden can’t sign another forward until January, and Kermorgant’s injury leaves him sidelined for the time being. Assuming that he does rediscover his fitness relatively soon, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the reliable goalscorer that he was last season.
So, unless Jaap Stam is content with Reading’s blunt attack, he needs to have a think about how to up the goal tally.
He should play a false nine
Reading don’t have an established, reliable, fit striker at the moment. Kermorgant is injured, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson isn’t really a goalscorer, Sam Smith and Danny Loader have barely played for the first team, Andrija Novakovich is out on loan, and I haven’t got a clue what’s going on with Joseph Mendes.
If you don’t have a good striker, don’t play one at all.
Instead of using an out-and-out frontman who stays high up and tussles with the opposition defence, have a withdrawn forward who drops deep to link up the play.
If you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of a false nine, this video sums the art up very well:
This all might seem rather counter-intuitive - after all, strikers score goals, so surely we need to play at least one?
However, this is nothing new for Jaap Stam’s Reading. The Dutchman successfully used the system in a 1-0 league win over Fulham (using Garath McCleary), and returned to it for the 2-1 victory over Aston Villa (using Pelle Clement). That last game in particular was a fine performance in which Reading created chances and took them.
Side point: Reading almost signed Siem De Jong in the summer transfer window; a player who is a specialist false nine due to his time playing in this position for Ajax. As it happens, he turned Reading down for... Ajax.
How would the system work at Reading?
Of everyone in the squad, Pelle Clement is the stand-out candidate to play as a false nine. As previously mentioned, he’s already done it, so Jaap Stam clearly trusts him to fulfil the role.
Speaking more generally, he’s an ideal fit. Although the summer signing lacks strength and outright pace, he makes up for it with excellent technical ability and the positional flexibility that the Ajax academy is famous for drilling into its graduates.
Either side of the false nine, there’s room for two inside forwards - the pacey, mobile frontmen who do the real damage to the opposition. For me, it was no surprise that Adrian Popa and Modou Barrow had such good games against Aston Villa when Clement was doing the donkey work in the middle - dropping deep, linking up the play and freeing up his team mates to drive at the Villa defence.
Reading are well-stocked in this area apart from Popa and Barrow, and can count on the pace and trickery of Garath McCleary, Roy Beerens, Callum Harriott and of course record signing Sone Aluko.
Below, I’ve used
the wonders of 21st century technology my embarrassing drawing skills to illustrate all of this.
This helps more than just the attack
Withdrawing one of Reading’s forwards into a deeper position makes the midfield area more compressed, meaning that keeping the ball is easier as the man in possession has more options to choose from (hoorah for passing stats).
That in itself can help Jaap Stam’s side stay on top of matches - particularly tough away trips when the Royals’ control of the ball isn’t at its best.
However, that compressed midfield is also much harder for the opposition to break down. If Clement is performing the roles of both a striker and an attacking midfielder, that frees up one more spot in the team for a defensive option.
Reading did just that against Swansea City when Jaap Stam chose to play Leandro Bacuna alongside George Evans in front of the back four. We usually play only one defensive midfielder (be it Evans, van den Berg or Kelly), but the addition of tough-tackling Bacuna as a deep-lying destroyer gave far more protection to the defence.
The one big drawback of course...
...is that it needs a lot of work. Reading have only played this system a few times, so they would certainly need to give it a lot of match practice before we know if it’s viable or not.
Jaap Stam may not have the guts to answer a lack of goalscoring by not naming a striker in his first XI for the next few weeks, and is probably more likely to keep this system as a plan B.
Nonetheless, I for one think it could very well be the way forward.
Is Bucks’ argument vaguely convincing?
This poll is closed
Yes, he seems like a sensible chap
No, he’s full of rubbish
I miss 4-4-2