Last week saw Wimb argue why he’s excited about what might come next for Reading under Jaap Stam, today, in his TTE debut, Richard Snowden explains why he’s not so optimistic about the style of football to come.
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This is an opinion piece on an over-arching theme: the style of Reading’s football under Jaap Stam. And when I say opinion, what I really mean is a series of thoughts that have been niggling away at me (a season ticket holder) over the past year that the Dutchman has been in charge. I felt compelled to get these thoughts down on paper having watched the opening home games of the new season against Fulham and Villa. Why compelled? Well, in summary, I believe our playing style (in its current form) is fundamentally flawed and my excitement levels for the up-coming campaign are at Ground Zero.
Before going into rant mode, I want to make one thing clear… I like Jaap. I think his honesty in communicating with the media and his possession-based style (in principle) is very refreshing, not to mention his stellar playing career and the aura / presence that brings. Stam has, in an incredibly short space of time, given Reading an ‘identity’ (the buzz word in football management these days) and most importantly, results (as witnessed by last seasons play-off campaign). All this means he deserves an enormous amount of credit… and if you sense a slightly dismissive tone in my words, I genuinely do not mean it. To be a penalty shoot-out away from the Premier League after two seasons peddling lower mid-table is a real achievement.
Yes, you know what’s coming, the inevitable BUT. The ‘but’ is about how Stam sets this current Reading team up to play. I’m going to put it out there, I have absolutely no idea how we made it to the play-offs last season. And this will be controversial, I barely felt an ounce of disappointment when we lost to Huddersfield back in May. Our performance on the day (like a microcosm of our season), was mediocre at best and insipid at worst. Yes, the players put a shift in but I challenge anyone who says we were the better team.
We simply did not earn the right to be in the Premier League and would have been crucified had we gone up. For me, the performances throughout the campaign did not justify the results. I only recall two home games last season (Cardiff and Leeds, both wins) where I walked away thinking a) we deserved that and b) we actually look like a decent team. For all the other games, I came away absolutely baffled. Most of the time, we had won… which should have left a post-match feeling of euphoria, or at the very least, encouragement. Nope, just a sense of ever-increasing dissatisfaction and indifference.
This feeling I lay squarely at the manager’s door. The Dutch-style possession game is too slow, predictable and to be brutally honestly, soul destroying to watch. As entertainment, it is outright boring. The tempo is set to the pulse of someone in a coma (the state I often find myself in every other Saturday afternoon). The play is so one-paced that the team never builds up any momentum. This, coupled with a lack of overall intensity and aggression without the ball (which Stam admitted after the opening day defeat at QPR), makes us one-dimensional. Football is a dynamic game and the best teams have the ability to change-up and break into life (see Chelsea last season, Leicester’s counter attacking before that).
Where are the goals?
As I alluded to earlier, playing passing football is something I actually do welcome. The days of long ball, kick and rush, the ‘English way’ (whatever) have long gone and to see Reading players comfortable with the ball at their feet is truly a good thing (especially with Jeff Hopkins and Martyn Booty in living memory). But our game cannot just be about passing across our back line, from one full / wing back to the other. Where is the creativity, the imagination, the incision, the inclination to take a risk? The players only play a pass when they are absolutely certain it will make it. Pass completion stats (especially for our defenders) must be the best in club’s history… but where does this get us in terms of scoring goals?
Plus-four goal difference (GD) last season… plus-four! And we nearly got promoted. Fully conscious that Huddersfield went up with minus-two GD, as well as not scoring a goal themselves in real time during their play-off games, but looking at the automatics, Newcastle (+45) and Brighton (+34) stormed it. That is why those two teams were head and shoulders above the rest last season.
Goals, and the approach to getting them, are Stam’s undeniable weak points. I do not know if this is a symptom of playing an entire career at centre-back but he does not appear to know how to set the team up to be an attacking or creative force. Yes, possession is good (as a baseline), but after a season of watching a team of square-ball playing robots, we need to be pushing on. Our passing is like a metronome set to the same bpm and after the first two league games (yes, very early days), the style has not been modified. What is most unsettling is the passing style seems to send the team into a slumber, and one that it cannot break out of (especially when the opposition raises their game).
We need pace, variety of play, ability to transition quickly from defence to attack (and vice versa). Watch ‘Match of the Day’ and even the lesser clubs pass the ball with a speed and intent that is almost totally devoid in this Reading side. Going forward, players are static and we rarely commit enough numbers. We are not capable of breaking teams down and often, too easy to play against. The recent draw against 10-man Fulham (for essentially 90 minutes) summed this up to a tee. We faced a solid block of black shirts happy to let us have the ball up until their penalty box, and all we had in the locker were a combo of incessant sideways passing and pot shots. OK, Fulham adopted this approach due to that ridiculously early red card, but other teams (basically mid-table down) will come to the Madejski and employ the same game plan because they know how we are going to play.
Developing the possession game
How we break teams down is the next step from the possession-game and I fear that Jaap and his coaching staff cannot make it. The thrashings we took last season (4-1 at Newcastle, 4-1 at Brentford 5-0 at Fulham, 3-0 at Brighton, 7-1 at Norwich) were, in my opinion always on the cards because of the way we play. It just takes an opposition either playing at home, in good form or simply willing to take the game to us and press, to expose what we really are - a quite average team. Kermorgant, McCleary and Swift aside (the latter two being too inconsistent), who in this current squad can be classed as genuinely special or has that ‘star quality’ to change a game?
The majority of players Stam likes or has bought in are decent ball players but they are non-descript. Beerens, Evans, Popa, Obita, the new lad Clement (a bit harsh as only just signed), even Kelly to a degree… they are good footballers, who can play in a number of positions, but do any of them make a real impact? And I welcome the new boys (Bodvarsson, Bacuna, Barrow, Edwards and Aluko) - particularly as they bring some much needed pace and energy - but none of them have previously excelled in one position. This again is a hallmark of the Dutch way, the theory of ‘total football’ whereby any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in the team. Sounds lovely on paper, and like the possession football, is something I subscribe to… in principle! My rather long-winded point here is that possession and ‘total football’ are fine in theory… but in reality, it’s your specialists (not generalists) that make the difference (see Murray and Knockaert for Brighton, Shelvey and Gayle for Newcastle last season). John Terry does not excel at full back - he’s achieved everything he has in the game because he is a specialist centre back. This, my fellow Royals, is a point that our manager appears to overlook. Tactical flexibility and squad rotation are fabulous, but if the effect is exactly the same (i.e. no chances, no goals) then what’s the point?
On the subject of Kermorgant, I believe he would have got 25-30 goals last year and been even more productive for the team if he was playing in a more attacking line-up. I find it incredible that he managed 18 goals and he does not get the acclaim he deserves, particularly all the donkeywork and added defensive strength he provides at set pieces. But Yann is 36. And currently injured. So I come back to it again, what are we doing for goals? This will ultimately be our undoing… be it another failed promotion attempt or promotion followed by immediate relegation (again). Neither scenario leaves us in a much stronger position than we are in now (albeit the latter will give the fans a season of Premier League football and the club with a season’s worth of the mega-money TV deal).
Look, everything said above is admittedly, rather negative and perhaps, a tad dramatic. We did finish third last season and just beat the title favourites Villa in our last home game. Stam’s methods and squad obviously do have qualities - they do keep the ball well, they are clinical (have to be given how few chances are created), they hang in there in games and above all, they find a way to win. And despite all my moans throughout this piece, I actually think we will have a very similar season to last (i.e. finish in the play-offs… there or thereabouts). I just worry that I will be asleep for most of it.