Now we’re 12 games into the season, it’s acceptable to start making early comparisons against the performances of 2017/18. One area in which Reading struggled last season was their leaky defence, so I’ve taken a look back at how the performances of Reading’s centre halves compare to 17/18.
There are obvious variables to consider when analysing this, such as the change of manager and subsequent playing style alteration, the second being that the 18/19 data is from a smaller sample size. All rankings within the modelled data below are within the context of Championship defenders for both respective seasons.
As noted, since the arrival of Paul Clement in March, there has been a clear shift in playing style, shown by the number of total passes carried out by each defender. The reduced emphasis on the centre backs to play out from the back is best illustrated by the number of passes played by Paul McShane whose total has gone down by one third.
The Irishman topped the league for total passes played per 90 in 17/18, due - in part - to a combination of Jaap Stam’s possession philosophy and opponents identifying him as the most limited ball player in the Reading side, thereby allowing him more time on the ball.
Another collective trend which jumps out is a decrease in the number of tackles made by the centre halves to around one tackle per 90 minutes, with Tiago Ilori and McShane’s rate halved. This can be explained by a reduced need for players to defend one-on-one as was expected during Stam’s reign. The tendency for the full-backs to create overloads out wide often left the centre-backs isolated in the channels when they had to come over to cover - therefore, they had to make a higher number of tackles.
A reduced number of turnovers in the defensive third (Reading losing the ball near their own goal) as a result of less playing out from the back has also meant fewer last-ditch tackles have had to be made.
Liam Moore has arguably been the most consistent performer since his arrival at Reading from Leicester City, showing the same pedigree which helped the Foxes to promotion in 2013/14. His strongest asset is his ability to block shots, as seen by his Championship-wide ranking of joint fourth last season. However, he has since improved and now ranks third in the league, showing why he was attracting attention from the likes of Brighton and Hove Albion in the summer.
Moore’s athleticism and explosiveness over five yards is a key factor in his ability to block shots at their source, throwing himself in front of the ball to protect his own goal. This asset in particular would have been suited to a side such as Brighton who sit back in a deep block rather than playing a high line like Jaap Stam’s Reading. Indeed, Albion’s Shane Duffy currently ranks second in the Premier League for for shots blocked per 90, showing how highly Chris Hughton rates this style of defender.
Moore’s total number of interceptions has been significantly reduced this season but, again, this is due more to the the system being used rather than the individual. As mentioned previously, Stam adopted a far more aggressive approach defensively with a desire to win the ball higher up the pitch and defend using one-on-ones.
In comparison, the set-up under Clement is far more cautious and sees Reading transition directly to a defensive shape after losing the ball. Although this makes it appear in the player radar above that Moore’s performances have got worse, I feel making interceptions is still a positive aspect of his game. He carried it out well under Stam, defending on the front foot more aggressively, and I would like to see him do this again.
On the topic of front foot defending, I feel we have one of the best in the business at this level in the shape of Tiago Ilori. This may be unsurprising given his footballing education in the Sporting CP youth system and latterly under Rui Jorge, picking up a Euro under-21s title along the way.
Ilori was brought in under Stam in January 2017 and looked the archetypal signing of that regime. However, naivety has plagued his time since arriving at the Madejski Stadium, which can be explained by a lack of senior football, having only made 45 senior appearances prior to joining Reading.
The former Liverpool man has at times displayed an air of class around his game often not seen at this level. His ability to step out from the back to intercept play and progress the ball forwards is a real asset, shown by his current ranking of third in interceptions per 90 minutes this season. It has though in the past - due to lack of experience as noted earlier - led to him getting caught the wrong side of the ball, particularly by more physical and experienced strikers.
One area of Ilori’s game that has seen a distinct improvement is his aerial dominance. The stats show a significant increase in the number of aerial duels won and he is now Reading’s best performing centre back in this area. It is worth noting that the player traditionally thought to be the best in this department is Paul McShane, although his poor performances in this department have contributed to his omission from matchday squads since conceding two penalties against Blackburn Rovers.
Unfortunately, both McShane and John O’Shea have not played enough minutes this season; 360 and 75 respectively. As a result, I haven’t analysed either player’s radar as it isn’t possible to draw any notable conclusions from their performances.
Reading have two centre halves in Tiago Ilori and Liam Moore that are capable of much higher standards than Reading’s league position suggests. Ilori is a standout performer in interceptions, showing his ability to defend on the front foot in one-on-one scenarios, and his improvement aerially indicates there is a maturity being added to his game.
Moore on the other hand has not yet reached the performance levels reached during 2016/17’s play-off push, but he does excel in the league for shots blocked, a key asset for teams set up in the low block that Paul Clement prefers.
What do you think of Tiago Ilori and Liam Moore’s performances this season? Drop us a comment below or tell us on social media.