There’s plenty to unpack from Saturday’s 3-2 win over Bristol City. It was a huge a win for Reading, a relief for Paul Clement and hopefully the start of better things to come, but two players stood for me for different reasons: Liam Kelly and Yakou Meite. The former played a very different tactical role in a new-look midfield, whilst the second is quickly establishing himself as Reading’s leading man.
Paul Clement rebalances the midfield
Since Saeid Ezatolahi picked up an injury in the last international break, Reading have been crying out for a dedicated holding midfielder. That role is so crucial to any side, particularly this one, as it not only protects the defence effectively but also gives the team presence in the middle of the park and allows other midfielders license to push forwards.
In recent weeks, Leandro Bacuna has been the player given that role. It’s one he’s fairly familiar with, having lined up there a few times under Jaap Stam last season, but he’s looked ineffective there under Paul Clement. Although he’s got the energy and strength to get about the pitch and put in tackles, he lacks the composure and reading of the game that Ezatolahi excels at.
I for one had looked to David Meyler as the natural replacement for Ezatolahi - he fits the bill as a tough-tackling, no-nonsense midfielder who can protect the defence, even if he’s been below-par this season and lacks the technical ability of others. Interestingly, Clement decided to overlooked Meyler yet again (the Irishman hasn’t played since the 2-1 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on September 1 when he was withdrawn after an hour.
Instead, the manager went with Liam Kelly who, to be fair, played in that role extensively in the 2016/17 play-off campaign, but not much since (under both Jaap Stam and Paul Clement). However, the decision paid off. In relation to Meyler’s display against Sheffield Wednesday, Kelly (against Bristol City):
- Made more interceptions (3-1)
- Attempted more tackles (3-1)
- Put in more blocks (2-1)
He also had a bigger impact on the ball despite Reading enjoying less possession against Bristol City (41%) than they did against Sheffield Wednesday (51%). Kelly touched the ball more often than anyone else in the home side on Saturday (73), but Meyler’s 50 was bettered by four others (Chris Gunter, Liam Moore, Tiago Ilori, Andy Yiadom and Leandro Bacuna).
Kelly capped off a promising performance with a major involvement in Reading’s two goals before the break. For the first, his whipped delivery into the box squirmed through for Yakou Meite to finish, and the second was something very special indeed.
Another positive effect of playing a defensive midfielder who, well, isn’t Leandro Bacuna, is that you can play Bacuna higher up the pitch. He’d looked a lot more promising in the handful of games when Ezatolahi’s anchor role had given him license to push forwards in support of the striker, so restoring him to that part of the midfield (thanks to Kelly) was welcome viewing. The former Villa man even ended the game with more shots than any other Reading player (four out of the team’s eight on the day).
In the long run we’ll still need the Iranian back in the fold. Kelly will always come short (pun unintended) against more physical opposition and those that like to lump the ball into the box. He wouldn’t have been very effective in that position for the 3-1 win over Millwall for example.
Yakou Meite is maturing
A regular run of matches in the first had been a long time coming for the Ivorian, restricted to the bench for much of 2016/17 before being sent out on loan to Sochaux in 2017/18. However, Paul Clement has shown plenty of faith in him - Meite’s 1111 league minutes this season are beaten only by Andy Yiadom (1440), Liam Moore (1260) and Leandro Bacuna (1202) - and that faith is starting to be paid off.
Meite’s eighth-minute goal on Saturday was his fifth in all competitions so far, adding to what’s starting to look a little like a purple patch. Having grabbed a brace against Millwall, he also netted a consolation at Birmingham City before decisively slamming the ball past Frank Fielding on Saturday - the kind of instinctive finish that any goalscorer needs to make a key part of their repertoire. Even when he doesn’t score, Meite reliably works hard on and off the ball, and usually stands out against his teammates in overall poor Reading displays.
Reading much into his performance on Saturday wouldn’t be fair (he only got 37 minutes before being withdrawn for Garath McCleary), but his stats across the entire season deserve credit and stand up well against his peers. Below is how he compares to fellow strikers Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Sam Baldock, and creative spark John Swift.
Meite compares very well to Bodvarsson, the other contender to lead the line for Reading as a target man. Although they win aerial balls at a similar rate, Meite shoots far more often than Bodvarsson, makes more dribbles and is brought down by the opposition more regularly. Those are encouraging stats, and suggest that the former PSG forward is starting to turn his raw physical attributes into reliable output.
He should also have a good chance to continue that form, should he brush off Saturday’s ankle injury. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson tweeted on Sunday that he’s broken a bone in his lower back, probably making the lone forward role Meite’s to lose.
Been playing with alot of pain in the last couple of weeks. After seeing a specialist. We found out that I have broken a bone in my lower back.— Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (@jondadi) November 4, 2018
Don’t know what it is with me and injuries lately.. Really dissapointed. It’s a harsh part of the sport I guess. I’ll come back better.