On the face of it, the recent mini-break to Spain seems to have done Reading some good. Off the back of two pretty dire defeats (Millwall 2-0, Middlesbrough 2-1), the Royals have picked up a brace of solid score draws (Forest 1-1, Derby 3-3). We’re not out of the woods yet for sure, but the improvements are encouraging. However, there’s one trend that came out of the last two games that worries me: Reading’s inability to deal with an aggressive press.
Both at the City Ground in mid-week, and at the Mad Stad a few days later, Jaap Stam’s side looked comfortable on the ball in the first half - particularly in their own third where Liam Moore and Tiago Ilori not only had time to knock the ball around, but also to pick out players higher up.
Whether it was on purpose on not (I’d guess the latter), Aitor Karanka’s and Gary Rowett’s sides opted to sit back before the break and try to counter. Although Derby went in level at half time, Rowett admitted after the game that he wasn’t happy with how his players tried to counter Reading’s possession game.
“I had a real go at my players at half-time probably for the first time all season. They responded, the crowd were then getting frustrated with Reading playing out and we were causing them a lot of problems.”
Tiago Ilori and Vito Mannone have, probably fairly, attracted some stick both during and post-match for trying too hard to play out from the back after the break. The Rams’ frontline closed the pair down constantly in the opening quarter hour of the second half, forcing some glaring errors. This wasn’t just a case of Ilori and Mannone not playing well - Derby changed their approach and Reading couldn’t deal with it, at least until the Rams sat off again later on.
Considering the same thing happened earlier in the week - Forest also pressing high up in the second half - Jaap Stam really needs to be preparing his team for these scenarios. Interestingly, he seemed to suggest after the match that he himself is frustrated by the players’ decisions:
“If you need to defend, defend and just kick that ball over the stand and that’s it and you’re not thinking when that ball is in the air in our box, chest it, control it and hold it up 10 times and then kick it out.
“It’s simple. Sometimes players need to make decisions without thinking too much.”
To be fair to Stam, although it is his job to make sure his team can get past any obstacles that come their way, there’s only so much preparation you can do on the training field and in the dressing room. At the end of the day, it comes down to the decisions the players make in the moment.
Looking through Reading’s defence and midfield - Mannone, Gunter, Ilori, Moore, Richards, Bacuna, Kelly and Clement - there aren’t any calm, experienced heads who can take charge when the game shifts. Mannone (29) and Gunter (28) are the closest you get, and neither of them have played this style of football for more than 18 months or so.
In the immediate term, Stam needs to sort this out by reiterating to Mannone and Ilori that sometimes they just need to give the ball a good hoof up the pitch - ideally before Tuesday’s game against Sheffield United, and definitely before the trip to Wolves next Saturday. After that, pray to the footballing gods that Tommy Elphick comes back sooner rather than later. He’s a calm, composed leader at the back who knows when a decision needs to be made.
Any style of football, particularly this one, carries a level of risk, so we’re not going to be able to cut out each and every mistake we make at the back. However, addressing the problem as best as we can could be one of the biggest factors behind where Reading finish this season.