Liam Moore achieved something really rather special this week. A call up to the England national side? Transfer interest from Barcelona? No and no - he won the highly-coveted Tilehurst End man of the match award for the fifth time in a row. I jest, of course, but it’s still a mighty feat to take home that gong not once, not twice, but five times on the bounce - as voted by all of us, the fans.
It’s also the sign of a player who’s excelling in the early stages of the Paul Clement era. After a strong debut campaign, this season had been a shakier one for the 25 year-old, but he’s put that to bed with some dominating performances in recent weeks. Moore was at the heart of clean sheets against Queens Park Rangers and Preston, and has arguably been a cut above his team mates in the draw with Sunderland and defeats to promotion-chasing Aston Villa and Fulham.
“Mega”, “outstanding”, “faultless” and “rock solid” are just some of the terms our player ratings writers have used to describe him in the last month. We’ve graded him 8/10 twice and 7/10 another two times (we’ll ignore the Villa score seeing as the whole team wasn’t that great that day).
What’s going right?
First, some context. It’s a damning verdict on this season that - until Paul Clement came in - Reading hadn’t kept a clean sheet at home in the league since late November. Granted, they only conceded three goals in a single game twice (Derby County, Sheffield United), but we’d embedded an awful habit of leaking stupid goals.
Concentration and motivation (or a lack thereof in both cases) were particularly bad in the last few months of the Jaap Stam era. In fact, as Tom Harrow-Smith noted in his Stats Corner column, Reading went on a run of conceding a goal just before the break five times out of six games. Later the same day that piece went up, Wolves’ Matt Doherty made it six in seven.
A disappointing defensive performance against Sunderland aside, those problems haven’t been issues in the last five games, and it can’t be a coincidence that Liam Moore’s Superman-esque performances (Kal-L Moore?) have come at the same time. He’s put in strong, composed performances of which some of the best centre halves in this division would be proud.
For me, this is a great deal down to Paul Clement. Sure, Moore deserves the credit for being the one who actually puts in the performances, but the new boss has created the conditions in which Moore can thrive.
As a key part of his possession style, former manager Stam loved his defenders to keep the ball and play it out from the back. I’m sure that Moore wants to do that - to get involved in the play himself - but Stam’s over-attachment to that system ended up as more of a liability than an advantage.
Clement on the other hand has largely scrapped that way of playing. Moore (and his impressive partner Tiago Ilori too of course) can pass out when the time is right, but he has much more license to give the ball a great big whack into row Z if an opposition striker is breathing down his neck.
By taking that pressure off Moore, Clement has removed a burden that had been holding back one of our best players. Defending is, perhaps more than any other aspect of football, a psychological challenge - centre halves always need to maintain that concentration and motivation which I mentioned earlier so they can stay on top of their game. Giving them another responsibility, particularly one which can result in conceding a goal, ramps up the pressure.
That doesn’t just have an effect on their distribution - more stress negatively impacts their all-round game by making it that bit harder to concentrate, and that bit easier to lose motivation. Ultimately, that can be the split-second difference between closing down a runner or losing them, winning a header or being beaten to the ball.
By taking that element out of the equation, Clement is letting Moore (yes, and Ilori) do what he does best - defending. Aerial duels, one-on-ones, last ditch challenges and plenty Moore besides (sorry), Liam’s standards have gone up a few notches in recent weeks, and Reading are reaping the rewards.