Reading rounded off their pre-Austria pre-season friendlies with a 0-0 draw against Fulham at Aldershot’s EBB Stadium, and looked pretty good in doing so. Despite it still only being a warm-up match, a clean sheet against a Premier League team (albeit a new one) off the back of consecutive defeats to lower league sides, is pretty encouraging stuff.
The game also gave us a really good insight into how Paul Clement wants to set Reading up next season. Although we had eight games to do that last season, he’s bound to change things up over the summer as he stamps his style on the team.
How Reading set up
Paul Clement put out a standard team for the first team in pre-season - ie one that played most of the game as it would in the regular campaign, rather than being completely changed at half-time. It lined up as follows:
Mannone; Yiadom, Ilori, Moore, Blackett; Aluko, Kelly, Meyler, Barrow; Swift, Meite.
When I first saw that XI, I presumed it would set up as a 4-3-3 with Meite flanked by Aluko and Barrow in a formation that would be broadly similar to last season’s, but it was in fact more of a 4-4-2 / 3-4-3 hybrid depending on whether Reading were in or out of possession.
Out of possession
With Fulham on the ball, the Royals would drop back into two banks of four in a fairly standard 4-4-2. However, interestingly, Meite seemed to play in a partnership with Swift (rather than one playing deeper than the other). Although the duo pressed energetically on occasion, typically they would retreat back to keep the team hard to break down.
In the middle, new signing David Meyler added balance to the midfield. On the basis of Saturday, he’s got the strength and tackling qualities of Joey van den Berg, but with a lot more composure and energy.
That paid dividends not only for the back four who will have welcomed a reassuring presence in front of them, but also Liam Kelly. The youngster looked much surer of his role against Fulham due to the cover that Meyler provided, and seemed to result in a Kelly performance that was more effective all-round than we saw last season.
That set-up changed noticeably when Clement’s side did have the ball. Left-back Tyler Blackett wouldn’t push forwards, but Andy Yiadom on the other side very much would. In essence, it meant Reading switched to a back three whilst Yiadom and Modou Barrow provided width higher up as wing-backs.
We can see that from Reading’s shape at a goal-kick. Mannone has the ball at his feet with Blackett to his left, Tiago Ilori to Vito’s right (quite faint in the background - my photography skills aren’t great), Moore on the edge of the D and Kelly slightly further forwards.
Paul Clement’s intention is clearly for his team to play out from the back when they have the opportunity - keeping the ball on the deck and trying to control possession when possible is a modern trend that we’ll will be keeping up with. However, don’t take that to mean a complete continuation of Jaap Stam’s total football. Reading were very happy to go direct and break on Fulham decisively when they had the opportunity, with their pacey wingers a key part of that, particularly down the left.
The rejigging at goal-kicks also saw movement at the other end of the pitch. It’s hard to nail down exactly what Clement was going for in terms of attacking set-up, but the following is a broad representation.
Swift had a free role in the middle - sometimes dropping deep to get the ball, playing much higher up at other points. Ahead of him, Meite would drift over to the left to support Barrow rather than playing as an orthodox centre forward, with Reading seemingly trying to use their pace to overload that flank. That was done particularly well when Kelly or Swift found space to pick out Meite or Barrow with a through-ball.
Otherwise, Yiadom’s presence down the right allowed Aluko to come more centrally - granted, he did that incessantly last season, but our new right-back/right wing-back offers more of an attacking threat than Gunter. Yiadom is quicker and seemingly wants to get forward more - so he can stretch the play better than the Welshman.
How the above could all change
Considering they only got the last half hour or so, it’s probably safe to say that the ‘B team’ as it were are below the starting XI in the pecking order. They are:
Gunter, McShane, O’Shea, Richards, Rinomhota, Bacuna, Evans, Clement, McNulty, Smith.
(Neither Anssi Jaakkola nor Lewis Ward played).
That however isn’t to say Saturday’s subs can’t offer Reading anything as starters. On the contrary, Omar Richards and Marc McNulty certainly do just that - Richards a pacier, more attacking option than Blackett at left-back and McNulty an out-and-out striker in contrast to Meite’s less orthodox approach.
Other players will come into the reckoning - both new signings and squad members returning from injury or World Cup involvement. Callum Harriott, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Jordan Obita, Garath McCleary, Dave Edwards and Adrian Popa are all due to come back into the fold (unless they leave). A new striker and potentially a creative player will also be on Clement’s shopping list.
All of that makes assessing Saturday’s team a little tricky. The positions of Aluko and Meite are probably the most up for grabs, and bringing in a better all-round striker or a right winger than offers more out-and-out width would change the balance of that team a lot.