Friday night was, in a sense, a new dawn for Reading. Sure, Paul Clement had already racked up eight games under his belt at the tail end of last season, but the visit of Derby County was our first sight of what the former Rams manager had been working on over the summer months.
On the whole, it looked like those months had been well-spent. Despite coming away with a late defeat, Reading could hold their heads high after a strong performance - the kind of showing that we’d grown used to not seeing at the Madejski Stadium. How exactly did Clement achieve that (limited) turnaround?
Tactical evolution over tactical revolution
Reading’s basic shape wasn’t too different to what it had been in 2018/19 - a back four, two out wide, one up top and three central midfielders - but there were important differences in the set-up. Last season we often saw a 4-3-3, for example:
However, on Friday that switched to something more akin to a 4-4-1-1. Ignoring the various personnel changes, the right central midfielder (above: Kelly) would drop back alongside the DM, with the wingers also playing deeper. However, the playmaker (above: Swift) pushes higher up, safe in the knowledge that there is more midfield cover behind him.
Those changes made Reading much more compact defensively. Rather than going for the spread-out shape that Stam tried in his two years at the club, the midfield is designed to be more solid - which worked wonders for the first 45 minutes on Friday with Derby struggling to get through Reading’s two banks of four. While the Royals ended the half with six shots, four on target, the Rams managed just three efforts - all from outside the area (including one wild free kick), all off target.
Down the other end, John Swift was profiting from his more advanced role. Playing higher up, he had more pressing to do when Derby were on the ball, but he could also get closer to strike partner Jon Dadi Bodvarsson when Reading broke.
Reading finally got a deserved reward on 52 minutes with the opener - one of the better team goals the Royals have scored in quite a while. The move starts and finishes with Bodvarsson, but includes another four players - all in all, it comes from an intent and desire that was rarely seen last season, but let’s unpack it in more depth.
After Dadi collects the ball deep, Reading break in numbers, with Liam Kelly interestingly given license to charge forwards in support of the striker. The Irishman then keeps the ball moving by squaring it to Swift.
The play goes out to Omar Richards - the Englishman passing to Modou Barrow who, grateful for the space given to him, whips in a pinpoint cross. The power and placing of his delivery makes Bodvarsson’s job easy - the striker has the run on the defender and can powerfully knock the ball past Scott Carson.
It’s an interesting insight into how Paul Clement wants Reading to attack - breaking in numbers, moving the ball quickly and being happy to get it out wide. The question now is how well the team can refine it over the coming weeks and months, particularly if no new attacking reinforcements arrive.
A Swift decline
From then on in, Reading struggled. The Rams had already put the ball into the net earlier in the half, albeit illegally, but they continued their domination of the game. Between 53 minutes and full time, the Royals registered just one shot (Andy Yiadom’s wild effort which started nearer to the centre circle than penalty box) to Derby’s eight (two of them resulting in goals).
A key part of that turnaround was the withdrawal of John Swift on 67 minutes. Although Derby had already well grown into the game by the time of his departure, the absence of his link-up play between midfield and attack in a central area meant Reading lacked ideas going forwards.
Reading’s energetic pressing probably meant Bodvarsson and Swift’s substitutions were inevitable - they can only run for so long - but the lack of life-for-like options on the bench is perhaps a cause for concern. Clement doesn’t really have a ‘big man up top’ to come in for Dadi (unless you’re counting the raw and inexperienced Meite) or a free-spirited number 10 in the mould of Swift.
To quote the title of a top Royals book, Reading have too often over the last few seasons been less than the sum of their parts. Whether through managerial faults, poor performances from players or a mixture of the two, the end product on the pitch has been well below-par. Friday’s showing however was refreshing for how cohesive and efficient the team looked. Every player knew their job and did it effectively - David Meyler’s screening of the back four a good example of that - even if the overall quality wasn’t enough to see the team over the line.
Quality is exactly what won Derby the game - a lack of it from Vito Mannone on the hour mark and an abundance of it in the 93rd minute with a brilliant Mason Bennett cross met by Tom Lawrence’s acrobatic header. Unless Reading can pull off something unexpected in the closing days of the transfer window, or an existing squad member sparks into brilliance, our lack of obvious quality will hold us back this season.
That being said, the early signs are encouraging. On the basis of the season opener, Reading look well-drilled and - bar goalkeeping errors and flashes of brilliance - tough to break down (even in Liam Moore’s absence). Attacking improvements will come, especially with a few players out injured and new strikers Sam Baldock and Marc McNulty yet to get up to speed.
Reasons to be cheerful!