“Pass and move.”
Back when I was learning to play football as a kid, this was the first lesson. Give your teammate the ball, and create some space for yourself to receive it again. As far as I am aware, this most basic of fundamentals has not changed. The one proven tactic which has brought continued success throughout the decades that this great sport has been played.
And yet, on Wednesday night at the Madejski Stadium, it seemed as though only one team was versed in this mantra. Norwich City caused Reading all manner of problems, because movement causes panic. Movement causes confusion. And not having the ball creates impatience, indiscipline.
It was 13 minutes in when Leandro Bacuna decided enough was enough. Reading’s holding midfielder vacated the centre of the park in order to try and win the ball from a throw-in. He didn’t. That forced Liam Moore out to try and cover the tidy, agile Todd Cantwell - a mismatch. One neat turn later, one slide-rule pass later, one missed interception later, and one neat finish later, the ball was in the back of Sam Walker’s net.
Quite simply, the Canaries were running rings around the Royals. A simple, instinctive game of pass and move that rendered Reading’s running completely pointless. Some more neat triangles out wide released Moritz Leitner in that gaping hole between the midfield and the back line - this time, Walker was equal to it.
Norwich’s gameplan in possession was working to perfection, and it wasn’t half bad when they didn’t have the ball either. Constant pressure on Reading’s back four (because we know how much they see of the ball) meant constant panic, no neat passing, no structure - just scraps for the relatively diminutive Sam Baldock to feed off. From one hoof forward, he did manage to hold the ball just long enough for the otherwise ineffective Yakou Meite to rifle a 25-yarder towards goal, but Tim Krul was more than equal to it.
Instead, the Royals’ first half was summed up when a Bacuna free-kick from deep found its way to John Swift out wide. Four Norwich players swarmed to close him down. No Reading player moved to within 20 yards of him. He lost the ball.
No changes at the break, but a half-time team talk which at least put a spark into the team. Had Baldock or Meite been slightly sharper, slightly more alert, the equaliser could have come mere seconds into the second 45. And the former almost did find the leveller soon after that, but a combination of the offside flag and the post put paid to those celebrations.
At the other end it was the same old, same old. Bacuna backtracking down a blind alley, dispossessed, Emiliano Buendia’s snapshot from the corner of the six yard box blocked by the back of Tiago Ilori. A vital, if unintended, intervention.
The changes would soon be rung by Clement, all three used up in ten minutes. The first was obvious - Meite off, Mo Barrow on. The second seemed out of sympathy. Sone Aluko had been smashed in the face by a Meite piledriver, had somehow hit the woodwork from Baldock’s post-bound shot, and had fallen over the ball to set up a Norwich counter. He was mercifully replaced by Josh Sims. And the third would prove the luckiest.
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson had been on the pitch barely three minutes when John Swift recycled a corner into the box, finding the head of Moore. Krul parried against the post, and the Icelander was there to tap in. Pressure, parity, Bodvarsson grabbing the ball from the net, eager to get things underway again.
But just as quickly, those dreams can be shattered. Focus, discipline, structure all gone from Reading. Again a vacated midfield area, a marauding run down the left leaving Ilori for dead, seven defenders in the box but none in the vague vicinity of Mario Vrancic. The Bosnian introduced at the same time as Bodvarsson, restoring the lead less than 60 seconds later.
And that was that. Pass and move. Pass and move. Pass and move. A simple tactic which not only got Norwich the lead, but helped them hold it too. No need to chase the game - although Andy Yiadom did save a certain third with a vital interception. But it was a reminder of how simple, how beautiful the game can be.
Simple passes. One touch football. Creativity, flair. Runners from midfield. Playmakers in acres of space. It makes them sound like world beaters.
Norwich are not world beaters.
Norwich are a mid-table side.
Norwich had not won away in the league since the end of January.
Norwich had not recorded back-to-back league wins since the start of February.
And yet Norwich completely outplayed Reading, who looked devoid of talent, spark, creativity, structure, discpline... even the basic fundamentals of football - pass and move.
Perhaps that victory at Preston was just a false dawn. Because nothing much changed in terms of style, or confidence.
The first four home games of a season lost, for the first time in club history.
Time to pass and move on?