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Further Reading: Have The Royals Found Their Best Midfield?

A new-look midfield paid dividends for Reading in a 3-0 win over Hul.

New boy Saeid Ezatolahi
Reading FC

Following Reading’s first home league victory of the season against Hull City, I’ve taken a look at the changes in the middle of the park that made it possible. On the day, Paul Clement went with a three-man midfield: Saeid Ezatolahi, Leandro Bacuna and Liam Kelly.

New boy Ezatolahi, 21, got his first start following his loan move from Rostov. Despite having spent time in Atletico Madrid’s youth system and having 28 senior international caps to his name, he arrived at the Madejski Stadium a relatively unknown entity. However, from the evidence of his first outing for the Royals there is reason to be positive about his acquisition.

Ezatolahi provided a tactically disciplined performance at the base of a three-man midfield, protecting the defence well and closing off passing lanes into the strikers. This is exemplified by the fact he blocked a total of three passes - the joint best in the game.

Saeid Ezatolahi’s blocks against Hull City (Reading shooting left to right)

This positional discipline allowed for the other midfielders to roam more freely with the added assurance of cover behind them. The below pass map from @RedmanAnalytics shows how Leandro Bacuna and Liam Kelly were allowed to break forward and affect the game from more advanced positions.

Reading’s pass map vs Hull City
Redman Analytics

Particularly notable is Bacuna’s closeness to Jon Dadi Bodvarsson who has often cut an isolated figure as the spearhead of a blunt Reading attack. Bacuna was particularly impressive in the right half-space causing problems for the Hull City defence, as he recorded a third of Reading’s key passes (@SofaScore). It was his cross which won the corner for the first goal of the game, a corner he also took.

Leandro Bacuna driving into the right half-space
Hull City on YouTube

It should be noted how well Bacuna received the ball in the inside right space and carried it forwards to link with Josh Sims, his most frequent pass recipient. This provided Reading a far more direct threat down the right flank than in past weeks, and resulted in the pair putting in a combined 11 of Reading’s 17 crosses.

Looking forward

It has long been an issue for this Reading side that it has been too easy for teams to bypass the midfield due to a lack of tactical discipline and physicality. Despite it being his debut, Ezatolahi has shown glimpses that he could possibly be the man to help in this department. At 6”3’ he provides an aerial presence, as shown by his header which resulted in Sam Baldock’s tap-in.

Ezatolahi’s flick-on proved crucial for the opener
Hull City on YouTube

Ezatolahi’s composure on the ball will help to progress play out from the back four and it was positive how he looked to play forward at tempo, taking minimal touches. He did record a rather low pass completion rate of 60% - however, this appeared to be due to a lack of match fitness and there was enough to suggest he can be a more than capable operator at this level.

One area where the Reading midfield trio could improve is in their tendency to create chances from ‘Zone 14’ (the central area just outside the box). It has been statistically proven that most goal-scoring chances can be created from this zone, hence the importance of getting the likes of Liam Kelly and John Swift on the ball in these areas.

Reading should look to maximise their creative abilities by getting them into this part of the pitch. However, the map below shows how few passes were played by the three central midfielders within Zone 14 against Hull City.

Reading’s midfielders failed to get into this key area against Hull

Next up is a trip to high-flying Brentford, a very different task to the one Reading overcame on Saturday. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not Paul Clement sticks with a midfield trio that did so well against Hull.