Mark Bowen kicked off his tenure at Reading with three points at home to Preston North End at Madejski Stadium on Saturday afternoon. His side lined up in a 3-5-2: Rafael; Yiadom, Miazga, Moore, Morrison, Richards; Pele, Swift, Ejaria; Puscas, Meite.
An already noticeable change from the Gomes era to the beginning of the Bowen one was the emphasis on a more direct style of play. Without suddenly becoming a ‘long ball team’, Reading managed to get the ball from back to front far more quickly, Rafael and the three centre-backs not taking any unnecessary risks from goal kicks with passes between them or to Pele with his back to play.
Instead, they opted to utilise the pace and energy of Puscas and Meite, the two forwards constantly making runs in behind the Preston defence. Preston began the game pressing high up the field, something which soon turned into a half press as they realised Reading were not playing the ball out dangerously, with Miazga, Moore and Pele opting for balls over the top or through the defence and into the channels for Meite and Puscas.
A quick kick from Rafael almost set Meite through on goal, something which we have seen under Gomes but still outlines Bowen’s philosophy of wanting to play quick, attacking football.
The noticeable change in energy levels and pressing from Puscas in particular gave Reading the basis for a quick start, and so never really looked like conceding yet another early goal with the Royals threatening the most early on, a Puscas volley going over the bar after a run in behind from Moore’s lofted through ball. Puscas lead the line, with Meite hovering over on the right wing to win headers from the Royals’ goal kicks (that went long more often than not) and taking it down the line when he could, his touch usually letting him down however as he overran most balls.
Ovie Ejaria had a more advanced role, playing just behind Meite and Puscas, with John Swift to the left of Pele. With Swift a more attacking player, when he would bring the ball forwards the midfield would had a more staggered look to it, with Pele able to drift in around behind without sitting too far back. Pele had without a doubt his best game in a Reading shirt, showing energy to bring the ball forwards and link up the play on the right with Yiadom, Ejaria and Meite or to deliver a few teasing crosses just out of Puscas’ reach. What was most pleasing to see was Pele (and Swift’s) desire to race back when Preston would launch a counter attack, something not previously seen from the loan signing this season.
Despite Puscas not getting another sniff of the goal (albeit in a game of few chances), he showed massive improvements in work rate (even heading away a Preston corner) and made the Royals look a whole different team off the ball. Meanwhile Pele put in a fantastic shift for a man only drafted into the starting XI at lunchtime (due to Rinomhota’s illness), consistently winning the ball across the midfield area before getting it forwards quickly. This is not to forget his ‘off the ball’ contribution, becoming the second line of Royals pressing, behind Puscas, Meite and Ejaria, who all managed to force Preston back numerous times.
Both players showed huge improvement on Saturday afternoon, and it’s clear that they were ready to give everything in order to retain their places in the side.
Star Men: Ejaria and Yiadom
With Ejaria in his more advanced position, he thrived in playing between the midfield and defensive lines. He was a bright spark in the first half, receiving a great pass from Pele before fantastically turning away from his man and getting a shot away at goal, showing great footwork moments later to fire off another. As all Reading fans know, Ejaria’s otherworldly footwork continues to bamboozle defenders, and once more he completed more dribbles than anyone else on the pitch and continued to create attacking scenarios out of nothing, almost winning a penalty in the second half after weaving his way through Preston’s defence.
Andy Yiadom once more had a fantastic game, constantly getting down the wing to deliver in crosses, one such cut back finding Ejaria who could only hook over the bar, and managing to charge forwards down the pitch while leaving opposition players in his wake.
Expect to see a lot more goals stemming from Yiadom this season as, with the players seemingly more in sync now, it’s only a matter of time before one of the strikers or midfielders stick one in (that is if he doesn’t try to go all the way himself, something he has shown to be capable of.)
These two players’ ability on the ball and attacking intent made them the standout performers on Saturday, and are up there with the best in their positions in the Championship as a whole.
The double substitution that resulted in Meite and Puscas leaving the field saw the return to league action for both Sam Baldock and Danny Loader. Where a few weeks ago this change wouldn’t have quite set tongues wagging, Baldock’s two goals in a friendly vs Arsenal last week and Reading’s profligacy in front of goal led to much optimism in the form of two men with pace, energy and, in Baldock’s case, a proven Championship goalscorer.
Almost immediately, his fantastic pace allowed him to drive right up the pitch before offloading the ball to Loader, with the youngsters’ return pass not quite able to slip him in. A flicked on header from Loader from a corner and great hold up play from Baldock to bring the ball down (against defenders almost twice the size of him) showed promising signs in the attempt to break down the visitors’ defence.
The final change that saw Charlie Adam replace Swift did not have quite the same effect, as the Scotsman reportedly tweaked his hamstring almost instantly. However, the introduction of two forwards given another chance in the absence of Lucas’s Joao and Boye showed the striking depth Reading finally have.
Without taking the risks at the back that they previously did, the Royals showed signs of utilising their players’ strengths in the right way, being able to pass the ball out from the back but also using Puscas in the same way the Romanian national team do. Meite targeted the less physically adept full backs from goal kicks; Ejaria had the freedom to play in between the lines and link up with the forwards while still also able to drop back and defend; and the centre-backs were able to pick out the strikers’ runs without hoofing the ball and still focus on their job of defending without having too much pressure to play through the opposition.
As this team continue to click and players feel more and more comfortable playing alongside each other, the goals will certainly come. But perhaps the fighting spirit showed was the biggest positive of all, it reportedly even catching Preston’s backroom staff off guard. However, it remains to be seen if this positive result was just part of the ‘new manager bounce’, or if the players are really playing for their gaffer now.