Getting the right balance in midfield has been an ongoing problem for Reading to some extent for quite some time now. Jaap Stam was plagued by a lack of technical midfielders in his second season, while his successor Paul Clement never really decided on one set-up - bar some very brief promise with Saied Ezatolahi, John Swift and Leandro Bacuna.
The last man, Jose Gomes, didn’t initially find it easy to select a consistent, effective group in the middle of the park. That’s shown in how he used two of our more gifted midfielders - Ovie Ejaria played out wide in his days at Reading, while Lewis Baker flitted between the number ten and box-to-box roles before eventually settling down as a deep-lying playmaker.
Gomes didn’t have as much of a problem this season. Whether with a back four or back three, John Swift and Ovie Ejaria typically played as the more advanced midfielders, while Andy Rinomhota and Pele fought it out over a spot just in front of the defence. That idea had some logic to it. But in practice that midfield was often too easy to play through, while neither Rinomhota nor Pele fully convinced as destroyers.
That left new man Mark Bowen with a tricky conundrum: how to get the most out of the talented midfielders at his disposal while shoring Reading up defensively? The answer, in the early days of his time in the dugout, appears to be one more of evolution than revolution.
Bowen has named two different midfields so far. Against Preston North End at the Madejski Stadium, Swift played more or less alongside Pele with Ejaria pushing on, while Bowen brought Rinomhota back for the trip to Queens Park Rangers. However, as the manager noted after the Preston game, he would have selected Rinomhota were it not for illness.
There are three key things worth noting here:
- Reading tended to play one man back, two forward in their midfield three under Gomes, but have flipped this under Bowen.
- John Swift has been brought deeper.
- Ovie Ejaria is now clearly the most advanced of the three midfielders
Random side note: Reading’s last two managers have gone to QPR in their second match in charge and paired Rinomhota and Swift as the two deepest midfielders (although Gomes went 4-2-3-1).
This is a good set-up for Reading’s midfield
Briefly ignoring the fact that these are still very early days, and that this article could very possibly age awfully in a matter of days, I’m optimistic about the new set-up of Reading’s midfield. On the face of it, that conundrum I mentioned earlier - how to get the most out of the midfielders while shoring Reading up defensively? - may be solved by this set-up.
Of course, tactics elsewhere on the pitch play a key part too. Reading still have a back three - meaning more cover for Rinomhota and Swift, the wingbacks aren’t playing as high as they were - so less need for the midfielders to cover, and an increased willingness for the team to go long both relieves pressure defensively and gives the midfielders (particularly Swift) more license to pick out runs in behind.
However, putting all of that to one side for a minute, Bowen’s tweaks in the middle of the park get more out of his midfielders individually.
First up, Andy Rinomhota. For me, he’s best deployed as a defence-minded box-to-box midfielder, where he can make the most of his ability to both win the ball and then drive up the pitch. But using him as an out-and-out holding midfielder can expose his (in my opinion at least) inconsistent positional sense and limit his more attacking instincts.
This system however seems to solve those problems. With three central defenders behind him, there’ll likely be a spare man available to step up and cover for Rinomhota if a gap appears. That three-man defence also means more cover if Rinomhota senses the opportunity to drive up the pitch with the ball at his feet - a useful weapon in Reading’s arsenal for moving the ball upfield and getting onto the attack.
Next to him, John Swift could well be of more use to Reading by coming deeper. He is, by far, the best passer of the ball in the team, and his ability to pick out teammates at range should be exploited. With this 3-5-2, Swift can be a gamechanger in switching the play out wide to a wingback on the far side of the pitch or playing George Puscas/Sam Baldock in behind. Quick, direct passing was missing from Gomes’ Reading far too often, and bringing it back will give us an extra dimension going forwards.
Playing deeper does however mean that Swift will need to sharpen up his defensive side -and that’s probably my biggest concern about the new midfield shape. But, at least going by what I saw at Loftus Road, Swift took well to Bowen’s emphasis on aggression off the ball. Swift will need to maintain that doggedness.
Last but not least, Ovie Ejaria. The loanee’s technical ability is undoubted - as Harry Chafer highlighted in this thoroughly enjoyable piece last week. But my own biggest criticism of Ejaria during his time at Reading has been in his lack of impact in the final third. Granted, he’s shown that in flashes so far - not least an eye-catching finish at West Brom and his pinpoint through-ball for Puscas at QPR.
Reading fight back!— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) October 22, 2019
George Puscas gets Reading level just two minutes after they fell behind
Watch QPR v Reading live on Sky Sports Football pic.twitter.com/0TjuEhgFr4
But a record of three goals and three assists in 29 Reading appearances shows clear room for improvement. However, by moving Ejaria higher up the pitch (he’s typically played as a box-to-box player so far), Bowen may well have found an effective way of unlocking more of the loanee’s potential.
Ejaria’s main weapons are his sublime close control, ability to keep the ball in the tightest of spaces and beat a defender - sometimes purely by bamboozling them with his footwork - and those assets are of course most effective in the final third where using them well can unlock a defence.
He’s not been doing that enough though. According to WhoScored, Ejaria averages 3.4 dribbles per game this season, but those typically come in midfield - or at least a decent distance away from the opposition penalty box. However, in Bowen’s first two games, Ejaria has not only smashed his season-wide average for dribbles - registering nine against Preston and six against QPR - but he’s also been doing them much closer to goal.
Here are his nine dribbles against Preston (shooting left to right). Note how close they all are to the penalty box.
And his six at Loftus Road (shooting right to left). There may be fewer of them, and less close to the penalty box, but four dribbles in pretty dangerous areas is still a good return away to a play-off chasing side.
Ejaria being in that more advanced role, with the security of two other midfielders behind him, can have benefits for other players too. Getting him into as many situations as possible to run at the opposition will naturally mean more defenders committed to stopping him - thereby opening up more room for his teammates. We saw that in the early chance for Baldock at Loftus Road.
So the new midfield set-up certainly has promise, and if developed properly it could well go on to be a winner. But it does still need improvements - Ejaria is relatively new to playing as the most advanced midfielder of the three, so has to shoulder the burden of being a regular source of creativity. As for Swift and Rinomhota, they’ll have to forge a consistent, reliable partnership that work as well defensively as it can offensively. Some teams may well be able to exploit that partnership’s relative lack of steel.
That being said, it’s still a promising combination, and I look forward to seeing how it does in the coming weeks.