Reading travelled to Ashton Gate at the weekend looking for their first win since August, and Jose Gomes looked to end that barren spell by reverting his side back to a 3-5-2, a formation that had worked so well earlier in the season. Bristol City are also a side who have generally opted for three at the back this season, so it didn’t come as much of a shock to see Gomes try to match up with The Robins.
However, as the teams were announced, rare starts for both Callum O’Dowda and Niclas Eliasson signalled a change to a 4-4-2 for Bristol City, catching many a fan (and supposedly Gomes) off guard.
The game kicked off with Reading on the back foot, Bristol City controlling the play with ease while the Royals were completely off the pace. Pele occupied the holding position just in front of the defence, with Andy Rinomhota and Ovie Ejaria just ahead, and as they sat deeper when Bristol City were in possession, it afforded the home side as much space as they liked to play the ball around. Reading were, at times, lifeless.
As we have seen against Swansea, the defence struggle to pick up their men when in a three. So, is this a tactical problem or a purely defensive problem? Well, as we have seen against Fulham, the defence also struggle to pick up their men when in a two, suggesting it is the latter.
This issue was once more exploited as Niclas Eliasson cut in from the right with ease and poor marking allowed Diedhou to power in a header past Rafael, the goalkeeper surely now sick of the lack of defensive awareness in front of him. Three times in a week the left footed right winger has been able to cut inside far too easily and help put his side 1-0 up.
Not only should the centre-backs be marking their men, but the cross should not even be able to be delivered in the first place. With both Omar Richards and Ejaria over on Reading’s left, the latter moved completely the wrong way towards the former, who followed Eliasson taking the ball further infield. This effectively made it Eliasson against Richards when Ejaria was needed to double up on the man and prevent him from cutting in while Richards could track him down the line.
As the cross came in, Michael Morrison moved off Diedhou to Josh Brownhill, while Matt Miazga was then caught between the big striker and O’Dowda at the back post. The pace of the cross and the fact that it came in from a more infield position gave the defence little time to react and Diedhou a greater advantage, one he took. The Royals just did not seem to know who they were marking. Pele leaving Brownhill to move into the box suggests he was Morrison’s man, but Miazga’s confusion may suggest Diedhou was in fact Morrison’s (the central of the three defenders) man. With O’Dowda a few yards goal side of Andy Yiadom, there were two Bristol City men completely unmarked, with a total of six Reading players in the box.
In possession, the Royals could not build out from the back with Pele being pressed into many a misplaced pass, while both Miazga and Moore constantly went long to try to pick out Meite and Puscas as no midfield options were making themselves available. In addition, as Bristol City’s wingers were playing so high, Yiadom and Richards did not get forwards as much as usual, due to the risk of over-committing and leaving the rest of the defence exposed. Reading struggled to get bodies up the field at times, with the ball in their half for long spells. Despite us having three central midfielders on the pitch and the hosts only two, Reading seemed to be outnumbered in the middle as they were losing battles all over the pitch. As a result, both forwards struggled for service with an ever-increasing gap beginning to form in between the midfield and forward line.
The second half however, was a perfect example of the adage ‘a game of two halves’. Having an extra man in midfield in the shape of Liam Moore gave Reading more energy and desire, and he seemed like the most attack minded player on the pitch. The captain was constantly looking to pick out Yakou Meite with a ball over the top or spray it out wide to the full backs, and that was when he wasn’t committing himself into tackles to win back possession.
Reading completely controlled the game from here on in, and suddenly did not look afraid to take players on and move the ball forwards. This was in part due to Gomes’s clever tactical change, moving to what seemed like a 4-2-2-2 with Ejaria and Rinomhota pushing high and wide into the channels while Moore and Pele could sit back to recycle the ball and restart the attacks.
Moore sitting in front of the defence also sped up the visitors’ play, as there was no hesitation from Morrison anymore, who was able to just play the ball to Moore when there were no obvious options. He in turn could take it forwards and start an attack, whereas in the first half, Pele dropping back meant there were four men sitting deep (not including the more constrained full backs) and less options further forward. More men in midfield, who could drift wide or come central and play through the opposition, gave Reading almost an attack vs defence situation at times. Moore in front of the defence also meant that, in theory, he could drop back in to a three at the back when needed.
Much of the second 45 really was like Reading’s pre-match training drill of building attacks from the halfway line, just without the end product. Moore and Pele grabbing a hold of the game freed Yiadom and Richards to attack slightly more, and most of Reading’s attacks came from Ejaria under-lapping Richards on the left and driving forwards. One such attack resulted in George Puscas failing to control the ball in front of an open goal after Ejaria had rolled it square to him - one of many a crosses and cutbacks as Reading committed men forwards in search of an equaliser.
As the midfielders drove forwards, Meite and Puscas would confuse the defence with their runs but the Royals had to rely on playing the ball out wide, rather than slipping in a striker, as City began to drop back. Lucas Boye soon replaced Puscas and was a bright spark, taking men on out wide to drive infield, and having a half volley wonderfully saved by Dan Bentley. Boye and Meite’s abilities to play out wide helped to confuse City’s defence further, with both forwards able to work out in the channels with the full backs while Ejaria and Rinomhota were allowed to drift infield. This made Reading a much more fluid side in the second half as opposed to their static first half performance, and coupled with extra energy and desire, were harder to break through and harder to stop in attack.
Josh Barrett on for Pele as the second change meant Rinomhota moved back next to Moore in a more favoured position, while Barrett took up a role in right attacking midfield (trying to utilise the width more as a more natural winger than Rinomhota). Reading’s final change didn’t make much of an impact as Lucas Joao replaced Morrison and played just behind the forwards in a 4-1-3-2, moving Moore back into central defence. However the final minutes involved a lot long kicks forwards and balls into the box, so positions weren’t too relevant as Moore and Joao were right up the field for set pieces.
However it wasn’t enough, as despite a few headed efforts on goal from Meite, a scramble from a corner and fantastic feet from Ejaria to cut back to Boye who was crowded out, Reading failed to score and left Ashton Gate with nothing to show for their second half efforts. On a positive note, Bristol City barely had a sustained spell of possession in the second half and only really had two chances of note, Han-Noah Massengo firing a shot wide and Kasey Palmer firing a late free kick into the wall.
Jose Gomes will be wondering why, like in the clashes against Swansea and Fulham, his team did not show up in the first half. However, as we saw at The Liberty and on Saturday afternoon, Gomes’ tactical change to a 4-2-2-2 (or 4-2-3-1 or whatever you want to call it), seems to be a system that gets the best out of his players, at least for now.
Although, as Lee Johnson showed, perhaps using wingers more sparingly but still having them available for tactical alterations was another option Gomes could have chosen back in August. Despite Boye and Meite being able to play on the wing, the absence of true out and out wingers may pose problems further down the line if Gomes does opt for this 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1/4-3-3.
Whether he decides to go to four at the back and drop an under-performing Michael Morrison, pursue with Liam Moore in front of the defence, opt for Pele and Rinomhota to play behind both Swift and Ejaria or give Boye and Meite some well-deserved game time together, this may have signalled the turning point for Jose Gomes going forwards. If he can get this side playing for 90 minutes, then we may be able to see what this team is actually capable of.