A month into the Mark Bowen era, things are looking pretty for the new manager. He’s got an almost perfect record so far, having picked up three home wins and one away draw in his first four league matches in charge of the Royals. Not bad at all.
Few would have predicted such a strong start for the Welshman, certainly not me. After all, Bowen entered the Mad Stad dugout as a rookie, having never previously had a manager’s job in his career - even if his decades of experience in other roles were effectively the next best thing.
He also had a slightly complicated job on his hands due to the state the team were in on the pitch when he arrived. Despite the poor form - Reading were 22nd after five defeats in six at the point Jose Gomes was sacked - wholesale changes to the starting XI and system were not only unnecessary when Bowen arrived, but they would have been counterproductive.
Bowen’s predecessor at least had the makings of a good team. That was shown particularly in that impressive week towards the end of August when Reading not only beat Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town but also held current league leaders West Bromwich Albion to a draw. More generally, Reading were regularly creating chances, and ranked towards the top of the Championship for number of goalscoring opportunities made.
The important point here is that some of the building blocks were there, even if there were big areas of improvement that needed addressing if Reading were to push up the table. The Royals certainly had to tighten up defensively, work much harder off the ball and become more clinical in the final third.
Those are all problems that could - and of course should - have been solved without making big changes to the overall team shape, system or line-up. Bowen has therefore been sensible enough to not radically overhaul how Reading set up, instead targeting the specific factors that were holding the team back.
A key case in point here is the team selection and formation: Bowen’s 3-5-2 is almost exactly what we’d seen previously under Gomes. The only really notable changes have been Sam Baldock’s run in the starting XI up front and, in midfield, pushing Ovie Ejaria higher and bringing John Swift back into a deeper role.
Otherwise it’s the same goalkeeper, same back three, same wingbacks, same midfield three, and Bowen has kept the faith with George Puscas in the hope of finally getting him firing. All in all, the lineups we’ve seen in recent weeks are ones that could well have been picked by Gomes.
Granted, Reading are much more willing to play direct now, going long from the back more regularly - whether with the intention of playing into the striker’s feet or getting one of the front two in behind. But that isn’t a radical change; it’s something that Reading could - and should - have been doing more often under Gomes to stretch games better.
On the whole, what we’ve seen from Bowen so far is very much an attitude of evolution not revolution. It was a sensible approach given the team he inherited, and has certainly paid off with results so far.