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Tactics Review: First-Half Performance Secures Win Over Millwall

The Royals hung on for three points as the Millwall pressure increased after the break.

Reading v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Reading hosted Millwall at the Madejski Stadium after an 11 day wait since their last outing against QPR. In the first half, Reading were happy for Millwall to keep the ball, something the Lions clearly weren’t used to, as they didn’t threaten the home side’s goal once in the first 45. Millwall were looking to use their physicality to their advantage, something shown by left back Murray Wallace moving ahead of left winger Shane Ferguson for an early goal kick to win the aerial duel. However, despite some good pressing from Millwall, this was one of Reading’s best halves of football this season.

Millwall were initially getting men behind the ball and blocking potential passing lanes, meaning Reading struggled to get behind the defence (something which had worked so well against Preston). The Millwall central midfielders, Shaun Williams and Ben Thompson, were consistently picking up loose balls in the middle of the park and driving forwards with all of the visitors’ attacks eventually being snuffed out. Despite this, Millwall’s main threat was clearly coming from corners that Reading struggled to deal with convincingly, and thankfully did not have to defend many of, in the first half.

Reading soon got a hold of the game with Andy Rinomhota superb in midfield, consistently winning tackles and driving the side forwards on the counter. Within no time the Royals had taken a two goal lead thanks to a fantastic Jordan Obita strike following Liam Moore’s long throw, and an even better finish from Baldock coming straight from Millwall’s goal kick. This second goal would have been especially enjoyable for Bowen to see, Matt Miazga winning the header and Ovie Ejaria setting up Baldock to score against a lopsided Millwall defence.

Mark Bowen’s comments on winning second balls were resonating with players and fans alike as Reading launched attack after attack, looking for a third which would have effectively killed the game off. John Swift hit the crossbar, Andy Yiadom had a volley blocked and Miazga forced Bartosz Bialkowski into a fantastic save from the resulting corner. Reading were consistently turning the ball over, meaning out of possession they were effectively asking Millwall to beat the press, knowing full well they didn’t have the quality to play through the Royals’ lines. Reading left no spaces in behind for Jed Wallace or Tom Bradshaw to exploit and Millwall’s plan of countering after a turnover was being foiled.

Superb Swift

John Swift had an outstanding game on Saturday afternoon, a performance which highlights the quality Reading have in midfield (something not said for a while). With Ejaria having a relatively quite game, Swift took control as he dictated the first half with Reading patient on the ball but direct when the opportunity arose. If Ejaria can be doubled up on to keep him out of the game, then the space opponents naturally afford Swift to have is just as dangerous as an Ovie dribble. Consistently hooking the ball around the pitch and switching the play to the full backs, Swift was even able to push high up the pitch, linking up well with Sam Baldock in attack. Impressively, a few defensive challenges just after a Millwall turnover would continue the Royals attack and typify the tenacity in the home side’s play.

Full-backs vital again

Once more, the two full-backs proved to be some of Reading’s most potent threats: Jordan Obita’s first goal since the play-off semi-final against Fulham and another excellent Andy Yiadom performance showing just why this system does not work without them. Yiadom in particular would always look forwards when on the ball, and coupled with his high energy pressing, had Murray Wallace in his pocket all game (nutmegging him almost three times down the right flank). Despite not always having the space to operate in, as he does after a cross-field John Swift ball, rarely was Yiadom dispossessed the whole game, showing bravery to take on man after man in attack. In the second half, both men kept up the intensity, even coming central to help press the Millwall ball players.

Moore’s absence noticed

In the second half, with Reading in control of the game, the game slowly fell into Millwall’s hands as Reading bossed possession but did little with it. With Ejaria getting on the ball more but Millwall sitting deep and looking to counter, most Reading fans would have expected the game to peter out with perhaps another home goal from a free-kick or counter attack late on.

However, with Liam Moore succumbing to injury and Tyler Blackett not quite filling his shoes as a replacement, things changed pretty quickly. A burst forwards from Jed Wallace evaded both Blackett, Baldock and Michael Morrison, before the midfielder poked past Rafael. Baldock’s tracking back actually worked against him, as he got in Blackett’s way, and Morrison put in an inexcusably weak challenge. With their first shot on target, Millwall were back in it and from here on in, it was backs against the wall.

Perhaps Bowen substituting Baldock and George Puscas off for Yakou Meite and Pele was too much of a defensive change with 15 minutes to play, but a now completely off the pace Reading side were hanging on with the Lions delivering cross after cross. Despite not really testing Rafael, Millwall did come close with a Jon Dadi Bodvarsson overhead kick flying just off target. Reading managed to hang on, but what was most evident from this game was the key role Liam Moore plays in the Royals backline, not just in his defending but in his leadership of the side.

Reading clearly aren’t the finished article yet, but as the first half showed, there is absolutely no reason why they cannot be in the upper reaches of the table come the end of the season.