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Reading’s Strangest Tactical Decisions Of The 2010s

Some of the more unorthodox choices made by the Royals’ managers in the last decade.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Watford v Reading - Vicarage Road

By now, I’m sure you’ve been inundated by all the regular ways of reviewing the last decade of Reading Football Club. The best goals, the most entertaining games, the most depressing moments and plenty more besides.

But, as an alternative way of looking back at the 2010s, I decided to go back through the history books to find the most unusual tactical decisions made by Reading managers in the last 10 years. Whether done out of necessity or as a random roll of the dice, these choices stood all out for bad reasons.

This is by no means an exhaustive list - I’m sure you’ve got plenty of other suggestions, so pop them into the comments/replies on Facebook/Twitter.

The night of the four wingers

Bournemouth 3-1 Reading, 8 April 2014

This one still gives me nightmares. On this Tuesday evening in early April 2014, Reading were looking good for a playoff finish after a vital 1-0 away win at Charlton Athletic a few days earlier, giving them a five-point cushion. Just as importantly, the central midfield pairing had done well on the day - Danny Guthrie and Danny Williams, the latter scoring the winner in front of the away fans.

But fast-forward to Tuesday evening, and it all went wrong even before kick off. Both Guthrie and Williams were ruled out through injury picked up between the two matches, forcing Nigel Adkins to pick a midfield four made entirely of wingers.

Although Mikele Leigertwood came off the bench to make his return from long-term injury in that match, Jordan Obita partnered Jobi McAnuff from the start, with Hal Robson-Kanu and Royston Drenthe out wide. Hardly the steely, tenacious midfield you need to dig out a win in a tough away match.

Makeshift defence unable to hold Man City

Manchester City 1-0 Reading, 13 March 2011

Remember that time Reading went to the one of best sides in the country in the FA Cup and had to put out a makeshift back four that was 50% defenders, 50% midfielders? The Royals were in the middle of an injury crisis at the time, with Ivar Ingimarsson, Matt Mills, Alex Pearce and Sean Morrison among those to miss out for some reason or another.

It left Brian McDermott to deploy Ian Harte at left back, Jem Karacan at right back and Zurab Khizanishvili partnered with Brynjar Gunnarsson as centre backs. For 74 minutes though it worked, with Reading holding off Man City until Micah Richards nodded in a late corner to put them through to the semi-finals where they faced Man United.

Soccer - FA Cup - Sixth Round - Manchester City v Reading - City of Manchester Stadium
Micah Richards scoring the all-important goal
Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

Although it didn’t end in success on the day, the fact that Reading were able to hold a strong City attack for so long with such a makeshift defence spoke volumes about the spirit and organisation we had under McDermott. Those qualities played a huge part in Reading getting to Wembley that season - albeit in the playoffs rather than the FA Cup - and then going one further in 2011/12.

11 changes at Watford

Watford 4-1 Reading, 14 March 2015

Almost exactly four years after that match in Manchester, Reading had another vitally important FA Cup game on their mind: the small matter of a replay against League One Bradford. But, for frustratingly obtuse reasons, the tie was scheduled for a Monday night and the two clubs’ preceding league games were left on the Saturday.

For the visitors, that was a killer. They didn’t have a big enough squad to fully rotate after a 1-1 draw at Notts County, leaving them running on empty for much of the 3-0 win that was ultimately not as competitive as it should have been.

For Reading though, there were no such worries. Steve Clarke could afford to effectively throw the game - Reading weren’t in immediate danger of relegation - and promptly put out a side that reads more like a list of some of the more forgettable players to have appeared in the blue and white in the last decade.

The team that day (3-5-2): Andersen; Keown, Knight, Cooper; Stacey, Akpan, Guthrie, Taylor, Travner; Cox, Yakubu. Subs: Lincoln, Long, Karacan, Edwards, Kuhl, Blackman, Novakovich.

Of all those players, only really Nick Blackman and Jake Cooper would have play significant roles for Reading after the 2014/15 season, although Andrija Novakovich stuck around until last summer after two pretty promising loan spells in the Netherlands weren’t enough to earn him a chance in the first team.

However, Jack Stacey went on to impress with Luton Town in the lower leagues as a right back - so perhaps Clarke was onto something special by playing him as a wingback in this game - while Dan Lincoln is now a cricketer for Middlesex. He made his Twenty20 debut in July 2019.

Jaap Stam’s attacking lineup backfires

Reading 2-1 Rotherham United, 17 April 2017

By mid-April 2017, the Royals were well on track for a top-six finish, but until then they’d never really turned on the style. Jaap Stam’s conservative approach had helped Reading consistently edge games, typically by one goal, but not often more than that. But when better to change that than against rock-bottom Rotherham United?

Stam duly changed Reading’s shape, turning down the usual 4-3-3, and indeed also the 3-5-2 that had seen off Aston Villa at Villa Park a few days earlier, instead going for 4-2-4. The deep-lying midfielder was dropped so that another forward could come in, leaving Danny Williams and John Swift in the middle of the park.

Reading v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet Championship
Jaap had some unorthodox tactical choices up his sleeve
Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

It backfired. Badly. Reading went behind in the 19th minute to Tom Adeyemi and, besides a few bright moments here and there, didn’t look like getting back into the game. They had little control over the midfield and, despite having plenty of attackers on the pitch (Yann Kermorgant, Yakou Meite, Garath McCleary and Roy Beerens) were unable to progress the ball through midfield to create chances.

That changed at half time though when Liam Kelly replaced Meite, and the second 45 was markedly different to the first. Reading controlled possession much better, built attacks more effectively, and duly completed the turnaround - one of the few times they managed to do so under Stam. Despite that rescue act, Stam’s initial flirtation with a top-heavy 4-2-4 showed just how tactically naive he often was.

Prolific striker Grabban is played in... midfield

Reading 0-0 Barnsley, 11 February 2017

The man who got a crucial equaliser in that game against Rotherham, Lewis Grabban, was on paper one of the most exciting signings we’ve made in the last few years. A prolific striker for Bournemouth, he’d struck up a fine partnership with top scorer Yann Kermorgant on the way to the Cherries’ promotion to the Premier League.

So it was... interesting... to see him line up in midfield. That happened in mid-February against Barnsley when Grabban was brought off the bench at half time for Liam Kelly. However, it didn’t pay off, with Reading grinding out a 0-0 draw.

Jaap Stam explained the decision after the game like so:

“We’re always looking at players who can play there [in central midfield] and who can make a difference in going forward with quality on the ball. And players who can produce something in tight areas and spaces. Lewis is comfortable on the ball, he can get it in the build-up, in between lines and he can go forward.”

Nonetheless, it still just seems like Stam was overthinking things. When you’ve got a striker like Grabban in your ranks, it’s much better to try to play to their strengths.