There was plenty to like about Reading’s 2-1 win over Brentford. Two great goals scored, a solid defensive display, and a huge three points that shunts us that bit further away from the bottom three.
But there was also plenty to unpack tactically. Jose Gomes made some tweaks in the midfield and up front that very much paid off, particularly in a beautiful opening goal from the in-form Yakou Meite. Interestingly though, it all came against the backdrop of a developing theme for Reading - we’re not using the ball so much.
A tweaked set-up
My main worry coming out of the Hull City match a week earlier - Reading’s last game against a side outside the top six - was how lacking in creativity we looked. In the absence of John Swift, the Royals looked short of the ideas, invention and spark that the former Chelsea man brings to the number ten role.
Interestingly, rather than shoehorning another player into that spot behind the striker as he had done with Ovie Ejaria at the KCOM, Gomes tried something else: rejigging his midfield and attack. Typically, Reading line up in a 4-2-3-1 - two deep midfielders, an attacking three and a lone striker. However, the formation against Brentford looked like more of a 4-3-3.
A subtle change perhaps, but it brought us a few things that the 4-2-3-1 doesn’t:
- Ovie Ejaria not being shunted into the number ten role - important as, to me at least, it’s not his best position.
- Ejaria and Andy Rinomhota being used as box-to-box midfielders. Rather than sitting deep, both could push out and press Brentford at certain points.
- Nelson Oliveira had more direct support. With Yakou Meite and Modou Barrow acting as wide forwards rather than out-and-out wingers, it meant the Portuguese striker always had bodies around him.
That last point obviously paid off for the opener (more on that below), but also contributed to making Reading look very dangerous going forwards in the opening stages of the game. As a side point - whether due to the formation change or not, the attacking trio looked particularly confident against Brentford, taking any given opportunity to run at defenders and get shots away. All in all, by the end of the game, we could have had far more than two goals.
Credit is also due for the midfield three. Lewis Baker has looked increasingly dominating in the middle of the park in recent weeks and again set the tempo from his role in front of the back four. He even went home with an assist for Meite’s second, and almost a goal of his own when he tried an audacious lob over Brentford ‘keeper Luke Daniels from just inside the Bees’ half.
Further up the pitch, Rinomhota and Ejaria were freed up to make their energy and work-rate count, winning the ball well before driving forwards. In fact, of the eight interceptions made by Reading players on Saturday, six of them were by Rinomhota and Ejaria (three each). Having players like that not only helps Baker out defensively, but also gives Reading that extra attacking dimension - particularly on the counter.
A well-worked opener
It feels like ages since we were all worried that Reading weren’t scoring enough goals from open play, doesn’t it? In fact, the Royals managed just three of them in Jose Gomes’ first eight league games - Callum Harriott vs Swansea City, John Swift vs Nottingham Forest, and Sone Aluko vs Derby County.
However, those days seem to be well behind us, with nine goals from open play in our last eight. What’s more, the goals we’re scoring are of a particularly high quality - and Saturday’s opening goal was the latest in that trend.
Playing out from the back as a system naturally gets plenty of stick from its critics and, to be fair, it seems frustratingly avoidable when it goes wrong. But when we get it right, it’s not only a joy to watch but also a devastatingly effective way of breaking down a defence. Take the build-up to Yakou Meite’s first against Brentford:
Modou Barrow’s pass will rightly win the plaudits, but it’s Andy Yiadom’s composure that really makes the attack. The Ghanaian does well to hold onto the ball under pressure, rather than booting it up the pitch to clear his lines. That invites Brentford players onto him, meaning that when he does play in Liam Moore, the centre back can bypass those opposition players and go straight to Barrow.
Look at how much space Barrow is in to receive the pass. He has all the time in the world to receive the ball, turn, get his head up, and pick a glorious pass for Yakou Meite. Note also how the Ivorian starts his run as soon as he knows Barrow is able to play him in. When it becomes a foot race between him and the Brentford defender, there’s only one winner.
Do Reading actually want the ball?
Saturday’s win was also the sign of a growing trend under Jose Gomes - Reading don’t want the ball. For a team under the stewardship of a supposedly possession-oriented manager, that may seem odd, but look at our possession stats in the last six games since we had most of the ball (62% against Wigan Athletic):
- Brentford: 38%
- Norwich City: 25%
- Hull City: 47%
- Preston North End: 37%
- Stoke City: 47%
- Leeds United: 38%
Considering that Reading had more of the ball than the opposition in 10 of Jose Gomes’ first 13 league matches (those 13 being all Gomes’ league games not included in that list of six above), we’re certainly seeing signs of a tactical change. Gomes is willing to be pragmatic, letting Reading sit deep without the ball before winning it and launching up the pitch on a counter.
With pacey players like Modou Barrow and Yakou Meite in form at the moment, that approach makes sense. We’ve already seen it pay dividends with Meite’s first goal against Brentford (Barrow assist), and his openers against Carrow Road (Barrow assist), and Preston North End (Barrow assist).
See if you can spot the pattern.
So is this new approach a sign of things to come in the long term for this team, assuming we stay up and Gomes sticks around? For me, no - Reading hitting teams on the counter is no contradiction of possession football, and having relatively less possession in itself will likely be a short-term thing anyway.
To start with that second point, if we stay up (and we now should), there’ll be plenty of time over the summer to realign tactically and get the team keeping the ball for fun. Being pragmatic in the short term doesn’t mean there isn’t a planned change down the line.
And, to go back to the first, being dangerous on the counter is a key part of possession football - they’re not necessarily completely separate philosophies. Yakou Meite’s opener that I highlighted above is a key case in point - by keeping the ball in one part of the pitch and inviting pressure, you create space elsewhere that you can exploit. The brilliant team goal against Rotherham United at the Madejski Stadium, finished by Ovie Ejaria, is another example.