It wasn't all that long ago that we were lamenting the decline of Modou Barrow. He'd impressed in an otherwise dismal 2017/18 campaign, being of our few sources of entertainment, but his fortunes turned under Paul Clement.
A return of just two goals under the Englishman's management says it all - but, perhaps more importantly, Barrow simply seemed to no longer be enjoying his football. That was partly down to Clement's relatively conservative tactics, and also presumably to their personal relationship - after all, it was Clement that sold Barrow to Reading in the first place.
With six goals and assists in his last eight games, Barrow is now very much a man in form - but why is that? The answer is, as it often seems to be nowadays, Jose Gomes.
Barrow can flourish in our current system
Earlier this week I wrote about the tactical changes Jose Gomes seems to be making at Reading. In short, we'll keep possession, but are much happier to go without the ball for long periods and hit teams on the break.
This suits Modou Barrow down to the ground.
In the course of writing this piece, something dawned on me. I'd pointed out in the previous article that Reading had seen less than 50% of possession in each of our last six matches. If you extend that out by two games, you find that the Royals have had less of the ball than their opponents in seven of their last eight.
Now cast your mind to Barrow's run of form for goals and assists I mentioned further up - there's an almost direct correlation. When Reading have less of the ball, the speedy Gambian winger comes into his own.
Indeed, look at the goals and assists he's registered over that period:
- Goal against Ipswich Town.
- Goal against Wigan Athletic.
- Assist against Preston North End.
- Goal against Preston North End.
- Assist against Norwich City.
- Assist against Brentford.
(The ones in bold came on the counter).
Those last three assists demonstrated Modou Barrow doing what loves doing most of all: finding space and running into it. I have some doubts over his ability to exploit space in central areas, where it tends to be in more limited supply, but out wide he’s not to be ignored.
His assist at Carrow Road was a particularly good example of him spotting space in-behind the opposition back-line, charging into it, and having faith in his own ability to win a foot race against the Norwich City defender. There was, predictably, only one winner.
It also opens up plenty of space for Yakou Meite in the middle, who does a great job of exploiting it.
See also: Barrow’s role in Meite’s opener against Brentford at the weekend. Again, he finds it easier to get into space when Reading are on the counter, and takes advantage.
Setting Reading up so that Barrow can hit teams on the counter is a good tactic, and full credit should go to Jose Gomes for using it. When you’ve got a dangerous forward like Barrow in your squad, you should play to their strengths, and that’s exactly what the Royals are doing.
Confidence is key
The eagle-eyed of you will have spotted that I ignored two of Barrow’s contributions from recent weeks: the long-range strike at home to Wigan Athletic (side note - that game was the only one in Reading’s last eight in which we had more possession than the opposition - 65%) and the opportunistic short-range strike against Preston.
However, those goals show another key part of his resurgence: confidence. On the face of it, tonking one in from outside the area and scoring a tap-in after a defensive error aren’t comparable goals. But, for me, there’s a common theme - both rely on the player in question being particularly confident in their own ability.
In the first case, you need to be somewhat cocky to think you can beat the ‘keeper from 30 yards or so - especially when your team is trailing in a game with huge ramifications for the relegation battle. In the second, closing down the opposition goalie is almost always a lost cause. Moody players don’t put in that extra bit of work-rate to force errors like that.
So why the confidence?
To a large degree, we can circle back to tactics - after all, playing to someone’s strengths naturally makes them happy. That’s a big part of confidence, so we can’t ignore how important it is.
But, more generally, Jose Gomes' impact must be playing a part. The Portuguese manager radiates positivity, and its testament to the impact of his all-round influence that the club feels refreshed just a few months after his arrival.
We've all talked about that with respect to Gomes' himself and the club overall a lot, but it plays a key role in improving individual players too. Besides Barrow, others like Meite, John Swift, Andy Yiadom and Andy Rinomhota have responded really well to the current management.
For me, these players aren't sure-fire successes. If the man-management isn't good enough, they won't improve and fulfill their potential - but if it is, they just might.
It's a long-term process though. For Barrow, and indeed everyone else in the squad set to stay behind the summer, we need that process to continue.
Exciting times indeed.