Last season was arguably one of the most interesting campaigns, tactically at least, in quite a while. With Reading struggling to stay in the division, managers Paul Clement, Scott Marshall and Jose Gomes used a variety of systems and formations in an attempt to turn our fortunes around - to varied levels of success.
Across this piece and another one tomorrow, I’ll be looking back at some of the key tactical themes that defined Reading’s season. It’s by no means a comprehensive account - that’d take too long - and I’m sure a lot of it is highly subjective. Without further ado, we start all the way back in August 2018.
Back to the basics
Although Paul Clement had inherited a Reading side that typically played 4-3-3 under his predecessor, Jaap Stam, over the course of pre-season he moved to something different: a fairly straightforward 4-4-2. Hardly the most progressive of formations, yes, but on the face of it, the two banks of four and strike partnership up top had the potential to be functionally effective.
The summer recruitment - particularly the new strikers - suggested that Clement had been working towards that 4-4-2 throughout pre-season. Sam Baldock and Marc McNulty had both done well in promotion-winning sides which played that formation - Baldock at Brighton and Hove Albion in 2016/17, and McNulty at Coventry City in 2017/18. However, both needed a big target man to play off (Baldock and Glenn Murray, McNulty and Maxime Biamou) - rather than being able to partner each other.
Plus, the 4-4-2 system as a whole left Reading far too open in the midfield. The two-man combination in the middle of the park was even more important to the system’s success than the two up top, and Paul Clement didn’t have the personnel to make it work. David Meyler partnered Liam Kelly for the first five matches of the season (Leandro Bacuna replaced Kelly for the sixth) and, without an extra body to help them, the midfield was too lightweight.
With no wins in six matches, and only three goals from open play, the system was scrapped. Side note - David Meyler’s six league starts for Reading all came in that period. When 4-4-2 went out the door, so did he.
Bulking up the midfield
Paul Clement changed things up after the international break by adding an extra midfielder into the team. It paid off immediately, with Reading securing their first league win of the season with a 3-2 triumph at Preston North End. Perhaps ironically, it was a midfielder that got the goal; Leandro Bacuna converting in front of the away end after making a late charge into the box.
The next few games should have been the start of something better for Reading. With the arrival of Saeid Ezatolahi on loan from Rostov at the end of August, the Royals had a tough-tackling defensive midfielder capable of screening the back four and giving aerial cover. That allowed the energetic Bacuna and creative John Swift to push on in a new-look 4-1-4-1 formation, spearheaded by red-hot goalscorer Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, that secured a 3-0 win over Hull City and 2-2 draw at then-high-flyers Brentford.
However, it wasn’t to be. Ezatolahi would only make four starts before injury struck in October, while the same fate befell Bodvarsson just before the 1-0 defeat to Queens Park Rangers at home. It left Reading in desperate need of a new energetic central midfielder and someone else to start scoring goals.
A quick side note: West Brom away
The trip to The Hawthorns in early October was the perfect example of a terrific tactical ploy that only worked for 45 minutes - but it deserves praise nonetheless. West Brom had been on fire up until then (they’d go on to get into the playoffs), so fears of Reading being battered were widespread.
Paul Clement’s decision to match up the Baggies’ 3-5-2 man for man worked a treat for the first half though, with the Royals beating and outplaying their hosts until the break. Although our fortunes soon turned around in the second half, the first had shown how tactically aware Clement could be.
End of side note.
A sign of things to come
The final eight games of the Paul Clement era saw the Royals again flailing around in search of a clear tactical identity. Reading survived an aerial barrage from Millwall in the deepest of deep blocks in a 3-1 win at the Mad Stad, returned to 4-1-4-1 for a few games (this time with Kelly as the anchor, Bacuna and Andy Rinomhota pushing on) and tried a particularly weird, incoherent, narrow 4-3-3 at Wigan Athletic.
To be fair to Clement, there were some decent ideas in there, and he almost pulled off a tactical masterstroke at Elland Road with a highly organised defensive performance, only for Leeds United to nick a 1-0 win. However, his ultimate failure to find an effective system, settle on it and stick with it is one of the main reasons he was ultimately sacked in early December - even if his job wasn’t made any easier by an under-performing, unbalanced squad.
He did leave a positive legacy though in the development of two players that would go on to be some of the club’s best performers across the course of the whole season: Yakou Meite and Andy Rinomhota.
It was around this time that the idea of Yakou Meite as the leading striker seemed to properly emerge. In the absence of target man Bodvarsson, the Ivorian was trusted with a run of games up top, and repaid that faith by contributing seven goals in Clement’s final eight matches. Similarly, Rinomhota cemented his place in the first team at around the same point. After 78 minutes against Bristol City and 45 against Ipswich Town, he would go on to play the full 90 in every match for the rest of the season - excluding a seven-game period of injury between February and March.
Although they’re both cases of player development rather than tactical choices, the game time, form and confidence that Rinomhota and Meite experienced in the final days of the Clement era helped set them up for success further down the line.
The short-lived Scott Marshall era
Although there isn’t too much that can be said about the forgettable three games Reading played under the management of under-23s boss Scott Marshall, there are a few observations to be made.
Tactically, he went back to a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 that was reminiscent of the earliest stage of the season but for one key change: the two central midfielders (Bacuna and Rinomhota) were the right fit for a two-man midfield. Both had the energy and physicality to give Reading presence in the middle of the park, in contrast to the much less effective partnership of Kelly and Meyler seen before.
In terms of personnel, there weren’t many changes that could be made due to injuries, but debuts being handed to two academy players (Tom McIntyre and Gabriel Osho) were solid morale boosts for a dispirited fanbase.
Tomorrow, I’ll move onto what we’ve seen so far from Jose Gomes. Despite having only been here for a few months, there’s still been plenty to learn about him tactically.