Yesterday, I looked at the tactics behind the first half of Reading’s 2018/19 campaign. In short, they were inconsistent, reactive, and not tied to any particularly noticeable theme or philosophy. That wasn’t entirely Paul Clement’s fault, but it did nonetheless contribute significantly to the Royals being in a relegation battle.
It’s probably fair to say that we all expected the new man to be much more ideologically pure in the way he’d set up Reading than his predecessor. While Clement never settled on a distinct tactical identity, Jose Gomes’ philosophy was clear even before he arrived: an attacking brand of possession football in a 4-2-3-1 shape.
Working with what he had - the first six games
Putting those ideas into practice was always going to take time, not least due to the personnel Gomes had at his disposal. Reading’s squad had been short on technical ball-players even under Jaap Stam, and that had only got worse under Clement. Gomes, fresh off the boat from Portugal, could only do so much until that changed.
To illustrate that, here’s our last matchday squad of 2018 - the 0-0 draw away to Queens Park Rangers:
Jaakkola; Yiadom, Ilori, O’Shea, Richards; Rinomhota, Swift; McCleary, Aluko, Barrow; Meite
Subs: Mannone, Osho, Meyler, Kelly, Sims, Loader, Bodvarsson.
Gomes would only trust a handful of those 18 players to be regular starters across the rest of the season, while six were shipped out either permanently or on loan (Ilori, Aluko, Mannone, Osho, Meyler and Sims).
Besides that overall change we’ve seen to the squad since December, note the distinct lack of technical personnel - particularly a goalkeeper and centre half who can play out under pressure and (to a lesser but still important extent) ball-playing central midfielders who can use possession effectively. Rinomhota and Swift both went on to do well under Gomes, but at that point badly needed reinforcing.
In hindsight, due to Reading’s January signings mostly coming at the end of the window, Gomes was essentially had six matches in which he had to use the existing squad - rather than a new one that he could customise in the transfer market.
That said, he didn’t waste much time in getting his players used to his style of football. In fact, the Royals had more of the ball than the opposition in each of their first six games under the new boss, including a mighty 60% possession at Old Trafford.
- Millwall (A) - 58%
- QPR (A) - 68%
- Swansea City (H) - 59%
- Man United (A) - 60%
- Nottingham Forest (H) - 56%
- Derby County (A) - 65%
That period saw some encouraging signs, particularly on the road, with Reading bossing possession at QPR, Man United and Derby County (albeit only in the second half). It was clear that the players were buying into what Gomes was trying to achieve and were responding well to his influence. Even Sone Aluko looked like a man reborn before his abrupt loan move to Beijing Renhe.
If Reading were to properly kick on and thrive in the new set-up, the team needed a solid base. Although they had that for a brief time with the energetic, N’Golo Kante-esque Andy Rinomhota, his injury in mid-February put a spanner in the works and left Gomes’ midfield without a natural ball-winner for seven league games (until the very end of March).
The Royals would try a few different solutions in there during that period - Lewis Baker, Ovie Ejaria, John Swift, Liam Kelly, John O’Shea and Ryan East were all used to some extent, but none properly convinced. It wasn’t until Rinomhota’s return in the 2-1 win over Preston that the all-important midfield balance was restored.
Interestingly, another trend emerged in around early March. Reading had only picked up two league wins by that point (from 11 attempts), and a key tactical change was on the way in. After the 1-1 draw with Rotherham, in which the Royals had failed to turn their 55% possession into a crucial six-pointer victory, Gomes’ side would become much more of a counter-attacking unit, only having more of the ball than their opponents in one of their next nine games (the dramatic 3-2 win over Wigan Athletic).
It was certainly pragmatic. Gomes had recognised that more defensively solid, counter-attacking football was the way forward if Reading were to pick up points. From those nine matches came four crucial wins.
Plus, it made the most of some of Jose Gomes’ best players. Defensively, Emiliano Martinez and Matt Miazga allowed the Royals to withstand a lot more pressure from the opposition - in fact, after their debuts in late January, Reading picked up more clean sheets than league losses (five to four).
Offensively, Yakou Meite and Modou Barrow are at their best when they can use their pace, and the move to a more counter-attacking style led to them contributing a combined 12 goals and assists in that nine-game period of reduced possession.
Following the last international break of the season, the final eight games threw a few more interesting ingredients into the tactical mix. Andy Rinomhota’s return for the first of those matches was certainly a key moment, and his availability was key in two new formations that Jose Gomes tried before the campaign was out.
First up was the shift to 4-3-3 for the home win over Brentford. John Swift had played a key role in the Preston victory thanks to a glorious through-ball for Modou Barrow, but was badly missed in the subsequent 3-1 loss at Hull City due to injury. Replacing his creativity - without a similar playmaker in the squad - would be both different and crucially important.
Shuffling the midfield and frontline around to create a 4-3-3 did a few things:
- The increasingly impressive Lewis Baker could stay as a deep-lying playmaker, where could spray the ball around till kingdom come,
- Andy Rinomhota and Ovie Ejaria’s energy and dribbling ability allowed both to drive up and down the pitch - without unwisely shunting either into the number 10 role,
- Lone striker Nelson Oliveira had direct, close support from two forwards (Meite and Barrow) - and the three could swap positions,
- Meite and Barrow playing higher up the pitch meant they could get into dangerous areas that bit quicker - never a bad thing for two in-form attackers
Those factors paid off in an exhilarating attacking opening against Brentford, although the Royals ran out of steam as the game progressed. With Swift out for the season, Gomes returned to the system later on in the campaign, but more so at home.
On the road however, Reading were in need of a killer defensive set-up to snatch unlikely points from trips to Norwich City and Bristol City. Gomes had stubbornly refused to do that for the away match at Sheffield United a few months, and had seen his side thrashed as a result. We couldn’t afford a repeat of that result this late in the season, so in came a new formation for the Gomes era: 3-5-2.
Paul Clement had been in a similar situation back in December with a trip to high-flying Leeds United, and chose to set his side up accordingly. Although his 4-1-4-1 allowed Reading to frustrate Marcelo Bielsa’s team for much of the game (and we really weren’t far away from a point), the Royals didn’t have enough of a threat on the counter.
To rectify that, Gomes kept the same midfield (one deep-lying player behind two box-to-box midfielders) but added an extra body in defence and another up top. Both in the game at Elland Road under Clement and later similarly tough matches under Gomes, Yakou Meite started as a lone striker - but, crucially, the 3-5-2 gave him direct support from Modou Barrow.
A striker who isn’t isolated is a happy striker - and happy strikers score goals. Meite netted first at Carrow Road (from Barrow’s cross) and then at Ashton Gate; no mean feat for a young, relatively inexperienced forward starting up top on his own in tough fixtures.
What do you think of the tactics Reading used in 2018/19? Did any one system particularly impress or annoy you? Tell us in the comments below, or on one of our social media pages.