Reading played out their penultimate pre-season friendly on Wednesday afternoon with a 4-2 victory over Peterborough United. Tyler Blackett opened the scoring from a corner, with Modou Barrow doubling our lead after John Swift played him through on goal. After Posh fought back to 2-2, John Swift restored the Royals’ lead with a thunderous long-range shot into the top corner, with Josh Barrett slotting home to add the cherry on top.
All in all, a great scoreline and morale-booster in a tough pre-season test. Peterborough United were tricky opposition on the day and, judging by their performance, could well be in the Championship before long.
But for me, the most interesting aspect to the game was in how Jose Gomes set his side up tactically. It was a very different approach to the one he favoured in the closing months of last season, and could be the system he wants Reading to use going forwards. First of all, the lineup:
Virginia; Yiadom, Moore, McIntyre, Blackett; Rinomhota, Swift, Barrett, Olise; Barrow, Meite
A quick word on some of those not in that XI. Tennai Watson and Akinwale Odimayo appeared from the bench, Matt Miazga only signed a few hours before kick-off, while fellow signings Charlie Adam and Michael Morrison played against Birmingham City in a behind-closed-doors game earlier in the day. Danny Loader and Jordan Obita warmed up for the Peterborough United game but didn’t appear - and weren’t named in the club’s report as being on the bench.
So, back to that XI - how did it set up?
Working out a team’s exact shape is easier with some sides than others and, in this case, it was often hard to work out who was supposed to play where and what their roles were. That’s not a criticism - fluidity is often good - but it makes things that little bit trickier for us poor football writers.
That being said, I’d loosely describe Reading’s basic formation as something approaching a 4-4-2 diamond. The Royals had a flat back four, one holding midfielder, an attacking one, two midfielders that pushed out wide, and effectively two strikers. To visualise that:
Although Reading played a back four, the full-backs pushed up high. Very high. At one point in the second half, I noted that Yiadom and Blackett were level with the strikers from a goal kick - probably around halfway into Peterborough’s half. That’s a remarkably high starting position for full-backs, and shows just how offensively Gomes is willing to set his team up.
Andy Rinomhota anchored the midfield, sitting very deep in front of the back four, although he sometimes had license to come out from that position to either press the opposition or drive out with the ball at his feet. Could this be a new position for him? He’s previously tended to play slightly higher up in a box-to-box role, for example last season when he was just ahead of deep-lying Lewis Baker.
Rinomhota has the skillset to himself drop deeper and play just in front of the back four on his own, and would do a great job defensively with his strength, energy and tackling. However, on the flipside, putting him there would curtail his attacking instincts, particularly his ability to drive up the pitch with the ball. It’d also deny Reading a more specialist passer in that role - someone like Lewis Baker who can dictate play from deep.
Positioning in the rest of the midfield is a little trickier to work out. I used the 4-4-2 diamond to illustrate Reading’s starting position (from restarts and when defending) but in reality the three most attacking midfielders (Barrett, Swift and Olise) interchanged at will. All three were happy to drop deep to get the ball and also to push into the final third.
I’ve got a few immediate observations for this. Firstly, it’s good that Reading are developing a fluid midfield in which players pop up in different positions. That dynamism not only makes keeping possession and using it effectively easier, but also confuses the opposition, and will therefore be key to breaking down tightly packed defences.
Secondly, the effectiveness of this depends to a large degree on the quality of players Reading have in the midfield. Although there are a fair few youngsters who would fit into this system - like Barrett, Loader, Olise, Holsgrove and East - John Swift is currently the only senior option. If we’re to push ahead with a fluid midfield, we need reinforcements with technical quality.
This setup’s success also depends on our full-backs. It’s all well and good letting the central creative players buzz around the middle of the park to their hearts’ content, but you need a constant threat out wide at the same time. That stretches the play, gives more passing options, and more threat going forwards. It’s vital that Tyler Blackett and Andy Yiadom keep pushing up during games, otherwise Reading’s attacking play will become too centralised and too easy to defend against.
It’s also reassuring that Reading have depth here - mobile full-backs who can push forward and attack. Teddy Howe and Tennai Watson are capable understudies for Yiadom on the right, while Jordan Obita will be a huge boost on the left when he finally returns from injury. Omar Richards may well get a few chances this season, while Ramarni Medford-Smith is one for the future.
Finally, we’re left with what can loosely be described as a ‘strike partnership’, although that’s an oversimplification. Yakou Meite certainly led the line and was constantly the most advanced player, while being supported by Modou Barrow. However, the Gambian had the freedom to pop up in various positions, rather than it being a traditional partnership.
We saw this exact same idea at the end of last season, with Meite loosely supported by Barrow on the few occasions Reading went 3-5-2: Norwich City away (2-2) and Bristol City away (1-1). It worked particularly well in the first of those matches as there was space in behind for those two to attack - as seen in Meite’s opener at Carrow Road.
However, I’m less keen on it in matches like this. When Reading play at home, the forwards will naturally see more of the ball, needing to be patient and bring others into the game rather than always having the space to run at the opposition. That requires a level of technical ability that, for me, Meite and Barrow don’t have, so they’d both be better-suited as wingers or wide forwards.
Again, as with the midfield, Reading need an established option to come into this position before the close of the transfer window. Danny Loader and Andrija Novakovich are both better at linking the play than Meite, but even then we’re left with three very young strikers. A Yann Kermorgant-esque striker - who can hold the ball up reliably in the final third - wouldn’t go amiss.