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Further Reading: Tackling The Royals’ Defensive Strength

Jose Gomes’ side had to withstand a lot of pressure, but solidity at the back won the day.

West Bromwich Albion v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

There’s just something immensely satisfying about a win with a clean sheet, especially when it comes on the road. Of course, it’s not something we’ve been accustomed to in recent years, with Reading’s 2-0 triumph at Huddersfield Town the first such result since the 1-0 win at Leeds United in October 2017.

In fact, Reading had only managed four away victories with clean sheets since New Year’s Day 2017 (before Saturday). The other three occasions: 2-0 at Birmingham City, 2-0 at Sheffield Wednesday and 1-0 at Birmingham City. Getting back into the habit of being able to grind out defensively solid results away from home takes some doing, but it must be done if we’re to compete higher up the Championship in future.

However, we can tentatively suggest that Reading are making steps in the right direction. The switch to a back three and decision to replace Joao Virginia with Rafael Cabral between the sticks have resulted in two clean sheets in the last three matches, with the only goal conceded coming via the penalty spot at West Bromwich Albion.

Saturday’s win at Huddersfield was the latest sign of that defensive resilience, even if the Royals had to fight just to stay in the game for large spells.

All stats below come from WhoScored.

Under pressure

The opening 20 minutes on Saturday were really rough for Reading. Huddersfield Town’s aggressive high press, coupled with a fine ability to keep the ball themselves, meant we barely had a sniff of possession, with the Royals instead boxed in while the Terriers probed for weaknesses.

In fact, we didn’t make our first pass of the afternoon until six minutes in, by which point the home side had made 53. By the 20th minute, the tally had gone to 138-19; the Terriers’ Jaden Brown making more passes (20) than all of Reading’s team put together. The touch map (176 for Huddersfield on 20 minutes, 48 for us) makes for similarly bad viewing, with Gomes’ side barely getting into the opposition’s half.

Reading are in blue, shooting from right to left.

And yet, you’ll notice that Huddersfield managed just two shots during that period (shown by the orange lines on the graphic), both coming from range via Alex Pritchard. In truth though, only the higher effort looked like troubling our goal, with the lower one being a free-kick that was whacked straight into the wall.

The half would continue in a similar pattern, albeit with Reading gradually clawing back some control of the game. The scores on the doors at the break: 425 touches to 219 in favour of Huddersfield and 328 passes to 127, but just five shots for the Terriers, none of which were on target. Lucas Joao was the only player to test the opposition keeper in the opening 45, forcing a save out of Kamil Grabara from range.

Restricting the opposition’s ability to get shots on target was nothing new on Saturday though. Having allowed seven in the 3-0 win over Cardiff City at home, Reading only shipped four at West Bromwich Albion (including the penalty) before Huddersfield managed their two of the day in the second half.

Plus, both of those shots on target came from outside the box. Of the other eight shots Huddersfield Town took on the day, four were off target (two inside the box, two outside), and four were blocked (two inside the box, two outside), while all efforts from ‘top shooter’ Pritchard (four) were from range.

Despite the Terriers’ early dominance, Reading stayed solid at the back - the crucial reason why we came away from the John Smith’s Stadium with three points.

How do Reading stay so defensively resolute?

You can’t get away from how important the switch in formation has been, with the Royals now essentially defending with a back five and three-man midfield - of which one player (Pele) is explicitly there to break up the play. Making sure the set-up is properly organised is of course vital though, and the newly introduced Michael Morrison at the heart of the back three is key.

Having three centre backs often meant that Reading had a spare man defensively, but that allowed one of the trio to step up out of the backline and help the midfield where appropriate. Watch how first Morrison then Miazga push out in the build-up to one of Pritchard’s efforts.

Pritchard gets a shot away
Reading FC on YouTube

Even when both Morrison and Tom McIntyre were sucked into the same challenge later on, again allowing Pritchard in on goal, the third centre-back (Moore) is free to come across and cut out the danger.

Pritchard doesn’t get a shot away
Reading FC on YouTube

However, it’s also worth highlighting the hard work that’s being done higher up the pitch in protecting the back three. Reading attempted an impressive 28 tackles on Huddersfield (78% successful), but only five came from centre backs - two for Moore and three for McIntyre, but one of McIntyre’s came near the corner flag up the other end.

Crucially, the players that came out best for attempted challenges were those in more advanced positions: Omar Richards (four), Pele (four), Ovie Ejaria (five) and, perhaps most eye-catchingly, Lucas Boye - who dropped deep from his position in support of Lucas Joao to put in seven.

As you can see from the graphic below, a large proportion of our tackles were put in some distance away from our goal, typically protecting the left side of the pitch where Pritchard was generally operating, with only six attempted in or around our penalty box. Again, Reading are shooting from right to left.

Reading’s attempted tackles at Huddersfield

For context, a pretty high proportion of Huddersfield’s 26 tackles were made by their back four (11) or the double pivot in front of the defence (10), while the front four only put in four challenges - a stark contrast that highlights the work-rate of our own supporting striker, Lucas Boye.

With Reading making plenty of tackles in the midfield, the back three is well-protected, and can afford to mop up danger rather than being overly exposed. In fact, Morrison didn’t need to attempt a single tackle against Huddersfield Town, having only put in one against West Brom on Wednesday.

Stray thoughts

  • If Michael Morrison can continue scoring from set pieces, Reading will gain a crucial extra attacking element. We only managed two set-piece goals from centre backs last season: Liam Moore at home to Sheffield Wednesday and Tiago Ilori at Preston North End (the first away win of the season as it happens).
  • The former Birmingham City captain looked particularly delighted with his goal, and lapped up the love of the travelling support. He’d already spoken in the week about the connection with the fans.
  • Staying solid defensively isn’t easy when you have to sub off a key player early on, but Reading coped admirably with the loss of Matt Miazga to injury. Tom McIntyre came on and looked right at home in a contest that demanded concentration and discipline. My McIntyre highlight was a crunching challenge by the corner flag in front of the away end when Reading’s corner had gone all the way over. Read Harry’s piece on the youngster here.
  • I’ve barely mentioned Ovie Ejaria in this piece, but he popped up with another well-taken goal on Saturday. After telling him to shoot more in this Further Reading column last week, he’s done just that in consecutive games - and scored on both occasions.