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Reading And Narrow Formations: It’s In Vogue

Jose Gomes employs something of a 5-1-2-2, with the wingbacks providing width. He’s not the only one embracing narrow formations.

Reading v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Believe it or not, Garath McCleary is still on the books of Reading FC. He’s still paid by the club, trains at their training ground, and teammates still love him. Jose Gomes does not. But it’s nothing personal - he simply has no need of an out-and-out winger in his tactical system.

It’s why he was happy to send Modou Barrow - arguably The Royals’ best player in the past couple of seasons - on loan to Turkey. Adrian Popa is gone, Callum Harriott was released and Yakou Meite has been converted into a centre forward. If Steve Coppell or Brian McDermott were to rejoin Reading, they would be adding wingers to their shopping list immediately.

Why no wingers?

There aren’t any wingers because Jose Gomes’ favoured formation is a 4-2-2-2. Similar to the standard 4-4-2, it involves a back four, a double pivot in midfield, and two strikers. It differs in that it doesn’t have wingers or wide midfielders getting chalk on their boots, but rather has two advanced midfielders playing in behind the strikers. They roam, find space and push forward to support the strikers.

Because of defensive vulnerabilities early on, Jose Gomes made a subtle tweak to the system and dropped a deep midfielder for an additional centre back. His preferred 4-2-2-2 became a 5-1-2-2, but the narrow positioning of attacking players remained.

Which begs the question: where does the width come from? The Tilehurst End has answered that before: Jose Gomes expects his wingbacks to make constant overlapping runs to drag defenders wide. Doing this means the team can pack the midfield and overload the opposition in the centre.

Reading aren’t the only side playing narrow formations

Reading are not unique in employing a narrow formation. Clubs all over Europe are doing it in an effort to squeeze the middle of the pitch as much as possible.

If we cast our eyes to the top tier of English football, we see the likes of Wolves, Sheffield United and Southampton employing a back three formation and a striking duo up top. Even Tottenham Hotspur have employed a midfield diamond in the past six months. Wolves and Saints use traditional wingbacks, while The Blades have what are being called ‘overlapping centre backs’, the outside defenders who run wide of the wingbacks, who tuck inside to give them space to maraud into. The point remains: these sides position their attackers in the centre third of the pitch.

Head onto the continent and we find even more sides using narrow formations. In Germany, Leipzig have been using a 4-2-2-2 for a number of years (as detailed below), while their new coach, Julian Nagelsmann, used a 3-5-2 at his previous club, Hoffenheim.

In Italy, a number of teams have made good use of a back three, narrow formation over the years. Teams like Juventus, Lazio and Atalanta have all regularly used three centre backs and wingbacks to provide the width. Sampdoria have done so well in recent years under Marco Giampaolo, using a 4-3-1-2, after AC Milan hired him to replace the departing Gennaro Gattuso.

Even in Spain, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid play a flat 4-4-2. However, the wide midfielders in the midfield quadruplet aren’t traditional wingers, but more wide playmakers given license to roam more centrally. Valencia and Villarreal have played similarly in recent years.

Plenty of top sides across Europe not using narrow formations are adopting strategies to congest the middle of the pitch. Liverpool play a nominative 4-3-3, but Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane make runs from outside to in, and with Roberto Firmino dropping deep to link play you could argue Liverpool play a 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 hybrid. Bayern Munich have, until this summer, played with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben playing as ‘inverted’ wingers, cutting in on their stronger sides and running to the centre.

Somewhat contrarily, it seems one of the few sides using out-and-out wingers at the very top level of the game recently is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, whose wingers stay wide and get in behind to cut the ball back to onrushing midfielders and forwards. Even that is changing this season though, as we see more of Riyad Mahrez or Bernardo Silva cutting in and roaming centrally.

Why?

I’m not a coach, I’m not a footballer, but I do watch football. I do read, and I do have a brain (of sorts). More and more sides are congesting the middle of the pitch for a couple of key reasons.

Manchester City FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League
Guardiola ushered in the era of possession football. This has had a domino effect on football tactics
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Firstly, the emphasis on possession football since Guardiola’s peak Barcelona side has dominated European football. This meant coaches then had to find a way to prevent teams from monopolising possession and playing through them. Packing four midfielders into the middle of the pitch gives teams wanting to dominate the ball a much harder task, and makes the game scrappy.

Secondly, the emphasis on pressing means that coaches want their players closer together to be able to ‘hunt’ in packs when the ball is lost. If your players are spread out all over the pitch, it means players have further to run to close the ball down, hence why many sides play a high line and narrow formation, to congest the pitch as much as possible and try to win the ball back.

It’s a far cry from Steve Coppell’s legendary 106 team, featuring two out-and-out wingers and a flat 4-4-2, but Jose Gomes is ushering in a very different era at the Madejski Stadium. After seven points added to the tally in one week, and a few nasty shocks dished out to opposition fans, it looks like The Royals following the one of the latest tactical trends is working wonders. Long may it continue.