‘Jose Gomes’ and ‘possession’ pretty much go hand in hand. The manager, who’s fast approaching his year anniversary as Reading manager, has a reputation for wanting his sides to keep the ball, something that’s well illustrated by his six-month spell at Rio Ave.
By the time he swapped Portugal for England, Rio Ave side were third in the division for overall possession (55.6%) and completed more of their passes than any other team (82.6%). The fact that he achieved that in half a year or so is commendable, and certainly shows his commitment to that style of football.
It’s what we were expecting to see at Reading and, true to form, Gomes told his new players to keep the ball as soon as he arrived. The Royals had most of the ball in each of their first half-dozen games under Gomes, including a whopping 68% at QPR, 65% at Derby County, and an impressive 60% at Old Trafford in the FA Cup.
However, Gomes soon changed his mind. In the Spring, Reading became far more comfortable without the ball, sitting back and hitting the opposition on the counter rather than dominating games themselves through possession. After the 1-1 draw against Rotherham United at home, the Royals had less of the ball than the opposition in eight of their next nine matches.
That reeked of pragmatism. Reading needed points, not possession, and a tactical switch for the sake of doing whatever was necessary to keep the club in the Championship was a wise choice. Ultimately, it worked.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in expecting Gomes to change his mind again in the summer. After all, it was his first pre-season at Reading and a good chance to get his players used to playing possession football. That seemed to be his philosophy - not only because of his time at Reading, but also because of what he said outright. As he told Marc in our podcast interview with him in late March:
“The most important thing is winning. And find the best way to find a goal. I prefer to control the game with the ball because, if your team is able to do it, they can have fast players, strong players, tall players, small players. For us, doesn’t care, doesn’t matter, because we have the ball.”
Fast-forward to today though, and the story has played out to a different script. Although Reading are the fifth-best team in the Championship for passing accuracy (80.5%), our overall possession rate is distinctly mid-table; 50.3% puts us 15th in the division. A reasonable conclusion would be that, although Jose Gomes still wants his side to be able to move the ball around precisely for the most part, Reading don’t have a specific aim of controlling matches by dominating possession.
Interestingly, there’s been a clear correlation between Reading’s formation and how much of the ball we have. Having registered possession rates of 59% and 64% when playing a back four against Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City respectively, the Royals then moved to a back three. After a 52-48 split against Cardiff City - hardly an overwhelming margin - Reading’s possession was 41% at West Bromwich Albion, 34% at Huddersfield Town and 50% at home to Charlton Athletic.
Looking more broadly, Reading’s summer recruitment would support the theory that moving away from possession football has been some time in the making - and not just a result of the move to a back three. Looking at the first-team players that the club has brought in over the last few months, few jump out as obvious ball players.
To take a few examples, Michael Morrison is more of a no-nonsense centre back, Ovie Ejaria dribbles far more often than playing intricate passes, while Lucas Joao and George Puscas are out-and-out forwards rather than technical strikers who’ll drop off to link the play.
Most notable is the failure to directly replace Lewis Baker. The Chelsea man was a highly influential deep-lying playmaker in his time on loan, but Reading opted to fill his spot in the team with Pele - a more physical protector for the defence but seemingly less adept technically.
The end result is that we’re left with a squad that isn’t as comfortable at keeping possession and expressing itself with the ball as you’d expect for a team managed by a supposedly possession-favouring manager. That’s not a problem per se, but it would suggest a clear tactical adjustment from Gomes.
And yet, perhaps not. In his pre-match chat with the local media before the trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday, Gomes said:
“I’m very pleased with our away form - just the Hull result was bad. The players have been very strong defensively. There are small details we must improve though. I don’t like seeing my team without the ball so we must improve this.”
(Emphasis mine, not Gomes’).
Is that a general point about him being annoyed when Reading don’t have the ball, or a more specific tactical point? Ultimately, we’ll only know more as the season unfolds. However, given that we’ve just come out of a two-week international break - a key period for Gomes to drill ideas into his squad - clear answers about our tactical direction should be imminent.