Rafael; Holmes, Morrison, Moore, Richards; Rinomhota, Laurent; Meite, Olise, Ejaria; Joao
As usual, the opening throes of the game mainly consisted of Reading weathering their opposition’s attempts of trying to exert their influence on the game, spending this period of time having to deal with balls into the box, as Middlesbrough started brightly.
When Reading went forwards themselves, the build-up play at times (mainly in the second half) was extremely slow. However, a key man in speeding up the play and injecting some positivity into the side was Andy Rinomhota. Playing as the right-sided defensive midfielder, his movement forwards and over towards Tom Holmes (so into the spaces between Holmes and Michael Olise) gave the stand-in right back another option for a pass, in addition to the regularly used ball back to Michael Morrison. Drifting into these spaces allowed Holmes to push forwards into the space vacated by the Boro men attempting to stop Rinomhota, allowing him to deliver in a few crosses.
Another tactic that allowed Holmes space on the right was overloading the left wing – Lucas Joao, Olise and an advanced Omar Richards meaning a quick Olise-Rinomhota-Holmes set of passes gave Holmes the space to again put a ball into the box, leading to Olise striking the game’s only shot on target. Both Holmes’ and Richards’ solid displays on the flanks prevented Boro from getting in behind and delivering balls across the box, but unfortunately they weren’t able to get forwards as much as they would’ve liked – there rarely being space to, unless there was quick switch.
Reading knew how difficult it would be to break through Middlesbrough’s midfield, and with the likes of Britt Assombalonga and Chuba Akpom up front, did not want to end up in situations where Middlesbrough were in behind them. So far this season, there haven’t been too many occasions where a team hasn’t resorted to balls into the box and have consistently been in on goal, showing that Reading are no longer susceptible to a counter, not risking too much in their attacks.
The first half was more open, but a few poor passes meant Reading couldn’t take advantage of the gaps in midfield or make the correct decisions when needed (one-twos involving Ejaria and Joao not coming off/the ball not being spread out wide to Richards in space).
One such occasion involved Yakou Meite firing over from around 25 yards out, when a slipped ball into Olise may well have led to the opening goal. Usually, the game opens up and Reading kick on, but a Neil Warnock half-time change of Marvin Johnson replacing Britt Assombalonga made things much harder for the visitors, with Boro far more disciplined (not in every sense) and rigid. This meant that the majority of Reading’s chances from a period when they were on top came early on and, frustratingly, they weren’t able to then replicate this later in the game.
The fewer the chances Reading create though, the fewer conceded, and most of the game was a battle in the middle. This was slightly reflected in three quarters of Boro’s shots coming from outside the box (mainly set plays – 6/8), something Reading are consistently forcing on teams, while 60% of Reading’s also came from more than 18 yards out. This was very much reflected in the average positions of the two sides: only both sides’ full backs were really in wide positions throughout the game. Ejaria and Meite were very central, as well as Marcus Tavernier of Boro. Granted, there was only really one out-and-out winger on the pitch.
In order to increase creativity levels, after Boro again started the half brightly, both Olise (right) and Laurent (left) at times dropped in to the full-back positions, allowing the full backs to push on and so let the creative players do their thing further back (as this was where Reading were mainly in possession of the ball). As well as this, it could possibly have been a ploy to tempt some of Boro’s midfield men out of their positions. This seemingly worked as it allowed Ejaria to drive forwards and fire an attempt narrowly off target (his shooting looking far more dangerous this season).
Olise’s movement to right back and the high positions of the full backs meant that both Ejaria and Meite (the two wide players) could move infield – Ejaria as a central player, always moving around, and Meite as a striker. Ejaria’s movement allowed space for Rinomhota, who played in Ejaria for arguably the game’s best chance. Even more promisingly, both Joao and Meite had made intelligent runs, with Richards pushing forwards into acres of space on the left – Reading looking dangerous, adaptable and extremely fluid in this sequence of play.
Looking resolute in defence, strong from set plays and knowing when to attack, it was a solid performance from Reading on Saturday afternoon. Another Ejaria shot, this time from a recycled set play, saw the game’s last real chance and, as the ball bounced narrowly wide, saw the inevitable 0-0 scoreline confirmed.