Veljko Paunovic couldn’t have had a much better start to life as Reading manager. Four wins from four in the league (which I never get tired of typing), a series of very promising performances, great team spirit and just one goal conceded - it all adds up to a hugely impressing first month or so in the hot seat.
After the first stage of the season, Reading sit level on points and goal difference with Bristol City at the top of the table, and thoughts understandably turn to how long that will last. Do the Royals have what it takes to maintain this fine start and sustain a promotion charge across the full course of the season?
The evidence so far suggests that Reading have built up the foundation to do so. Promotion-winning sides are built on a great team spirit and solid defence, both of which have been on full display throughout this season - even when Reading haven’t been at their best - but particularly so in the impressive 1-0 win over Watford.
On the face of it, Reading had a couple of disadvantages going into that fixture, being without several key players and going up against talented opposition who were only recently in the Premier League. But the Royals’ industry across the pitch and resolve in their own third were outstanding and, ultimately, won the day.
Reading will need more of the same - week in, week out - if they’re to finish in the top six this season. But the stats indicate we’re capable of doing that on a regular basis. The Watford game was the third match in four Championship games this season in which the Royals have only conceded two shots on target. In the other, Reading’s 2-1 win at Cardiff City, that went up to five, which still isn’t too bad.
I’d argue that this team’s defensive record is largely down to where we concede shots. Reading are second from bottom in the division for number of shots allowed from within our own penalty area (44%) and joint top for shots from outside the box (49%). Besides a well-organised back four, that’s also down to the Royals’ energetic double pivot of Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent protecting the backline. In fact, the former is joint sixth in the Championship for tackles per game (3.3).
As a result, Reading boast the joint-best defensive record in the division. Alongside Swansea City and Watford, we’ve conceded just once in four Championship fixtures. Keep that record up and we’ll be in the running for promotion.
However, it’s a mixed picture in the final third. The main problem here is that this side doesn’t create enough overall. Reading have had the fewest shots per game this season with 7.3 - even fewer than Wycombe Wanderers (8) who are yet to score at all, and some way off mid-table (11).
So far that’s not been a problem. Despite the overall lack of shots, only Bristol City (8), Bournemouth (8) and Blackburn Rovers (11) have scored more goals than Reading (7), and we’re a very respectable seventh for shots on target per game (4.3). Although we don’t shoot very often, when we do we tend to hit the target and score.
As with this side’s defensive strength, this is largely explained by shot location. Only Sheffield Wednesday (74%) and QPR (72%) take a higher proportion of their shots from inside the penalty area than Reading (66%). After all, if you’re shooting from closer to the opposition’s goal, you’re more likely to get those shots on target and for them to end up in the net.
It’s also worth noting just how big a role set pieces have played for Reading so far. Of our seven league goals, four of them have come from corners and free kicks - more than any other side in the Championship. Interestingly, the only other teams to have scored more goals from set pieces than open play (Nottingham Forest, Cardiff City, Birmingham City and Rotherham United) are only in that group because they’re yet to score from open play at all.
Being clinical with chances and effective from dead-ball situations are two very good traits and Pauno deserves praise for implementing them so early in the season. Both qualities will need to be continued across the full course of the campaign if Reading are to be in with a real shout of going up.
However, on their own they won’t be enough. The Royals require a much more regular and dependable source of goals than relying on set pieces and converting from their few chances from open play per game. Reading need to shoot much more often and, for that to be meaningful rather than stat-padding by shooting from long range every five minutes, that requirements improvement in open play.
That comes from developing a coherent style of play that can be worked on and refined as the season progresses. As Liam Moore explained in a recent video interview (before the Watford game) with The Sun’s Justin Allen, Pauno has thus far worked on the defence, but he does plan to make improvements going forwards:
“We started from the back and we’re gradually working our way forward. We’re nowhere near the finished article in terms of how he wants us to play, but I believe everybody walks onto the pitch on a Saturday now with full confidence in what the manager expects from you, and over the next coming weeks and months we’re going to continue to work on really perfecting how he wants us to play and trying to win more games in that fashion.”
What exactly “that fashion” means can’t be determined for certain, although we do have some basic clues already. Reading always line up in a 4-2-3-1 and, despite averaging a very mid-table possession rate of 49.8%, our pass completion rate of 80% is the third highest in the division. Plus, similar to recent seasons, Reading make more dribbles than any other team (10.8 per game).
Beyond that, there are plenty of unknowns. Will Pauno want his side to dominate possession? How will new boys Tomas Esteves, Lewis Gibson and Alfa Semedo affect Reading’s build-up play when they’re in the team? To what extent will the system change around specific individuals like John Swift (injured) and Lucas Joao (injury prone)?
It’ll be intriguing to see how those questions are answered, and how Pauno develops his side in the coming months. The next 10 days or so in particular are key in that development as, given the lack of time Pauno’s so far had to work with his players, an extended break from club football is a very useful period for implementing his broader tactical ideas on those players not on international duty.