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Could A Back Three Be The Way Forward For Reading?

The 3-5-2 had promise against Stoke, but would need work if Reading are to make a success of it in future.

Reading v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Veljko Paunovic tried something interesting tactically last time out in the 3-0 defeat to Stoke City: he set Reading up with a back three. Up until that point, Pauno had always used a back four, typically as part of a 4-2-3-1, so switching to a 3-5-2 was an interesting development.

So why did he do it?

Certainly, the surprising nature of the change would have played a part. After all, an unpredictable tactical switch had already paid dividends for Reading; having almost always set his side up in a 4-2-3-1, Pauno used a 4-4-2 diamond/4-3-3 for the trip to Ewood Park a few weeks ago. Pauno’s gamble paid off with a quick start: Blackburn were visibly taken off guard and Reading were 3-1 up at half time.

Similarly, no one would have predicted Reading moving to a 3-5-2 for the Stoke game. If anything, a more conservative version of the familiar 4-2-3-1 looked likely; Pauno had hinted towards putting his side “back to basics” after consecutive defeats.

More specifically, the change in formation allowed Reading to get more bodies in areas where more bodies were needed. A lax defence and an inability to take chances had been problematic in both the Coventry and Preston defeats, so finding a way to add in another centre back and centre forward would have been appealing.

Here’s how the line-up looked on the day:

Much of the central area of that line-up is familiar. Josh Laurent was predictably the deepest of the three, Alfa Semedo again had a role similar to that of a number 10, and Andy Rinomhota seemed to be more of a box-to-box player than his usually defence-focused self. Tomas Esteves and Omar Richards have in recent weeks been pushing higher from a starting full-back position, so making them into fully fledged wing backs essentially gave them more license to do an attacking job they’ve already been getting used to.

It’s at the back and up front where things get a bit more interesting.

Although Michael Morrison is no stranger to playing in the middle of a back three, having done so on numerous occasions last season, there were two unfamiliar faces either side of him. Andy Yiadom has on occasion played on the right of a back three for Reading before, but he’s much more accustomed to a full-back/wing-back role. On the other side, Lewis Gibson was making his first appearance both for Reading and at Championship level.

Yiadom’s presence is the most interesting and the most important here. Firstly, I doubt Pauno would have tried a back three without the option of him as a right-footed central defender - had Yiadom not recovered from injury, Tom McIntyre would have been used, meaning either a) playing left-footers either side of Morrison or b) unbalancing the whole thing by putting Morrison on the right, when he’s better suited to the more defence-focused central role.

Secondly, Yiadom’s experience as an attacking full back meant Reading’s back three could contribute more to build-up play. Having a trio of central defenders, protected by a holding midfielder, allows one of the outside centre backs to push up into midfield at times. Yiadom did that early on against Stoke, creating Semedo’s great early chance with a deep cross, almost setting up George Puscas in similar fashion, and looking on numerous occasions like he wanted to overlap Esteves.

Reading similarly shook things up at the other end of the pitch by not only using a strike partnership, which Pauno has rarely opted for this season, but also more specifically by pairing Lucas Joao with George Puscas. Those two hadn’t started together since the 1-1 draw at Barnsley in late 2019, so playing alongside each other would have taken some getting used to for both players.

Both are much more accustomed to leading the line on their own, although that naturally favours Joao much more than it does Puscas. Even when the latter has been given a strike partner at Reading though, it’s typically been Sam Baldock or Yakou Meite.

That’s important for two reasons. Firstly: Baldock and Meite are very different centre forwards to Joao - they’re more mobile than Joao, although he’s comfortably better at hold-up play, meaning those three make different runs, require different kinds of supply and so on. That’ll naturally mean something different being asked of Puscas depending on who’s next to him.

Secondly: Joao is clearly Reading’s best centre forward - his goal return and performances this season make that obvious. So from Puscas’ point of view, pretty much for the first time at Reading, he was essentially being asked to fit in alongside a senior partner. That’s not necessarily beyond him, but it was still something new for him to get used to.

Reading v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

So how well did the system work?

Let’s first address the elephant in the room: individual mistakes. Defensive errors and an inability to take chances ultimately cost Reading the Stoke game more than the system’s shortcomings did. Although you can argue that any change in system may prompt mistakes by making players that bit less sure of themselves, ultimately, Esteves, Rafael and Gibson all had to do better for their part in the three conceded goals.

Besides that, the new system itself had clear strengths and weaknesses.

Where it succeeded was in allowing Reading early on in the game to dominate possession, win the ball back quickly and keep the game high up the pitch. Before the opener, Reading bossed proceedings in a way they hadn’t managed under Pauno this season; that’s all the more impressive given how this side has often started games slowly.

That dominance came about not only because of the number of bodies Reading had at the back and in midfield, but also the license some of those players had to get forwards. The presence of three centre backs and three central midfielders meant anyone in possession in the Royals’ defensive third or midfield had plenty of passing options around them. Plus, with three centre backs and a holding player in Laurent, the more attacking midfielders (Semedo and Rinomhota) and wing backs (Esteves and Richards) had the freedom to push up and offer themselves as passing options, thereby allowing Reading to play through the lines.

However, where the system predominantly fell down was in its lack of creativity in the final third. Reading had plenty of possession and territory early on, not to mention when chasing the game at 2-0 for the bulk of the second half, but couldn’t translate that into clear-cut opportunities, particularly for Joao and Puscas.

Creating a numerical superiority in your defence and midfield to improve your build-up play is all well and good, but it comes at an offensive cost. Although Semedo’s work rate and movement were excellent early on, he lacked the guile to unlock Stoke when he had the ball at his feet. Reading were crying out for a specialist playmaker like Michael Olise, Ovie Ejaria or John Swift, and although the latter two were injured, the former really should have been used from the off to provide the front two with ammunition.

Pauno understandably didn’t stick with the back three throughout the match, moving to the more familiar back four just after the hour mark, with the Royals 2-0 down. However, introducing Olise, Baldock and later Sone Aluko wasn’t enough to swing the contest in Reading’s favour.

Reading v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

So is that the last we’ll see of the back three?

Probably not, as it’d make sense to stick with it for the next few games. Reading’s next two opponents - Bournemouth and Millwall - regularly line up in a back three, while the third (Bristol City) have done so on numerous occasions this season despite switching to a back four against Cardiff City last time out. Reading matching those sides up, whether sticking with a 3-5-2 or adjusting to something closer to a 3-4-3, should be an effective way of negating them.

However, tweaks would be required if Reading were to iron out the system’s flaws that were evident against Stoke. Although the midfield trio of Laurent/Rinomhota/Semedo provides more defensive stability, swapping one of those players out - probably Semedo - for a better playmaker would add the guile and creativity Reading require.

Adding in Olise and Ejaria (meaning Rinomhota or Laurent would have to make way) would likely leave Reading exposed in the middle of the park; better instead to retain that defensive double pivot and pick just one playmaker. Although I’d prefer Olise for his passing range, which is the best Reading have while Swift is injured, Pauno’s tendency to use him out wide (such as in the Stoke game) suggests to me that he’d opt for Ejaria.

Regardless of who he picks in that position, and in others across the pitch, Reading are certainly much better equipped to play a back three than they have been in recent years as they have the necessary specialists in key positions to make the system a success: a range of right-footed and left-footed options at centre half either side of Morrison, and wing backs with the energy to bomb up and down each flank. In addition, the defensive solidity of the Rino/Laurent pairing means Reading could switch to a 3-4-3 without being overrun in midfield.

The downside is that Reading’s abundance of attacking talent means there are plenty of players in this squad who’d stand to lose if Reading played a back three regularly. Meite, Ejaria and Olise missed out against Stoke and should be in contention for the Bournemouth match, but how do you fit them all into a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 without sacrificing defensive solidity? What about when Swift returns? Having too many attacking options is a nice dilemma, and one that’s redundant whenever the injury list mounts, but it’s still one that Pauno would need to be prepared to deal with.

At the end of the day, it is somewhat ironic that Reading are pondering using a back three under Pauno at all. His predecessor, Mark Bowen, was set on doing so and was well into the process of establishing a possession-oriented system based around a back three when he was relieved of his position as manager a couple of weeks before the start of the league season.

Reading have, in a sense, gone full circle.