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Midweek Musings: Strange Positional Choices, Esteves Excitement

Ross assesses Pauno’s reluctance to play square pegs in square holes and explains why he likes watching Esteves play.

Reading v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images

The long-term efficacy of Pauno’s strange positional choices

When Paunovic let slip that “we don’t need to worry about formations”, it felt as though he was saying the quiet part out loud. While the confirmation is nice, most Reading fans could see that Pauno wasn’t interested in fitting square pegs into square holes from the moment he brought Tom McIntyre on for Yakou Meite against Cardiff, and then proceeded to play him behind the striker.

Please understand here: there’s nothing wrong or remarkable about switching a defensive for an offensive player while defending a lead. Usually however, you expect to see the formation change to reflect that defensive switch, but Paunovic seems happy to leave that defensive player in the position the attacker vacated. McIntyre playing in the traditional number nine role this season certainly wasn’t on my Reading FC bingo list for the 2020/21 season!

It does seem to me though that we’re seeing the beginning of a pattern with Paunovic that yielded mixed results during earlier stops in his career.

Being a pragmatic manager who wants to adjust their starting line-up based on the strengths of the opposition, or substitute a player into an unfamiliar position onto the pitch in order to disrupt the opposition’s attack, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Olly wrote a great article on this site about why this could all come good a few months ago. Since then, at least one victory has been partly earned through changing the formation: changing to something more akin to a 4-4-2 diamond against Blackburn helped us get off to a roaring start that secured the three points.

On paper then, there’s nothing wrong with Paunovic being pragmatic. What worries me though is that formational and preferred position inconsistency made up a large percentage of the complaints and warnings of Chicago Fire fans. Most infamously, when Paunovic was blessed in Chicago with Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the best midfielders of his generation, he decided that CB would be the most appropriate position. It didn’t stop there either as this list shows, and Chicago fans clearly felt Pauno’s decisions to play players out of position began to cost them points.

SOCCER: JUN 28 MLS - Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To me, Alfa Semedo’s position in the team over the few weeks before the break has been the biggest indicator of Pauno’s urge to recast players. Semedo was billed as a defensive midfielder, and yet he’s played the majority of his game time in our attacking three behind the striker. Occasionally, it’s worked, and I’ve spoken in this column before about his performance against Blackburn. Oftentimes though, I’ve felt that Semedo’s control in tight areas and vision for a pass have let him down, and these are two crucial features I’d expect from our attacking players. I’m not sure that we definitively know Semedo’s best position in the team yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s not where he’s been played so far.

It would be unfair to not mention that injuries have played a significant role in Paunovic’s team selections so far, and Semedo himself is likely to lose his position in the team once we have a healthy Ovie Ejaria, Meite and eventually John Swift. I don’t think we can chalk all of Pauno’s positional flexibility up to injuries though, as his manic team sheet against Stoke showed.

Presented with a returned-from-injury Andy Yiadom, Paunovic immediately added him to his team as a CB in a three. Admittedly, McIntyre’s seeming lack of pace was exposed against Preston North End, and perhaps Paunovic wanted to avoid having him steward one side of the field against pacey wing play. I’m just not sure that playing a full back there in his first game back from injury was the solution.

If Reading can get back to winning ways, none of this will matter. Players will be desperate to make an impression and stay in the team, even if they have to accommodate a positional tweak in order to keep their place. I do however think it’s worth keeping an eye on an issue that clearly bothered fans of Paunovic’s previous club. For better or worse, I think we can expect to see this continue throughout the season, and we can only hope that Paunovic is right when he says “we don’t need to worry about formations”!

Esteves excitement

Like many Reading fans, I was relieved to see Yiadom’s name return to the team sheet over the last week before the international break. Yiadom is one of those players who came out of the dark relegation battling years with his head held high, still praised as one of the best full backs in the division.

If Reading return to their 4-2-3-1 formation after the break then, and Yiadom is holding down the right side of the defense, I’ll be more than content. That said, I haven’t half enjoyed watching Esteves since his arrival.

With Yiadom out and no experienced RB available after Chris Gunter’s departure, Reading started the season with something of a carousel at right back. First, we saw the reemergence of perpetual nice guy Felipe Araruna (I don’t actually know if he’s nice, but Tim Dellor really wants you to know that he is) from the depths of Reading’s squad. He lasted three games and put in remarkably solid performances for a midfielder playing at RB, before injury put his season on hold. Next, Tom Holmes made his first appearances since Jaap Stam’s reign, out of position on the right. Again, Holmes didn’t do much wrong and proved that he wasn’t totally out of his depth at Championship level.

Still though, when Esteves arrived from Porto to cries of despair from Porto fans, it felt like we were finally seeing a solution arrive to our issues at RB. And regardless of his liability for our leaky defence over the last three games, I’ve had a lot of fun watching Esteves play. Perhaps it’s his flowing locks that have me reminded of a South American team from the 90s that make him stand out, but for me, Esteves’ flair on the field may outdo the flair on his noggin!

Reading v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

Esteves buzzes up and down the right wing and shows serious attacking intent every time he’s involved in the play. I wouldn’t necessarily say that he’s one of the fastest full backs I’ve ever seen, but he’s incredibly alert and agile and this seemingly allows him to be a half second ahead of the pace when Reading are on the attack. Whether he’s making buzzing runs off the ball or moving it forward himself, Esteves is always giving the opposition full back something to think about, and his quick feet make for great watching. He’s a player who’s looking to pull his defender out of position and work with the vacated space as quickly as possible, and that can only be a good thing moving forward.

He’s certainly not a complete player yet. His crossing still leaves something to be desired, I’d like him to release the ball a little sooner in many cases, and he does occasionally bring the ball too central after starting out on the wing. His promise and talent however are obvious. I would be very surprised if we’re able to hold onto Esteves for more than one season, but I feel very grateful that we’re getting to peek in on the development of a clearly special player.

As I stated, if the 4-2-3-1 is back against Bournemouth this weekend, Esteves is on the bench and Yiadom lines up on the right side, then RB will not be the position I feel least confident in. Yiadom is a brilliant Championship full back on his day. Still, after starting the season on a carousel of out-of-position players at RB, it’s good to know that not only is Esteves offering us something a little different, he’s giving us depth at the position.