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Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Michael Robinson argues that strategic changes at Reading will be for little if the underlying culture that prompted a collapse at Bournemouth doesn’t change.

AFC Bournemouth v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

The ball is slid through the defence by David Brooks, Arnaut Danjuma slips past Tomas Esteves and takes a touch, shoots across Rafael and into the bottom corner. It’s a good goal with some great skill - particularly by Brooks; it also sums up Reading in the last four games, and maybe even the last two seasons.

As a goal, it could have been avoided - at least two Reading players made mistakes in the build-up; it also happened less than two minutes after they’d conceded the first goal. In isolation it’s a one-off, in context it’s a pattern that shows Reading’s frailties in sharp contrast.

Reading have gone from the best defensive record in the country over the first seven games to the worst over the last four. Individual errors from the back five have cost Reading four goals over the last four games - when we identify individual error we are describing unforced errors rather than mistakes when being beaten by skill or speed. Reading conceded no goals due to individual errors in the first seven games. Liam Moore’s absence was a significant blow for the defensive strategy, but this is a symptom of the illness rather than the illness itself.

They’ve also begun to concede goals in batches - they’re like Pringles - one goes and the next one will soon follow. Against Bournemouth? Two in two minutes. Against Preston? Two in four minutes. Against Stoke? Two in 12 minutes. Diagrams of game flow by @analytics1871 show that, once the first goal goes in, Reading are unable to find solutions to the problems that football matches pose.

The ability to solve these problems or come back positively from adversity has a name: resilience. Reading’s inability to react positively when they concede or to solve problems that opposition players pose show that Reading currently lack resilience. Therefore, this isn’t a problem with the system or with the manager. A cursory look at the results from the last two seasons shows this. Reading have had a problem with this since the playoff final in 2017.

Frustratingly for fans, this doesn’t come with a simple fix. The phrase ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ might come from business, but when you look at Reading’s results and the way that they’ve lost games, it’s clear that strategic changes are as useful as changing the deck chairs on the Titanic.

That’s not to say that this season is doomed to end in failure - the first seven games were excellent and well needed, but the last four games have been as awful as the first seven were good. Sadly though, it’s probably Reading finding their average and reverting to the mean. Small sample sizes have tricked people before and will do again - maybe even in this case. If Reading finish this season in mid-table, most would have called that a success in September.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that instilling resilience into a young side and changing the culture of a club which has been mediocre at the Championship level for a while now isn’t going to be easy. Particularly when the attempted solution for the last two years has been to change the manager and hope for the best.

Maybe the first seven games weren’t Reading finding a way out of the wilderness, but merely turning a small corner. It’s probably going to take a bigger change to completely leave the wilderness behind.