Rafael; Gibson, Moore, Morrison, Holmes; Laurent, Rinomhota; Ejaria, Olise, Aluko, Semedo
In spite of injuries to Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite and George Puscas, Reading decided not to field Sam Baldock from the start this time out – instead opting for a front four of Sone Aluko, Ovie Ejaria, Alfa Semedo and Michael Olise. Despite the obvious pitfalls from having no recognised striker on the pitch, Reading looked a lot more impressive than I was personally expecting.
Although they did not create too many clear-cut chances (only one shot really testing the Norwich keeper, bar the goal), intelligent movement allowed all four to constantly switch positions and overload the flanks. With Semedo starting as the ‘striker’, the big man was able to run the channels on either wing while also moving across and linking up with the central attacking midfielder and corresponding winger.
The Royals’ wide players’ ability to cut in inside and overload the central areas was also helped by the high press and eagerness to get forwards from both Lewis Gibson and Tom Holmes. Off the ball, both Aluko and Ejaria (the men who were most often on the wings) needed to make sure that their respective full backs were not doubled up on by Josh Martin and Emiliano Buendia, and their full backs Jacob Sorensen and Max Aarons. Aarons in particular though was not utilising his pace and making runs in behind too often, due to the home side being more than happy to sit off Norwich while applying pressure Birmingham-esque.
Aarons regularly decided to cut inside (something that works well for Norwich when breaking teams down), winning a penalty in the second period. Due to there being no Reading midfielder close enough to the space just infield from the full back, as well as Gibson’s bodyweight being shifted in the wrong direction by the clever touch from the crossfield ball and subsequent dart inwards, Reading were made to pay.
But in the first period, thanks to the positioning and numerical superiority in bodies moving over to apply pressure, Aarons struggled to have an impact. Instead, he decided to use the width, with both he and Stiepermann creating half chances for Pukki to divert onto Rafael’s fingertips.
Come the second period, that ball zipped over to Aarons came from the feet of substitute Todd Cantwell. Cantwell replaced young winger Josh Martin on the Canaries’ left flank and, as a natural central player rather than out-and-out winger, decided to drop back slightly rather than enter a tussle with Holmes. This enabled the left back Sorensen to get forwards, something that was not as easy to do in the first half due to Aluko dropping back and helping Holmes with defensive duties.
Cantwell then was able to draw over the midfielders and the overload of the left-hand side meant that both Rinomhota and Laurent were on this left flank (from a Norwich point of view), leaving Gibson isolated on the Royals’ left. This overload and then sudden switch of play afforded Aarons the space to create danger (even if he did dive in the box).
The image below shows Todd Cantwell on the ball in a central area, with both Rino and Laurent on the left flank. Max Aarons, out of shot, was wide right and slipped into the large gap between Gibson and Moore to win the penalty.
In general, Rinomhota and Laurent both showed superb energy, Laurent in particular showing his offensive prowess with driving runs into the channels. This can only really occur when one of them pushes up with the other sitting back, and also usually involves the wide players staying back slightly, creating spaces for Laurent and also able to fill in the gaps left over (along with Moore). Out of the partnership of Moore and Morrison, Moore is certainly the one who would push forwards into these spaces and challenge for the ball before potentially taking it forwards, with Morrison the one to sit deep.
Up top, Semedo would drop in from the striker position to plug the gaps and not allow Buendia space to create. As well as Cantwell, Buendia enjoys playing in the middle and regularly drifts into these areas, giving Norwich a fluidity not too dissimilar to the Royals’. The main difference between the sides was in this striking position and, after Semedo had been replaced by Baldock, Reading’s goal threat actually reduced.
Although Baldock was pressurising the defence and goalkeeper with another tireless performance, while urging his midfield to push up, no Semedo (added to tired legs) meant the gaps in the middle of the park were opening up and allowing Norwich longer and more frequent periods of possession, the visitors creating more dangerous chances as well (from this central area – previously, only some half chances from crosses, plus the gift of their first goal really troubled Reading, with nothing much coming from the packed centre). Norwich’s tactical changes and classy football punished Reading, the Canaries ending the game in a strong manner.
Finally, the first 10 minutes showcased what Reading still need to learn this season. Against a side who lack physicality (apart from at centre back), playing around the back creates unnecessary pressure. Admittedly, the out ball to Joao/Meite was not on but, with Semedo up top and Holmes and Gibson pushing forwards to win headers on the flanks Meite-esque, Reading certainly had a plan B.
Their best bet was actually from counter-attacks, rather than trying to build up play, whereas Norwich were primarily building from the back and so, when under Royals pressure in the second part of the first half, had to simply weather the storm – with no out ball and Reading winning the ball back in those dangerous midfield areas where Josh Laurent usually operates in, the Royals were not allowing City to counter and were applying waves of pressure.
In terms of the Laurent point, when Reading usually counter, Josh is the one who creates the attacks on the edge of the Royals’ penalty box, shouldering the pressure of the fact that if he were to lose the ball, the opposition would be right back on top of them.
As the Canaries were struggling to get out and Oliver Skipp (another man who likes to drop in between the defenders) failing to fulfil this role, they resorted to hoofing it clear, thanks to the workmanlike performances yet again of Laurent and Rinomhota and the turnovers they were making – encapsulating the effort and intensity the Royals put into a performance full of pride.