Guest writer Sébastien Chapuis is a full-time under-19 coach for Stade Lavallois and has a UEFA A qualification, and has given tactical analysis as a TV pundit in France for Canal+ and RMC Sport. He’s recently been following Reading due to an interest in both French youth talent Michael Olise and Veljko Paunovic - coach of Serbia’s under-20 team in 2015, which he calls “one of the most drilled teams I’ve ever seen at this level”.
What happened in the opening half hour of Brentford-Reading? Were Reading really « all over the place » or was there a deliberate defensive strategy to cause Brentford a deal of trouble? And ultimately, what exactly made it not work out as expected?
Brentford were set up in a 4-3-3 with Janelt at the base of midfield, with Da Silva roaming in the right side ahead of him, and Jensen more focused on showing for the ball and provide angles to play out. Fullbacks Fosu-Henry and Rico Henry adopted a high positioning in relation to the centre back pairing of Goode and Sørensen. Wingers Bryan Mbeumo and Sergi Canós played as inverted wingers to cut inside on their stronger left and right foot respectively, supporting Toney on top.
Reading were set up in a diamond midfield, with Josh Laurent in front of the back four and a pair of Semedo on the left and Rinomhota on the right, with Michael Olise on top of the diamond. Ovie Ejaria and Sam Baldock were the most advanced players and their defensive instructions were one of the building blocks of Reading’s defensive strategy.
With Brentford’s emphasis on trying to build their game through the thirds, Paunović’s idea was to get in their way with a defensive organisation that would create a more unusual set of issues to overcome. The end game was to get the ball back through specific pressing traps and counter attack in vacated spaces.
Forwards shutting down Brentford’s fullbacks
Baldock and Ejaria’s objective was to force Goode and Sørensen to look for options, and eventually play to marked team mates in front of them. Shutting down fullbacks was done through bending pressing runs inwards (show them inside) rather than outwards (show them outside, and close down fullbacks)
1: Baldock’s pressing run showing Brentford inside
That approach was reminiscent of Yakou Méïté’s defensive instructions in the game against Bristol City in which he deliberately shut Jay Da Silva down by showing Bristol’s back three inside.
But this time against Brentford, both strikers were tasked with that bended run, with an extra man in midfield (compared to Reading’s usual two sitting and one advanced midfielder).
How did it go? As far as doing it on the side of the ball, Baldock and Ejaria showed discipline to cut off Henry and Fosu-Henry as a clear testament of the work behind the scenes in the days before the game.
As for the opposite side of the ball, the condition to make that defensive strategy a success is to not have both strikers blocking passes towards the fullbacks at the same time.
When one striker isolates a fullback, the other striker needs to get level with the attacking midfielder (Olise) in order to think a step ahead: sticking too close to the central defender before he gets the ball would only invite the defender in possession to split them and feed the opposite fullback directly.
2: Ejaria caught slightly out of position and beaten
Only staying level with the attacking midfielder creates the condition to replicate the pressing trap on the other side, as central defenders would pass the ball to one another (yellow).
On a couple of occasions, Ejaria was caught and was consequently forced to track back on Fosu-Henry, which made the strategy slightly counterproductive.
Brentford did adapt after a dozen minutes, with goalkeeper Raya getting involved outside of his own box (forcing Ejaria to close him down as well, or sometimes Olise who consequently left his marker Janelt in his shadow).
3: Baldock drawn to press Sørensen before he even gets the ball, eventually gets split by Raya
Baldock jumping to Sørensen before the ball was even about to get to him got the former Brighton forward out of position with Rico Henry able to receive possession. The pressing trap would’ve worked out just fine had he stayed on Olise’s level a couple of yards deeper.
Ejaria and Baldock’s role wasn’t to prevent anyone to feed the fullbacks because there’s no defensive strategy that allows that.
The point was more to restrict the standard central defender-fullback exchange, and force goalkeepers and central defenders to explore more difficult options, such as switches of play which gave more time for the Royals to reorganize until the ball reached the intended target.
Reading and Paunović could also hope a central defender would dwell on the ball at one point after failing to find a playble option nearby and possibly give the ball away at the edge of his own box. This is something that tends to happen when that precise defensive game plan is deployed, and almost happened after Brentford passed the ball across the back four without options after twenty minutes.
4: Baldock almost nicking the ball from Sørensen at the edge of his own box
Reading’s diamond to match Brentford’s midfield
Baldock and Ejaria were asked to cut off the passes between centre backs and fullbacks in order to funnel Brentford inside, where Reading would have a 4v3 numerical advantage with Laurent’s role akin to a « midfield sweeper ». Olise would monitor Janelt whilst Rinomhota and Semedo would track Jensen and Da Silva respectively.
5: Reading’s organisation against Brentford’s three nominal midfielders, struggling to play out
Even in case Brentford’s midfield trio did interchange position, markings would be switched and the theory was that whoever received the ball couldn’t turn. In that regard, Michael Olise displayed a propensity to point and organise things (especially with Semedo) proving a deal of tactical understanding, combined with his activity off the ball which definitely adds up to his already impressive pedigree.
6: Brentford not able to play across the back four, attempted difficult passes into traffic where Reading had numbers
Once the ball found its way to still reach Brentford’s fullbacks, Reading’s diamond had to shuffle across with the side central midfielder, such as Semedo, having to close Fosu-Henry down (same for Rinomhota and Henry).
Communication being of paramount importance in that situation in order to switch marking duties, Liam Moore’s organisational skills are all the more noticeable during behind-closed-doors fixtures.
7: Semedo’s role once Brentford’s fullbacks were in on the ball, with Moore making sure Laurent picks up Da Silva
Semedo had to leave the runner Da Silva who’d picked up by the spare man in midfield, in that case Josh Laurent.
The former Shrewsbury Town midfielder looked keener to defend down the left side of the defence.
8: Laurent correctly picking up a runner down the left, behind Esteves and Semedo
Matching up Brentford’s movement down the sides got Reading a couple of opportunities on the break once the ball was won back. Ejaria got away after a good give and go with Olise and almost reached Baldock running on the shoulder of the last defender.
9: Semedo winning the ball back and Reading getting on the break
But on other occasions in that half hour, Josh Laurent’s positioning was exploited by Brentford.
Laurent failed to fill space and pick up runners on the right side of Reading’s defence in the same manner than he consistently did on the left.
One possible explanation to this being that Laurent has mostly been playing on the left of a two man midfield this season, and might not be used to doing the the same on the right, albeit his role on the day seemingly didn’t suggest he’d have to focus more on one side and neglect the other.
Brentford found a way through Reading’s midfield, on occasions where the player on the ball wasn’t under pressure, using flick ons via Toney playing wall passes. Laurent being caught slightly ball-watching towards the left (despite Ejaria and Semedo taking charge of Dasilva and Fosu-Henry) and failing to screen Toney properly, who did spread it wide first time.
10: Reading beaten by a first-time flick, and Laurent failing to track back in position down the right. Henry plays the ball backwards
Henry decided to play the ball back to Jensen who didn’t venture beyond the ball at the 12th minute. If ever Jensen decided to do so - even if strikers in 4-4-2 « diamond » need to put a shift to track runners down the wings - that probably wouldn’t be Baldock’s job to track an opposing midfielder getting in the Reading box, but rather the spare man Josh Laurent’s.
When breaking down the game’s opening goal, there’s little hiding from the fact that the goal is mostly on the goalkeeper Rafael. But the fact that Jensen has been able to get in the box unmarked raises the question of who could or should have picked his run.
11: Jensen running through to score the opener
Against a team playing an expansive 4-3-3 with a winger overlapped by his fullback, wingers cutting inside is definitely a thing set to occur. Fullback Holmes would then follow the runner as fullbacks do, whilst Rinomhota doubling up would get in the way of the winger cutting inside.
Furthermore, midfielders running in behind down the channels is definitely a thing to expect. Laurent would be the more appropriate player in charge of monitoring this type of run (and not central defenders, who’re never really at ease once drawn outside the box). In the build-up of the goal, Laurent’s starting position was barely different from Rinomhota’s moments before and could’ve got across the pitch as well to cover for Rinomhota (orange).
In regards to Baldock: space behind an overlapping fullback would definitely be the space to hit on transition once the ball is won back (green) all the more when a midfielder like Jensen gets beyond the ball. And given Baldock’s positioning in front of the ball, that wouldn’t necessarily be his role to follow Jensen so deep inside his defensive third.
When breaking down the second goal, Reading’s defensive strategy fell apart as a consequence of players not reacting quite quickly enough to what happened in front of them. Granted, Reading possibly had a point in claiming a handball against Rico Henry on Baldock’s flick. But Rinomhota’s slight delay to close Dasilva down gave the former Arsenal trainee time and space to pick out Mbeumo on the far side with a pinpoint diagonal.
12: Rinomhota’s slight delay to close down Dasilva, despite having his back covered by Laurent this time
Semedo’s run across the field in that situation is not an easy defensive run to deliver, but one that could have benefitted from a slight inclination towards protecting the direct route to goal (yellow instead of white dotted line). This is how midfielders can improve their defensive movement in order to get in position where they can close down someone like Mbeumo in front of them, to tackle with the left foot rather than coming to the side of him (and not screening the face of goal at any point).
13: Semedo coming just short of getting in Mbeumo’s way
That is not to say that dealing with double scorer in the 2018 Gambardella (French FA Youth Cup) final Brian Mbeumo is anything but impossible in that situation. But sometimes a fraction of second and a slightly better positioning can restrict the window of opportunity once the fullback is caught flat footed and the winger cuts inside.
23 minutes in, Brentford were 2-0 up and at the half-hour mark, the Bees were going away with a third goal after Reading got back to their usual organisation in 4-2-3-1 after the second goal. Ejaria was momentarily a makeshift striker with Baldock on the left, then switched positions to let the former Brighton man go back on top.
Paunović’s game plan made sense in the context of facing a team set up with a structure akin to « 4-3-3 » with an emphasis on building up play through the thirds with lots of possession, especially when it is gifted with talented attackers out wide. The general idea being to force the opposition to play different passes than the ones they are used to, to feed their attackers.
Namely, simple passes from central defenders to fullbacks who go on to isolate fullbacks and overlap. Or relying on 4-3-3 midfielders showing for the ball and who’re generally either creating an overload or dropping in zones where they won’t be followed. From that point and without a glitch in the first couple of passes, teams like Brentford are usually able to turn the tempo of the game up.
In the two situations mentioned above, Brentford’s central defenders were either forced to switch play (which gave more time for Reading to slide across) or look for difficult passes into traffic towards midfielders who had to do the extra effort to find separation or release it quickly under pressure because they were closed down without Reading going all over the place (having a spare man against three midfielders, which is less frequent than the standard than three against two).
But every defensive strategy, even the more unexpected ones, have weaknesses to exploit once the opposition figure it out. Once central defenders and goalkeepers who are usually playing it safe and square, are forced or tasked with getting on the ball, a strategy like Reading’s on the day would be put in jeopardy, which Brentford’s Sorensen did by driving with the ball diagonally, or Raya picking out fullbacks directly.
Similarly, players not reading pressing triggers or not matching up defensively in certain areas leaves that game plan vulnerable to third man running and individual actions.
“I think we had a horrendous first half against a very good team, who took full advantage of the confusion we had and the bad start we suffered,” Pauno began.
“Our idea didn’t work in the first half and that’s on me. Our shape was a little bit twisted in the first half. And we were punished for the small mistakes we committed.”
As Veljko Paunović pointed out after the game, small mistakes in the strategy he asked his team to perform were to blame for the opening half hour. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them pulling it out again at some point this season, not just in the context of having to make up with a lack of recognized forwards, but possibly involving someone like Meïté causing havoc behind fullbacks.
It takes a certain amount of flexibility from a coaching staff to be able to both prepare a team for a different game plan during the week, and to be able to scrap it once it’s not delivering what’s expected during the game - let alone getting a reaction from the players in the second half which definitely has to be credited.
The story of Reading’s afternoon was one of a disappointing first half ultimately, but certainly plenty to look forward to if the Royals can tweak a couple of things with that strategy before using it again, and have more pace to exploit opportunities on the break than they did against Brentford.