There’s something particularly satisfying about a properly well-worked team goal, and Reading came up with exactly that on Saturday. Yakou Meite’s first-half strike not only opened the scoring and set the Royals on the way to a comfortable 3-0 win, but also capped off a beautiful move from defence to attack.
Plenty has been said about the two most obvious elements in the goal: Ovie Ejaria’s assist and Meite’s finish. There’s also been praise (albeit to a lesser degree) for George Puscas’ involvement, which is either a deliberate leave or a subtle dummy depending on how you look at it.
But, on watching the footage back, there’s plenty more to learn from the move in its entirety. Great team goals aren’t just easy on the eye - they can also say a lot about how a manager wants their side to attack - and Meite’s opener was no exception.
Setting the scene
First up, the team selection. Reading 4-2-3-1 on the day as so: Rafael; Yiadom, Morrison, Moore, Richards; Swift, Rinomhota; Meite, Olise, Ejaria; Puscas. But before we get into the move itself, two things are worth bearing in mind:
- In previous games, key playmakers Ejaria and John Swift had been out of form
- Reading hadn’t had a clear sight of goal on the day before this point
This context is, for me at least, very important. It’s worth remembering that the players involved in this move weren’t necessarily that high on confidence going into the game, and they weren’t in full flow before this point in the match. All in all, it makes the quality, intricacy and ruthlessness of the attack that bit more impressive.
That attack pretty much started when Swift, on this occasion lining up as a deep-lying playmaker in front of the back four and slightly behind box-to-box midfielder Andy Rinomhota, picked up possession from centre back Michael Morrison.
Great news for fans of Reading playing a midfield diamond: that shape is pretty much what allowed the Royals to open up Wednesday’s midfield at the start of the move. Soon after Swift receives the ball from Morrison, in a deep position but with plenty of space to work in, he essentially has three central midfielders to work with: Rinomhota ahead and slightly to his right, Michael Olise further up and Ejaria on the left.
Finding either of the first two is difficult for Swift, but Ejaria’s decision to drift infield from his starting position on the left of midfield handily provides a clear passing option. As shown by the image above, that pass isn’t an overly difficult one, but the key elements are Swift’s quality of pass and Ejaria’s speed in controlling the ball (shown below). Because of those factors, Reading can rapidly seize the space that’s opened up, turning slow build-up into a dangerous attack.
I could watch that sublime touch from Ejaria on loop over and over again. However, even when bearing down on the Owls’ penalty area, he’s still got a lot of work to do, and this is where Bowen’s team selection and tactical tweaks higher up the pitch really come into play.
Reading have used a number ten a fair amount this season, whether under Jose Gomes or Bowen, with that role typically going to either Swift or Ejaria. On this occasion though it was Olise who took it, which allowed Swift and Ejaria to go into positions that afforded them more space (Swift as a deep-lying playmaker, Ejaria on the left of midfield) - the space that both used to devastating effect in this move.
Olise played an important role in his own right too though. It’s his movement in the space between Wednesday’s defence and midfield (shown below) that pulls an Owls player away from Ejaria, thereby giving the Liverpool loanee even more room in the final third; Olise’s marker doesn’t know who to close down and ultimately closes down neither. Take Olise out of the equation and Ejaria’s driving run would get blocked off that bit quicker, thereby possibly shutting down the pass through to Meite too.
When it comes to the pass that ultimately assists Meite for the goal, Ejaria’s quality is clear to see, but it’s worth noting that Ejaria actually has three options in front of him. Meite is making the most dangerous run by going into the penalty area - although playing him in on goal requires a pinpoint delivery, Puscas is a safer option if Ejaria wants to go into feet, and Olise can be slid in on the left - although Ejaria shifting to the right makes that tricky.
Of course, there being more options doesn’t just help Ejaria - it scares the living daylights out of a backpedalling opposition defence. If there’s just one player around the penalty box in front of Ejaria, they can be crowded out and neutralised fairly easily, but three forwards is another prospect entirely.
In the end though, Meite’s movement is exquisite. It’s not simply about him charging in behind the defence as fast as he can, but rather a case of timing his run from the exact moment the pass is on for Ejaria. Notice how, in the footage below, Meite holds back slightly before darting into the gap between centre back and full back as Ejaria shifts to the right. The Ivorian’s pure pace leaves no chance for Wednesday’s wrong-footed centre backs.
I mentioned earlier that team goals can say a lot about how a team wants to attack, so what can we learn from Meite’s opener? Most obviously, it shows that Reading want to play through the lines, making use of their key creative players (Swift and Ejaria), and opening up the opposition with clever movement.
What it doesn’t show is Reading going direct up to lone striker Puscas. In this case, the Romanian’s job is to occupy two centre backs and not touch Ejaria’s through ball for Meite, rather than trying to hold the ball up. He looked better at that on Saturday, but it’s still not his strong suit.
Indeed, playing Swift in a deep role just ahead of the defence allows Reading to build more purposeful, precise attacks than going direct up to Puscas. As shown at the start of the move, Swift has space to work in and express himself from, and the centre backs (in this case Morrison) are only too happy to let him do the complicated stuff rather than overplaying themselves.
That leaves just two outfield players to account for: fullbacks Andy Yiadom and Omar Richards. Although neither are involved in this move, you can see both of them in fairly advanced positions at different points, in particular Richards pushing down the left as a wide option for Ejaria. Having two dynamic fullbacks pushing on allows Reading’s advanced wide players - Meite on the right and Ejaria on the left - to come infield into more dangerous areas, which they did to devastating effect against Wednesday.
After a bright showing at Wednesday, the obvious question is whether or not this set-up will be used again. Reading have another daunting game at the weekend - Leeds United away - and Marcelo Bielsa’s side will inevitably present the Royals down with more aggression and organisation than Garry Monk’s. For all the praise Reading deserve for Meite’s goal, the Owls’ defending leaves a lot to be desired.
But it’s in games like the one at Elland Road when Reading’s system and method of attacking will be tested heavily, and hopefully learn a lot.