Post-mortem | Noun: an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death.
By the end of Wednesday night’s 3-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic, Reading were very much a dead body. Slumped on the floor, no movement and surrounded by people wondering what the hell just happened.
So how did we get here? Get yourself a stiff drink and read on.
Wigan are not a good side
The league table will tell you as much. Going into last night’s game, the Latics sat 22nd in the Championship with the fewest goals scored in the entire division. Their top scorer is a centre-back. Even on the night, Wigan didn’t offer much in the way of attacking threat, and their expected goals of 1.01 was actually lower than Reading’s 1.44.
If ever there was a fixture for Reading to really take the game to the opposition, it was this one. However Bowen seemingly set the Royals up to counter attack the visitors. They were happy to soak up pressure from a side who had just 23% of the ball against Leeds earlier this month. Wigan make an average of 278 short passes per game in the Championship, but Reading allowed them to make 361 on Wednesday night.
The likes of John Swift, Ovie Ejaria, Charlie Adam and Michael Olise are all players who like to have time on the ball. They are not designed to set Reading racing away on the counter, which is why whenever the team tried to do so, the urgency was almost non-existent and the game was brought back to walking pace very quickly (ironically).
Ovie Ejaria and Felipe Araruna are not wingers
A crucial part of playing on the counter attack is the ability to send clear your wingers, but when you play with two unnatural wide men, this is always going to be difficult.
New signing Felipe Araruna has been profiled as a versatile option, but nowhere on his repertoire is ‘right wing’ mentioned. Maybe Bowen was hoping he would have the same impact as Andy Rinomhota did on the flank against Leeds, but then why didn’t he just start the academy graduate?
Meanwhile Ovie Ejaria has been trialled on the left-hand side a number of times now, and it is clear that it just isn’t his forte. The Liverpool loanee drifts inside too much into a position he would clearly rather be playing in (his heat map below shows as much), and playing him out wide at times just seems like a way to shoehorn him into the side.
Bowen brought Araruna off at half-time and moved Yakou Meite to the right flank, but again this is not a natural position for the Ivorian. Ayub Masika was an unused substitute which you can maybe put down to a lack of match fitness, but Sone Aluko and Garath McCleary were nowhere to be seen. The ageing duo may not have a long-term future at the football club, but surely one of them at least merits a place on the bench instead of an unfit George Puscas. It makes you wonder how vital Mo Barrow might have been to this side.
The midfield was ineffectual
Starting with a 4-4-2, Bowen deployed Pele and John Swift as the midfield two, but Wigan’s ability to essentially press them out of the game meant Reading had virtually no midfield in the first half, before Pele was brought off at half-time. Although the Guinea-Bissau international was only on the pitch for the first 45 minutes, he was dispossessed on four occasions in that time, more than any other Reading player in the entire game apart from Ejaria (five times).
In an attempt to shake things up, Bowen brought Charlie Adam on half-time, with the Scot pairing Swift as a holding midfield duo in a 4-2-3-1. This, quite simply, is a recipe for disaster. Adam has the occasional good pass on him, and Reading’s two best chances of the game came through him, but he doesn’t have the energy to be a defensive shield. He made more fouls (two) than tackles, interceptions or clearances (all zero) last night.
Meanwhile, Swift is just not a defensive player. He won just two of six tackles attempted last night, and looked lost in the holding role. Much like in the case of Ejaria, playing Swift deeper feels like a way to shoehorn him into the side. What actually is happens Reading’s main two creative talents are both played out of position and completely nullified. We know what Swift can do when utilised properly, and he ranks incredibly highly for both assists and chances created in the entire Championship.
As an example, Jamal Lowe picked the ball up for Wigan’s second goal on the edge of the box and had time to thump it past Rafael. This is an area where Adam and Swift (circled) need to be tidying up in as the defensive shield, but in fact it’s the ‘winger’, Ejaria, who is closest to him.
Again, it begs the question as to why Bowen didn’t give Andy Rinomhota a chance. The academy graduate was somewhat unfairly dropped from the starting line-up despite being a much better option in the holding role.
Going long is not the answer, but it was the only option
With the midfield virtually non-existent, poor old Michael Morrison was forced to hoof the ball long every time he was in possession as he had no other alternative. Unfortunately there’s no frame on the highlights that showcases this, but I’m sure if you took any clip of the ball at Morrison’s feet, the options directly in front of him would have been incredibly limited. The centre-back played 10 long balls throughout the game - for context, the highest average number of long balls per game for an outfield player in the Championship is Yoann Barbet’s eight.
This tactic might not be so bad when you have Lucas Joao upfront, it might even give you some joy with Yakou Meite or George Puscas. But it won’t work when 5ft 7in Sam Baldock is your supposed target man. The striker will work his socks off and run all game, but he simply isn’t going to be able to compete with Wigan’s 6ft 3in centre-back pairing Cedric Kipre and Leon Balogun. Baldock won just one of his five aerial duels all game which was penalised for a foul and he was caught offside three times as he tried to make a deeper run instead.
A complete lack of effort
So far we’ve focused a lot on Mark Bowen’s tactics, and rightly so, but the manager is not completely at fault for Wednesday’s horror show. The players’ lack of concentration and effort from start to finish was astounding. This was summed up in Michael Morrison’s post match comments:
“We’ve let them come here and bully us, run around more than us and we’ve not had the answer.”
The most glaring example was Wigan’s third goal, when virtually the entire team stopped to let Michael Jacobs through on goal. What Liam Moore and Omar Richards are doing at walking pace on the edge of the box here I will never know.
Of all the things to go wrong on Wednesday, that’s what annoyed me the most. I can just about forgive bad results when at least it’s clear the players have tried, but when a blatant lack of effort is put in, from your captain in particular, then there are no excuses.
All stats via WhoScored.