Much of the focus for Reading’s comfortable 3-1 win at Birmingham City has, quite rightly, been on an impressive half-time turnaround and three well-taken goals. Having been trailing 1-0 at the break, and looking like they were happy to let the season gently wind down, the Royals turned the match on its head in the second half. Strikes from Matt Miazga, Yakou Meite and Pele demonstrated a ruthlessness in front of goal that’s been sorely lacking for too much of this season.
But, for me, the biggest lessons to be learned from the game were about Reading’s defensive set-up. Mark Bowen’s relatively new personnel choices at the back were exposed in the first half, but the Royals’ resolve after the break played a key - and perhaps overlooked - role in ensuring the points went back to Berkshire.
Teething problems at the back
The opening goal on Saturday, an opportunistic finish from Scott Hogan was a sloppy one to concede and very avoidable. Here it is in full:
The most obvious problem here is Miazga’s weak header back to Rafael. For me though, it’s more on Morrison, who shouldn’t have let the ball bounce but misjudged the flight of the pass. The bounce flummoxes Miazga, who’s caught underneath that bounce and so finds it difficult to get a convincing header off. Should Rafael have read that problem better as it developed and been quicker off his line? Very possibly.
In real time, that goal looked like an individual gaffe from Miazga, but the more I look at the footage, the more it looks like a couple of errors that would have been dealt with by a more cohesive defence. After all, this is now just the third time that Matt Miazga and Michael Morrison have partnered each other in a back four for Reading - excluding the Chelsea pre-season friendly.
Morrison is still getting used to playing as a left-sided centre back after being to the right of Liam Moore, Miazga is more accustomed to partnering Moore, and Rafael is learning about the partnership in front of him.
Of course, experienced defenders should be versatile enough to be able to deal with issues like this, regardless of being in different circumstances to usual. But when a defensive combination is in its early days - as this one is - mistakes happen.
John Swift is an unconvincing holding midfielder
There’s little doubting John Swift’s ability on the ball, and Mark Bowen’s decision to play him deeper in midfield makes sense from an attacking point of view. Indeed, Swift had more touches and passes than any of Reading’s other midfielders or forwards on Saturday, and made the most chances too - including an assist for Meite.
But he’s unconvincing defensively, and that meant Reading lacked proper protection for the back four, particularly during a well below-par first half. Birmingham City found it much too easy to get past a player that, above anything else, needed to be the screen for the defence behind him.
Swift only attempted one tackle on Saturday, putting him below Andy Rinomhota (2), Ovie Ejaria (2), Omar Richards (3), Andy Yiadom (4) and Yakou Meite (6). Similarly, he only made 1 interception out of Reading’s overall total of 7, 1 clearance out of 46, and 2 blocks out of 21. Of those defensive actions, the only ones to come in the first half - when Reading were much more exposed defensively - were one interception and one block.
If you’re going to play as the holding midfielder in front of the defence, you need to be getting stuck in and making your presence felt, but that just isn’t Swift’s game. He has plenty of other strengths, but lacks the mentality of a tenacious ball winner. For context, specialist holding midfielder Pele came on in the 72nd minute and contributed 3 clearances and 3 blocks - one more defensive action than Swift in 81 minutes on the pitch.
The build-up to one of home side’s biggest first-half chances demonstrated this nicely. Swift can - and should - win the ball here but lets it run past him much too easily.
This isn’t to say that Reading should stop Swift playing as a holding midfielder entirely; that role generally gives him the time and space on the ball to really influence the flow of a game. But doing that also brings defensive risks - ones that might well be punished.
Second-half rearguard action wins the day
Up until now, I’ve probably been a bit too negative. The opening goal and Swift’s shortcomings as a holding midfielder were problems on Saturday, but ultimately didn’t prevent us from winning the game. On the flipside, an all-round impressive second-half defensive performance did the trick.
A quick turnaround after the break put Reading in the lead by the 56th minute, and meant the onus from that point on was very much on the home side to get back into the game. Indeed, from the 57th minute onwards, Birmingham City had 10 shots to Reading’s 2, and played almost double the number of our passes (196-101).
However, the Royals’ defensive resolve won the day. The hosts may have had plenty of efforts on goal, but only 3 of those 10 were on target - the other 7 were blocked by Reading players flinging themselves in the way (Yiadom x2, Miazga x1, Morrison x1, Pele x2, Moore x1).
Similarly, although Birmingham City didn’t have one clearance to make after Meite’s goal, Reading came up with a whopping 31. The graphic below, from WhoScored, demonstrates just how much pressure there was for the Royals to deal with after the break. Reading’s clearances are shown in blue.
To sum up
Saturday’s win at St Andrews was far from perfect defensively, and the flaws on show should give Mark Bowen some food for thought. Does he stick with the Miazga/Morrison combination or bring Moore back into the fold, and should Swift keep his role as a deep-lying midfielder?
To take the first question, it’s worth noting that the Miazga/Morrison pairing has been present for a recent upsurge in Reading’s form - those two played in the win over Barnsley and narrow defeat (but encouraging performance) to Sheffield United. It would therefore be odd for Bowen to break that partnership up, regardless of how desperate Moore will be to get back into the side. It’s surely better to keep that pairing that going, at least in the short term, to let it develop and encourage Moore to improve his own performances to earn his place back in the side.
There’s also reason to believe that pairing Miazga and Morrison up can give better balance offensively too. Putting the two together in a back four means a ball-playing defender (Miazga) being on his stronger foot when Reading pass out from the back, meaning Morrison can focus on a less elaborate defensive game.
Compare that to the Morrison/Moore (Moorison?) pairing. In that case, the ball-playing, right-footed Moore is on his weaker left side so finds it that bit more difficult to play out, while Morrison is on his stronger foot but isn’t a ball player. Of course, Jose Gomes tried to solve this by swapping Moore and Miazga at the start of the season, even if the experiment backfired defensively.
The second issue: Swift as a defensive midfielder. In theory, this is a tactic that Reading should explore more but also find a way to improve on defensively. Fortunately though there’s a straightforward improvement that can be made: dropping Rinomhota that bit deeper to help Swift out.
Rinomhota is the kind of energetic, ball-winning midfielder that loves to get stuck in in ways that Swift doesn’t. He doesn’t have to take a solely deep role for Reading, as that would negate his ability to drive up the pitch with the ball, which Bowen seems to be trying to utilise at the moment. But tweaking his role so that he can cover for Swift, particularly in away matches, would be sensible; there’s a balance to be found here and Bowen would do well to work on it.