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Reading’s 2019/20 Tactics So Far: October/November

Part two of Jamie’s exploration of the tactics used by Reading this season.

Reading v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

October

The theme of October looked set to be similar to that of September, as Reading slipped to yet another 1-0 defeat, at the hands of Bristol City (October 5). Once again conceding an early headed goal from a left-wing cross, followed by a revitalised second-half showing, before eventually succumbing to defeat, had left the Royals’ fans frustrated and very divided when it was announced that Gomes had been relieved of his duties.

Coupled with a dismal 4-1 defeat at the hands of Fulham (October 1), Reading were languishing in the relegation zone on goal difference, with only eight points from 11 games. Despite being unfortunate to not score in the majority of their recent games, defensively they were all over the place (made evident by the perennial weakness of closing down and defending crosses), even gifting Aleksander Mitrovic a fairly easy first-half hat-trick in their first game of the month.

The most worrying detail about this was the fact that the men from Berkshire lined up as a three at the back against Bristol City and as a four against Fulham, showing that it was a general defensive problem rather than a tactical one.

Reading v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

As new gaffer Mark Bowen came in, shrouded in controversy by the manner of his appointment, a third factor came to light: a managerial problem. Almost instantly, Reading became solid at the back, efficient at getting the ball forwards and even showed a dogged determination to snatch a 98th-minute winner against play-off chasing Preston North End in the Welshman’s first game at the helm.

This was followed up by a 2-2 draw at another high-flying side in the shape of Queens Park Rangers. The game, live on Sky Sports, not only resulted in an unbeaten start going into November (thanks to the weekend trip to Nottingham Forest being rained off), but also featured George Puscas getting onto the scoresheet for the first time in 10 league games.

Bowen repeatedly spoke of his desire to make the Royals a tough team to play against, with an emphasis on winning second balls and working on the unattractive side of the game first. From a more tactical point of view, Bowen did not change too much for the Preston clash, the only changes coming in the form of a return from suspension for John Swift, replacing Rinomhota in central midfield, and Obita slotting back in at left wing back.

Heading into the QPR game, the slightly injured (and massively revitalised) Pele made way for Rinomhota, while Sam Baldock replaced Yakou Meite. Despite the on-loan Monaco man showing his ability to carry the ball forwards into space and deliver dangerous crosses to the forwards, Rinomhota coming into the team made the Royals look not only solid at the back but also a threat on the counter, thanks to his ball-winning abilities (something that would become a theme under Bowen as the season wore on).

Wigan Athletic v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images

This, coupled with the return of forgotten man Baldock and his tireless running (not to mention getting on the scoresheet at Loftus Road), and that of late substitute Garath McCleary, who almost nicked a late winner himself, Reading suddenly looked like a side with strength in depth.

Reading fans were wary of getting carried away, and after only two games in charge, hopes were beginning to rise again, but with a healthy dose of realism, a solid mid-table finish (or anything other than a relegation battle) would have been pleasing to most. The feel-good factor was back, and this time it felt a whole lot more stable.

November

Reading began the month with two home clashes, against Millwall and Luton. Both were arguably games that Reading were favourites to win, belied by their league-table position. However, with the depth that came from outcasts returning to the side and existing players hitting form, the challenge that fell on Bowen’s shoulders was finding his best XI and then keeping that side injury and suspension free - something that would partly be relied on good fortune.

Thanks to two wins taking the Royals into the international break (and five different scorers), Reading’s record under Bowen read: P4, W3, D1, L0 – not a bad start for a man undertaking his first permanent managerial job. Besides opting only to rest Jordan Obita and bring in Omar Richards for the second of the two games, Reading seemed to have a settled line up, with able deputies on the bench ready to come on and make an impact (Pele, Meite, Blackett etc).

Reading v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Thanks to Sam Baldock hitting form with a second goal in two games in the clash with Millwall, his partnership with George Puscas - combining high energy and intelligent pressing with off-the-ball movement - showed the promise of a previously untested strike partnership in its infancy. Despite Puscas going another four games without netting, he doubled his league tally for the season in spectacular fashion in the last game of the month: Wigan away.

After an abject performance in which Reading seemed to take the tag of a long-ball team too literally, constantly hoofing long to Puscas and Meite (Baldock hobbling off injured in the defeat to Brentford a week earlier), Reading lacked any form of creativity in the middle of the park.

However, in an inspired five-minute period, George Puscas netted the quickest-ever Championship hat trick. Thanks to that 3-1 victory, which certainly papered over certain cracks, the Royals were pushed five points clear of the relegation zone. Most Reading fans though could look at their side as one that was able to win a game of football after a dreadful performance - something not often said about this side - which definitely bred positivity, as well as Puscas getting back in amongst the goals in breathtaking fashion.

The Royals headed into that clash with Wigan Athletic off the back of two defeats after the international break. A trip to Brentford, followed by a visit from Leeds United, produced two 1-0 losses, with little attacking threat from Reading in either game. These defeats were important for two reasons:

  1. A reality check in that this side were perhaps not going to shoot up the table and immediately challenge for the play-off positions. After a few horrendous seasons, 10 points from five games was still an extremely respectable return, and an average to aim for over the coming months.
  2. Mark Bowen would be adapting his side for different challenges, deciding to take a more conservative and safety-first approach against the top sides in the division. Remember: not long after, Brentford thumped Luton Town 7-0 while Middlesbrough fell to a 4-0 defeat at Leeds.

This more defensive approach was not entirely an issue, if only a change from what Reading fans were used to witnessing their side produce. With the players and quality that the Royals possessed, when they did go forwards, they were not exactly becoming a long-ball team, and if anything showed another dimension to their game with their resolve on show for all to see and fluid counter-attacking attempts much more exciting to watch.

Thanks to Bowen, Reading remained in games for much longer, and so each spectacle as a whole was becoming far more enjoyable for the fans (Leeds’ late winner coming from a counter from a late Reading free kick).