Pele shows his tactical importance
Pele once again shielded the back four against Charlton Athletic, and once again proved his worth to the side. Although it was far from a perfect performance from Pele, who gave the ball away a little too cheaply in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch, it was his protection of the defence and use of the ball that allowed Reading some of their brighter attacking moments in that first half.
Both Andy Rinomhota and John Swift have been used in that same role as Pele previously - playing on their own in front of the defence - but with Pele sitting deeper, both were free to do damage higher up. Indeed, it was Rinomhota’s run into the box - picked out by Swift’s pass - that led to the penalty. Both have that kind of ability to create chances in the final third, and to push up in direct support of the lone striker, but neither can do it if they’re playing too deep.
It’s no coincidence that Reading’s control of the game shifted when Pele went off at half time. Although Rinomhota was available to drop into a similar holding role, he doesn’t have the same skill set as Pele - particularly reading the game, breaking the play up and usually retaining possession well. He’s a box-to-box man by trade.
This game showed the value of having not just someone like Pele in the team - someone who can protect the defence and allow others the license to do damage in the final third - but also of having a deputy on the bench.
Olise > Obita
Reading have put out almost the exact same team in their last three games, but with different choices on the left wing in each case. An injury to Ovie Ejaria in the 5-0 thrashing of Luton Town gave Mark Bowen the choice of either Jordan Obita or Michael Olise; he went for Obita against Huddersfield and Olise at Charlton.
For me, he got it right the second time - and I’m not too sure why he didn’t on the first occasion. At the moment, Reading are at their best in the final third when they’re unpredictable, building clever passing moves to open up space for runners - as we saw with Rinomhota’s run for the penalty.
Olise has the guile, close control and general willingness to come infield that makes attacks like those work. It gives Swift, Rinomhota and Pele another central passing option, Puscas gets someone else coming closer to him in support, and it leaves room for Tyler Blackett on the overlap.
Obita is a fine plan B in some circumstances. His defensive experience makes him better cover for the left back than Olise when we need to hold onto a lead, and Bowen has referred to Obita’s crossing ability - but that’s better suited when Reading have a bigger target to aim at with those crosses (Lucas Joao, not Puscas or Sam Baldock).
Particularly at home, where Reading will need guile and ingenuity to break down a defence, it makes more sense to continue with Olise.
Reading catch some luck
On another day, I’d be sat here dissecting a 2-1 defeat. Two big refereeing decisions went Reading’s way at the Valley: an offside against Chuks Aneke and an apparent foul on Jake Forster-Caskey.
Even though it did seem Forster-Caskey threw himself to the ground to make sure he got the spot kick, the prior shirt-pulling from Obita was probably enough to mean it should have been given as a foul for Charlton. It could very well have been given that way by another referee, rather than the booking Forster-Caskey ended up with.
As for the offside, annoyingly there’s no view straight across the pitch from the touchline, but this angle sure makes him look onside.
It’s a horrible football cliche, but sometimes you do just need to rely on your luck. That’s not to put down Reading’s defensive performance to see the game out, or overlook Charlton’s shortcomings in breaking us down, but it does show just how precarious our 1-0 lead really was.
A different but revealing approach to substitutions
In my report from the Huddersfield game, I focussed on Bowen’s unwillingness to use his bench. I found the manager’s lack of proactivity frustrating, given that the game was winnable if the right changes had been made, despite the sluggish way in which it was panning out.
This time, he can’t be accused of not being proactive enough in the timing and number of his substitutions. Having made one sub on 66 minutes against Huddersfield and another three on 86 minutes, this time three had been used after 61 minutes (although one was enforced with the injured Pele being replaced by Obita at half time), while the final two came on 75.
All five individual subs were defensively minded. Obita added more cover on the left while Olise came into the middle - before he was brought off for Omar Richards. Baldock for Puscas meant more work rate than goal threat, and the introduction of both Liam Moore and Chris Gunter meant Reading ended the game with a total of seven defenders on the pitch.
It’s striking that Bowen is willing to be so decisive with his substitutes when he can be defensive, but less so in other cases where a well-timed attacking sub can change the game - as on Tuesday. It’s a handy insight into how cautious Bowen’s mindset is.
Reading are set up well for the end of the season
Whatever you think of Reading’s performance and general approach on Saturday, and indeed in the last two games, recent results have set the Royals up nicely for the remainder of the season. Three clean sheets and two wins means some solid form is starting to be put together.
That needs to be carried into the next three: Middlesbrough at home, Blackburn Rovers away and Swansea City at home. Each will pose their own problems - Middlesbrough are scrapping for survival, Blackburn currently have only an outside chance of the top six, and Swansea have a very real one - but all games are winnable from a Reading point of view.
Continuing our solid recent form into those three would mean Reading ending the season on a high note, and perhaps even in the top half of the table. After a few difficult years, achieving that would be a tangible sign that we’ve turned a corner.
Normally, that would be that; a late flourish wouldn’t count for too much in the longer term. But this summer it also means real momentum going into next season. 2020/21 will come around soon after 2019/20 concludes, so current form can be of a big benefit moving forwards.