If, as is most likely, Mark Bowen is retained through into next season, he must learn from the mistakes of the last two summers. Pick a setup, recruit for it and then have the conviction to play it. Jose Gomes and Paul Clement both spent all summer training and recruiting for a system that they then abandoned in the first month.
Clement’s spell in charge is not one many look back on fondly but, at least to me, there was a clear sense of a plan in his only pre-season at the club. He was brought in to keep us in the division, with us ultimately limping over the finish line, which gave him the opportunity to identify the issues he needed to solve in that transfer window.
He saw a lack of leadership at the club so brought in several players who had captained previous clubs. Not the most subtle approach, but leadership on the pitch is intangible and I think there is merit to what he wanted to do there. The fact that two of those players retired a year later suggested we maybe should’ve looked a little closer but at least he brought Andy Yiadom to the club.
Away from the leadership, what was abundantly clear was that the players were brought in to play 4-4-2. Marc McNulty came in of the back of a very impressive campaign in a front two alongside Max Biamou at Coventry City. Sam Baldock had good success in this division only a few years before in a pairing with former Reading loanee Glenn Murray. Josh Sims was a pacy and hardworking winger capable of getting forward but also supporting his fullback, while Meyler and Saeid Ezatolahi were supposed to provide the physical presence alongside the more expansive Liam Kelly or John Swift.
However well or (mainly) poorly these players ended up performing, the plan that summer was clear to see and all set up to play the lopsided 4-4-2 we’d trained on all pre-season. All that remained was for Clement to have the conviction to back himself and his plan.
Reading played fairly well in that first month of 2018/19 but the results didn’t match. Conceding a Tom Lawrence goal on 90+4 to lose on the opening day, sloppy goals in 1-0 losses to Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers, Paul McShane giving away two second-half penalties to only draw 2-2 with Blackburn. This was a period when promising performances were being undone by individual mistakes and little luck seemed to be going our way.
Two draws and four losses saw us move away from the 4-4-2. Clement ended up trying many tactical setups, particularly towards the end, but never really went back to that original idea. Whether the mistake was moving away from that plan or deciding on it in the first place is hard to say, but either way it was a waste of time and money.
Albeit under different circumstances, Gomes also found himself moving away from the system he had spent most of pre-season training. Gomes had decent success in the tail end of 2018/19 playing contrasting styles of possession-heavy 4-3-3 and counter-attacking 5-3-2, but with a soft transfer embargo in place and a handful of youth players, he decided on a different way of playing ahead of the 2019/20 season.
This was loosely a 4-2-2-2 but with lots of interchanging of positions. The core fundamentals of the setup are best explained in this tweet from @Cabin__13.
He wants fullbacks to provide width— steven (@cabin__13) August 3, 2019
He wants "wingers" linking midfield to forwards
He wants forwards to play pivot AND be threat into space
He wants center backs and midfielders to look switch when all of the above crowds the space ahead
He wants cycling & recycling in front 5
With that in mind you can better understand the decision made to release Callum Harriott, banish Garath McCleary and loan out Modou Barrow. This is a setup that doesn’t require traditional wingers but instead creative, advanced midfielders capable of linking the play.
Unlike with Clement it wasn’t necessarily a poor start that triggered the change for Gomes, although losing the first two games would not have helped. Instead it seemed to be due to the influx of players late in the window and him seemingly bowing to public pressure to use them.
While late, the business we eventually did last summer appeared to fit: technical players suited to a fluid system without conventional wide players. However, the embargo scuppered any chance of a real strategy for the signings we made. Our business early in the window clashed with what we were able to do later as we had the opportunity to bring more quality in. We brought in two first-choice keepers, two first-choice centre backs, three strikers and Charlie Adam...
The business we did was decent and was a product of the difficult situation we found ourselves in, but if we’d have had the whole summer to plan, I think our business would have looked quite different.
So all that is how we get to mid-August 2019 with three quality centre backs and public pressure to play all three, which is exactly what Gomes did.
A move from a 4-2-2-2 to a 5-3-2 sounds a significant change, but in reality much of the same principles remained. This was not the 5-3-2 of the previous season. You can see below how little actually changed from my crudely drawn picture I tweeted and added MS paint annotations.
OK, so it wasn’t a seismic change, but it was still scrapping a lot of what would’ve been trained in pre-season - particularly the work out of possession. Like Clement, Gomes never really went back to this original idea. Another summer wasted on a setup that would never get a chance to bed in.
Bowen must avoid the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. We can ill afford to waste time and money the way we have so often of late. These false-start summers are not the be all and end all, but they are indicative of a club which has seemed rudderless at the top for quite some time.
Whether it is Bowen or someone else, this whole clubs needs to align and commit to something. Commit to youth, a style or a manager; commit to something. I’m not in the camp that says relegation would be benefit us long term. However, I am certain that a club like us only gets so many near misses before the inevitable happens. This cycle of poor starts and managerial changes needs to come to end. As things stand, Bowen has the opportunity to do that. It’s essential for us all that he takes that opportunity.