Reading got their 2020/21 pre-season off to a winning start on Saturday afternoon, defeating League One side Gillingham 2-1 at the Madejski Stadium.
Lucas Joao opened the scoring when he headed home John Swift’s inswinging corner, before Andy Rinomhota doubled the lead by bursting upfield through the Gillingham defence and slotting past the ‘keeper. Both of those goals came in the first of three 30-minute periods, with John Akinde halving the deficit from a second-period penalty.
Naturally, there’s only so much you can read into a game like this. The first match of pre-season is as much about fitness as anything else, and Mark Bowen made sure that almost everyone in the 22-man squad got some football, but there are some interesting elements to draw from the match.
First up, here’s the squad Reading went with on the day:
Starting XI: Rafael; Moore, Morrison, McIntyre; Yiadom, Laurent, Swift, Rinomhota, Richards; Olise, Joao
Subs: Southwood, Holmes, Samuels, Araruna, Holsgrove, Tetek, Baldock, Aluko, McNulty, Meite, Puscas
The first thing to note here is Reading’s formation. Bowen went for a back three against Gillingham, continuing from the Swansea City game on the final day of last season, but rearranged the side higher up. Joao started as a lone striker, supported by Olise, putting the Royals into something approaching a 3-5-1-1.
Moore and McIntyre flanked Morrison in the back three, with Swift the deepest of the midfielders. Although the other central players interchanged a fair amount, dropping deep or pushing on at various points, typically Laurent was more withdrawn while Olise and Rinomhota pushed up in support of the lone striker.
Side note: I had wondered previously how Reading would fit Ovie Ejaria (if he signs) into a back three system alongside Swift, Rinomhota and Olise. Playing this version of a back-three formation, as opposed to going with a strike pairing, would allow him to slot into the side. End of side note.
This set-up facilitated Reading’s passing game as the presence of three centre backs and four central midfielders meant the man on the ball never lacked a passing option. There was also plenty of fluency, with Rinomhota free to push up into the final third at will, as he did most clearly for the second goal of the afternoon, but also seen in the outside centre halves (Moore and McIntyre) occasionally pushing upfield.
However, Reading did lack cutting edge in the final third. Although freedom for Olise and Rinomhota meant direct central support for the striker, the lack of pace in behind meant the Royals couldn’t open up Gillingham as they would have wished.
With that in mind, the obvious change would be to sacrifice a central midfielder and go two up top, pairing Joao up with a striker who can get in behind - like McNulty or Puscas. But, surprisingly, when Bowen did bring on forwards Baldock, McNulty and Meite later on in the game (after Puscas had replaced Joao as a lone striker), they did so as attacking midfielders.
Having started the game in a 3-5-1-1, Reading ended it in more of a 3-3-3-1. That was a back three, one deep-lying playmaker (Holsgrove) flanked by wingbacks (Araruna and Samuels), and an attacking three of Meite-McNulty-Baldock behind Puscas.
Who impressed on the day?
Going less on individual performances (given that these players are getting back into match practice) and more on how they fitted tactically, there were some players who stood out. The clearest example of those for me was Andy Rinomhota who, given a freer role in which he could really drive forwards to his heart’s content, was able to cause damage in the final third.
Elsewhere in midfield, Swift looked comfortable as the deepest-lying playmaker, while Laurent had a steady, composed non-competitive debut. The former Shrewsbury man added energy and physical presence alongside Swift, but although on the whole he had a fairly quiet afternoon.
I was also encouraged by how Reading got their defenders into the game higher up the pitch. Playing a back three (plus wingbacks) can backfire offensively if you’re not able to get enough of those defensive players involved in the final third, but Reading were mostly able to avoid that against Gillingham.
Moore and McIntyre enjoy driving upfield with the ball at their feet and, as both were played on the side of their stronger foot, opportunities were there for them to exploit space that opened up ahead. Getting that tactic right on a consistent basis is tricky, and can backfire against stronger opposition, but there were bright signs against Gillingham. Reading would do well to stick with this idea and develop it, although Moore’s possible departure to Celtic could throw a spanner in the works.
Other stray observations
- Luke Southwood is now Reading’s second-choice goalkeeper, with Sam Walker not named in the matchday squad against Gillingham. The club are likely trying to move Walker on this summer to reduce the wage bill and create an opportunity for Southwood.
- Fellow returning academy loanees Tom Holmes and Jordan Holsgrove are pretty high up the pecking order. Although neither are likely to start too often, they’re essentially Reading’s next choices at centre half and deep-lying playmaker respectively, having replaced Moore and Swift against Gillingham.
- It’s always good to see new academy players involved with the first team, and two featured against Gillingham. Imari Samuels (17yo left back) and Dejan Tetek (17yo central midfielder) were involved with the senior side for the first time, with the former replacing Richards. It’s likely that both will be displaced as established reinforcements are signed this transfer window, but they could be in line for debuts at some point this season.
- Felipe Araruna’s versatility will come in handy. He replaced Yiadom as a right wingback and looked pretty comfortable there, but would also slot into this setup by playing in central midfield.