New season, new system. That’s the main takeaway from Reading’s 2-1 win over Gillingham on Saturday, which was intriguing less for the scoreline and performance, more for how the Royals set up.
Mark Bowen deployed a back three, two wing-backs, four central midfielders and a striker, which overall is hard to pin into a specific formation but for me is something like a 3-5-1-1. Here’s how I’d try to visualise it, although a dynamic midfield meant those central four players rotated a fair amount:
As I discussed here, a key positive of this system is that it allows Reading to keep the ball much more easily. More passing options in central areas is a good thing. In his post-match comments explaining the switch to a back three, Bowen alluded to just that:
“This year, we’ll be looking to play with a back three but I’m going to ask them to be a little bit more expansive. Within that framework, we’ve touched on elements of it in training and I saw some of those transfer into our game today which is important. We’ve got to be in control of our destiny in terms of possession - at times we did that last season and, when we did, we normally got results off the back of it.”
When Reading were out of possession, they tried to win it back aggressively. That’s naturally easier when you’ve got more bodies in midfield and at the back, but personnel is key here too. Looking through that team sheet, there’s energy all over the pitch: particularly Rinomhota and Laurent in the middle, but also Richards and Yiadom out wide, and two defenders (McIntyre and Moore) with the proactivity to push out aggressively.
Put that all together and you can clearly identify the framework of a formation (whether it stays as a 3-5-1-1 or becomes more of a 3-5-2), a clear aim when Reading have the ball (keeping it and being “expansive”) and a clear aim when Reading don’t (winning it back quickly).
Bowen will inevitably adapt and change this set-up across the season and for specific opposition, and he did accept after the Gillingham game that Reading may use another set-up on some occasions. But it still looks like Reading will have their own way of playing to develop in the long term.
That clarity is refreshing, especially in contrast to what we saw last season. Plenty of fans, myself included, were frustrated later on in the campaign when Bowen seemed unwilling or unable to work on a playing style ahead of 2020/21 - despite Reading being out of the play-off picture. It felt like valuable preparation time had been wasted and Bowen didn’t have a clear sense of how to take the team forward.
He deserves credit now though. Whether he always wanted to use a back three and for whatever reason didn’t push it last season, or he’s decided on that approach over the brief summer break, Reading are in a stronger position for it.
Despite the initial promise against Gillingham, this certainly isn’t to say Reading’s new set-up is a sure-fire winner. There are plenty of improvements to come, not to mention tests against much stronger opposition, starting with Tottenham Hotspur on Friday before West Ham United come to the Mad Stad the following Tuesday.
But it does still feel like Reading have an identifiable plan to work towards, which I couldn’t say at the end of last season.