Regardless of your club’s state heading into the late summer months, it’s hard not to let optimism and excitement eventually take hold in the build-up to the opening game of the season. Despite a later start than usual, a short lay-off following 2019/20 has meant that attention has turned to the new campaign very quickly.
Surprisingly then, Mark Bowen was relieved of his duties, with Serbian Veljko Paunovic taking the reins, less than two weeks before the scheduled kick-off against Derby County.
Although the style of play was at times not entirely nailed down, with poor execution of passing and finishing a contestant, how many of these failures were actually down to Bowen is unclear. In pre-season, putting the side out into a 3-5-2 not seen since the Jose Gomes days, Reading seemed to be taking lessons from Sheffield United with overlapping wing backs and a fluid style of play - the return of Lucas Joao also a massive plus point.
However, since his removal, how the side will line up and the style of play Paunovic adopts will not be known until an hour before the clash at Pride Park.
If the Colchester United game is anything to go by, Paunovic may favour a 4-3-3 system. A lack of wingers at the club, combined with the suspension of Yakou Meite, means it will be hard to see how Pauno may use this for the opening day though. The use of Sam Baldock and Marc McNulty on the wings was not entirely effective and if it didn’t quite come off against Colchester, so it would be hard seeing it being effective at Derby.
However, the return of Ovie Ejaria to the side could mean the former Liverpool man playing out wide, with Michael Olise and Sone Aluko other options as well. Thanks to the signing of Josh Laurent, Reading have been able to play the new man, Andy Rinomhota, John Swift and Olise during pre season, meaning that potentially pushing Olise out wide wouldn’t leave the midfield short of numbers (apart from on the bench).
This use of all these midfield players was in a 3-5-1-1 though, with Olise playing just behind Lucas Joao. But thanks to the young man’s versatility and subsequent ability to drift out onto the wings, either system/role should suit him well. With Meite out, this could give Paunovic the chance to see all of his midfielders in action in various positions, avoiding the potential tough decision of who to bench out of Swift, Laurent, Rino, Ejaria and Olise. This could also give Reading a firm base in the middle of the park, and the option of Swift as a number 10 with creative wide players able to cut inside from the wings, and so still a strong goal threat in the side.
A 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 system is not completely out of the question however, and Tom McIntyre’s Scotland under-21s call-up perhaps was the reason why Paunovic went for a back four in the cup tie (although the absence of Tom Holmes doesn’t support this). With quality in the central defensive and midfield positions, added to the tendency of both Omar Richards and Andy Yiadom to push forwards and join in with the attack (helped by the absence of out-and-out wide attacking players), this would certainly suit the current side, while not taking into account any potential signings.
In Paunovic‘s only other club managerial job, he was known as a tinkerer who liked to change his formations from game to game. It may be true that this means he simply couldn’t find a settled side, but it is also likely that he preferred to adjust his side based on the opposition. Regardless, a settled team and style of play is a must for any team, and alterations must not be to the extent where they can disrupt the side’s momentum. All in all, we can expect to see both the 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 this season, as they are the most suited styles for our side (perhaps more, once we learn more about our new boss and/or any further recruitment).
However, Paunovic has stated that he believes there are multiple ways to win a game of football, and due to the number of different sides and styles of sides in the Championship, he will prioritise possession in some games and opt for a more direct style in others. What remains to be seen is whether he will have a preferred style for the majority of games he will be expected to win, or if he will adapt his side for every clash depending on the opposition.
En route to Serbia under-20s’ World Cup success, Paunovic adopted a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system for all but one of his side’s clashes, starting the tournament in a 3-4-2-1 (the only game the side lost, perhaps looking to gain an advantage over Uruguay’s 4-4-2). At Chicago Fire too, Paunovic played a 4-2-3-1, but it was here where his team selections varied more often.
One such game came against Wayne Rooney’s DC United, where Chicago pushed a holding midfielder up into a 4-1-4-1, looking to squeeze and put pressure onto those creative DC players. This example of man-to-man pressing may have come from the Diego Simeone school of thought (the two played together at Atletico), but it did not completely come off- the game finishing 3-3.
At only 43 years of age, and with an esteemed playing career, Paunovic is a newbie in management and has just gained his first big break in England. But after poor reviews from his stint in America, with many a Chicago Fire fan bemused at some of his team selections, this could be a make-or-break move for the Serbian.
However, the team that was set out to play Colchester (although it came with a view to see fringe players within the squad) may hint at a tendency to experiment, and while it was probably not the man himself who made the key change in bringing on Andy Rinomhota, ultimately he will have these stronger options and a more balanced squad to choose from for our league campaign.
One can only hope that Veljko Paunovic can decide upon, maintain and get the utmost out of his best team. There is not much to go off in terms of his short managerial career, but what we do know is that Veljko is an enthusiastic, passionate man, but one one can rub certain players up the wrong way (as mentioned in terms of his ‘abrasive man management style’ at the Fire). It seems as if to get success under him, all the players need to completely buy into what he wants them to do, with zero resistance.
As he showed against Colchester, he is not afraid to give young players a run out (handing debuts to Ethan Bristow, Luke Southwood and Nahum Melvin-Lambert), and has commented upon giving everyone at the club a “second chance” - two things that bode well for the coming season.
If things go pear-shaped, it may be yet another season of disappointment for the Royals, but if the talent can be utilised and the squad pulled together, who knows what this side could achieve.