A burning question about a manager when he is appointed by any club is ‘what’s his style of play like?’.
When this was inevitably asked about Veljko Paunovic following his arrival at Reading, you would have been forgiven for being a little concerned that there was no conclusive answer. If he were a rookie coach taking his first managerial position it would have been more understandable, but Paunovic spent three years in charge of Serbia’s youth teams and four seasons at the helm of MLS side Chicago Fire, yet no one could pinpoint a distinct style.
“Defining his main style or favoured formation may have been his biggest issue over the course of his tenure,” The Athletic’s Guillermo Rivera told us in our extensive profile of the Serbian. “The Fire never developed a consistent style of play and frequent changes in tactical approach angered players who thought they should be more consistent.”
“There was no clear style or identity to the team over his four years in Chicago, which was a constant source of frustration and criticism from the fans,” former MLS reporter Shane Murray echoed.
Paunovic himself muddied the waters further in his first press conference last week, stating: “We don’t have to worry about formations, they can help and are important but once you know the players it’s about what they are capable of doing. I want to be creative with our team. There’s not only one way to succeed.”
In his first game in the dugout on Saturday, an impressive 2-0 away win at Derby County, Paunovic went with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria playing on the right and left respectively in the absence of more natural wingers. Yet whether that’s how Reading will line up every week is hard to tell so early on in Paunovic’s tenure, given both his reputation for fluctuation and the fact new signings may come in over the next month and change the squad’s dynamic.
But how much does this matter? Does Paunovic need a defined style of play to be a success at the Madejski Stadium? After all, one of the main criticisms of Mark Bowen was that his Reading team had no clear style or identity.
Having a recognisable way of playing is often something to praise a coach by, whether that be Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka, Chris Wilder’s overlapping centre-backs or ‘Bielsaball’ at Leeds United. For fans too, it provides a feeling of identity. While those three managers are so revered because they have been successful, they have also given supporters something to align to and call their own.
The ‘Dutch Revolution’ at Reading under Jaap Stam and Brian Tevreden captured the imagination of Reading fans because it made the club stand out. It was an identity that was clearly ours, and that we could be classified by. Even as Stam’s reign came to an end following one win in 18 league games, some supporters remained committed to his project because they believed in his philosophy and didn’t want the club to go back to being another run-of-the-mill Championship side. It’s a badge of honour to be a club that catches the eye of pundits and neutrals because of a certain style that is different to anything else.
From a player’s perspective, having a plan to stick to is surely a good thing, as you know exactly what your job is all of the time. As Rivera states, Chicago Fire’s players became frustrated that Paunovic was so erratic in his tactical changes, and perhaps that ultimately cost the Serbian his job in Illinois.
Yet what can also cost a manager his job is stubbornness, with Stam being a prime example. The Dutchman was so cemented in his possession-based philosophy that he had no plan B to turn to when the going got tough at Reading. It worked for a year when the Royals were flying high in the play-off positions, but when teams started to work out the system the following year and the team began losing games more regularly, he was left with little answer.
Being pragmatic and adaptable in the Championship can be a key trait to have. It is a difficult and varied division and it is not one size fits all for every game. There are different challenges every week that need to be approached in different ways. That is not to say teams with distinct systems haven’t had success, but usually that comes as a result of recruiting exactly the right players and developing a style over multiple seasons. For Reading, who have not only a poor recent recruitment history, but little time to lose in Dai Yongge’s quest for the Premier League, that is simply not possible.
If Paunovic can construct a team that is as comfortable playing 4-4-2 as it is 3-4-3, then that has to be a good thing. After all, he appears happy to create an adaptable system to fit the players instead of buying players to fit a specific system - like Jose Gomes did last summer. The Serbian’s quote on not worrying about formations might sound chaotic, but it emphasises how he is more concerned with maximising a player’s quality rather than forcing them to play a certain way.
The concept of identity was once again brought up by the media after Saturday’s win over Derby, and this time, Paunovic couldn’t have been clearer: “I was very happy that I could see in the team today, my identity. Never giving up.”
Perhaps that is the answer to that burning question. Paunovic’s Reading will not be defined by a playing style, but by a mentality. Togetherness, spirit and desire make up the core of a good team but are not easy to coach. By placing emphasis on these characteristics, Paunovic is building a squad in a certain image - maybe he is the Serbian Neil Warnock, especially if his dressing-room antics are anything to go by. It would appear that this ideal was what Mark Bowen was working towards as well, as his overly defensive approach was at least promising to make Reading hard to beat.
Ultimately, if Paunovic changes his system every week but gets Reading promoted, no one is going to care one jot. Football is about winning games, no matter how you do it. Having a team that fights for each other and doesn’t stop working until the final whistle is something to be considerably more proud of than 500 completed passes.