Rafael; Yiadom, Morrison, Moore, Richards; Laurent, Rinomhota; Olise, Swift, Ejaria; Joao
Reading kicked off their 2020/21 league campaign at Pride Park against Derby County. Lining up in a 4-2-3-1, Veljko Paunovic’s side demonstrated for the entire 90 minutes what a superbly balanced starting XI he has already found - despite the absences of Tom McIntyre (not involved) and George Puscas (unused sub) due to international commitments in the past week - resulting in a comfortbale 2-0 win for the visitors.
Reading’s front four will rightly take a lot of plaudits for the victory, but just behind them were two holding midfielders bursting with dynamism and athleticism - in Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent. As usual, Rinonmhota was everywhere - breaking up attacks with tackles and even creating new ones thereafter, driving the play forwards.
This in particular was something Reading were fantastic at, Ovie Ejaria actually being the main protagonist of ball recoveries. Josh Laurent, on his Championship debut, also put in a performance quintessential to his position. Both holding men went by the game without putting a foot wrong, but also could have been easily forgotten about (partly due to the attacking prowess of the side), always in the correct position and not needing to commit to last-ditch/dangerous/desperate challenges.
Even though the majority of Derby’s crosses ended up in touch, they were forced into this tactic of hitting 5’8 target man for the day Jack Marriott due to the compactness of Rino and Laurent, not to mention Moore and Morrison as well - Michael Morrison in particular winning everything in the air, making vital interceptions and cleanly clearing the ball from danger with no faff.
All over the pitch Reading seemed to dominate in the air, shown by the sheer number of aerial duels won throughout the game - Rinomhota and Laurent dispatching every cross delivered into the area just in front of the defence. With the front four and Yiadom high up the pitch for an attack that led to Joao striking the bar, it was still hard to see Reading looking vulnerable for any potential counter, thanks to these two men and the balance of the whole side.
Further forwards though, Reading shone in a different light. With no real wingers at the club, and Yakou Meite suspended, Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria were played on the wings, with the ability to cut in an act as inverted wingers. Many an attack came through Ejaria, at first struggling slightly in possession, but then really coming into his own. For Reading’s first major chance, Ejaria came across to Olise’s right-hand side to dispossess Max Bird and allow Lucas Joao an attempt on goal, showcasing the effectiveness of the Royals’ pressing and how Derby weren’t allowed any time to dwell on the ball at the back.
54% of Reading’s attacks came down Ovie’s wing, compared to 31% on the other side of the pitch, which also brings us to the impact of Omar Richards. Richards’ average position was in line with Ejaria on the halfway line, showing how, when needed, both wingers could drop back and/or further infield to allow the full backs to push on. A great example of this was Yiadom pushing forwards into space on the counter and delivering a ball into Joao who, as previously mentioned, struck the crossbar.
Early on in the game, when the wing backs were in possession and both wingers came infield, both Richards and Yiadom struggled to deliver a cross and didn’t risk beating a man when doubled up on, unless Lucas Joao came across for a one-two. Reading were instead far more effective when the wingers could hold onto the ball for as long as possible and then release the full backs on the overlap. This even worked for a striker/winger link up when Joao held the ball on the edge of the area from a long punt forwards from Rafael, releasing Ejaria to finish (though the effectiveness of this was massively in part to awful defending).
Joao himself had a fantastic game, demonstrating his hold-up play and silky skills in equal measure. With a goal and assist to his name, he arguably should have had a hat-trick; continuing to prove that with him in the side, Reading severely struggle not to win games.
As the game became stretched in the second half, there were even more spaces out wide for the full backs, and even Josh Laurent on one occasion, to charge into and attempt to exploit. Even though John Swift had a relatively quiet game (holed up in the number 10 role his focus will be more on goalscoring and being a lot closer to the end of attacks than the beginning of them), his advanced position allowed him to join in with the press of Derby’s nervous defence and on one occasion almost finding himself in on goal after making a run in behind (also thanks to a defensive mistake), but just lacking the pace and touch to take the chance clinically.
Although Rinomhota and Laurent are providing the steel, and despite the fact that Swift can boss a game from further back, in games where a lot less of the play is out wide plus a bit of time (once Reading have played more games in this system), we can expect a lot more goals from Swifty (best demonstrated by this missed one-on-one as well as being in the right position but not quite being able to get his body over the ball and so firing the rebound from Joao’s early shot over the bar).
He was not at his brilliant best on Saturday, but did not need to be. On another day, Swift could have had two goals and will surely add to this element of his game (maybe becoming more of a Jack Grealish type player than a Kalvin Phillips one if played in this role consistently). Either way, having the option of dropping him back a touch if needed proves him to be one of the most complete players in this division.
Off the bench, Reading chose to bring on Sone Aluko (able to play anywhere across the attacking three, as well as Ejaria and Olise) for Ovie and Sam Baldock for Swift. This meant that, behind Joao, Reading had Aluko on the left and Baldock on the right, with Olise in the middle. The final change was Tom Holmes replacing Michael Olise, the Royals seeing out the game in a 4-3-3.