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Tactics Review: Hard-Working Royals Come Out On Top In Cardiff

Jamie goes into detail on Reading’s all-round performance in the Welsh capital on Saturday.

Cardiff City v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Cardiff City FC/Getty Images

Rafael; Araruna, Morrison, Moore, Richards; Rinomhota, Laurent; Meite, Olise, Ejaria; Joao.

Straight from the off, it was clear that Reading’s “non-negotiables” would again be on display – their commitment, work rate and enthusiasm to defend as a team needed in even larger amounts against a Cardiff City side prone to pressuring sides with long balls into the box.

Reading were slightly more pinned back from these set plays than usual, as even from throw-ins Lucas Joao made his way back to try to ensure that the Royals’ run without conceding continued for another 90 minutes. In attacking play, the forward also needed to drop in slightly at times (into the number 10 area) into a congested midfield (due to high pressure from both sides) to help link the play.

From long balls forwards, he was able to hold up the play and bring any ball down with ease, showcasing some fantastic first-time touches. When Reading had more space on the ball though, he could position himself closer to the edge of Cardiff’s defence, making runs in behind and pressurising the back line and goalkeeper into potential mistakes.

Although again Reading did not (and did not need to) dominate possession, the quality of passing round the back shone more than was actually noticed. Both Rafael and his defenders were able to build up the play without ever (from memory) giving the ball away in a dangerous area.

However, just in front of them, Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent impressed even more. Dropping in to provide options, sharply zipping passes around to the full backs, moving from touchline to touchline to move the ball away from and evade capture from Cardiff’s midfield – both these men are transitioning play from defence to midfield and ensuring that this side do not constantly give the ball away cheaply – something that was prevalent last season.

Interestingly, when Rafael would opt to kick long, both centre backs would race forwards in order for both the defence to push up (and not play anyone onside). But as well as this, it’s hard not to think that it may also be a sign of the energy of this side and their commitment to press and win second balls as quickly as possible.

Cardiff City v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Cardiff City FC/Getty Images

There was one noticeable occasion when Reading were slow to this press of the battling Cardiff midfield, resulting in the free time to play in Kieffer Moore (who was running the channels for some strange reason – or perhaps because Cardiff did not have a man who could occupy the space in between the centre backs and midfielders for a knockdown) to cross for Leandro Bacuna – his attempt saved.

None of the midfield men, nor the defence, became frustrated either. Cardiff were buying cheap free kicks in order for opportunities to put the ball into the box, but still there were rarely any rash tackles borne out of frustration, excluding the odd calculated one to stop a counter attack. Full backs Omar Richards and Felipe Araruna were winning free kicks themselves, being niggly and showing industry, rarely losing the ball unless fouled.

Further up the pitch, Reading did not create as many chances early on as in the second half. However, with Yakou Meite and Lucas Joao, there was always a secondary option to just playing the ball through the lines. Meite playing off the right meant that he could make runs across and behind the centre backs, something he tried to do on a few occasions. On one of these, a long ball from Moore over the top, he was almost able to catch Alex Smithies out with a header – using his physicality and striker’s instinct to his advantage.

When playing against physical sides who enjoy throwing limbs about, what can be more effective in attacking situations for playmakers is moving the ball around with speed, rather than trying to take the ball past every man (not including Joao, who can also, along with everything else, hold off a man with ease – see his goal in this game).

Coupled with the fact that the referee allowed many a foul on a red shirt to go unpunished, a few first-half attacks were stunted when Ovie Ejaria would take too long to release the ball or Michael Olise was muscled off of it. With the intelligent movement of Joao, the correct decisions in these areas will only results in key chances – something we are seeing a lot of, with few (if any) pointless attempts on goal.

Olise himself was able to switch positions with Ejaria at time and also drift over to the right-hand side, showing his versatility again and deliver balls into the box; both he and Araruna showing excellent delivery. This mainly occurred in the second half, and it was in this period where spaces opened up in the middle of the park, something that hugely benefits the Royals’ attackers. Despite some strangely slow counter attacks, the resignation at time of the Cardiff midfield (especially when Meite nutmegged one in slow motion) caused most of this half to be comfortable for Reading.

Despite being too static on one occasion, positioning himself too close to Richards instead of picking up on the danger from a Cardiff man on the edge of the box – resulting in Will Vaulks almost levelling things up at 1-0 – Olise had yet another fantastic game in which he added to his goal involvement tally, showing just why Reading are so threatening from set pieces (4/6 league goals from them).

After Lee Tomlin struck from a corner it was backs against the wall for the visitors for the remainder of the game, but Reading were able to show a different side to themselves. With both Tom’s Holmes and McIntyre on the pitch at this point, every man dug in to secure another win while still even showing threat on the counter, if not totally the drive to finish the tie off. Demonstrating an ability to defend as well as score from set plays, Reading are really showing more dimensions to themselves than in any other season gone by for a long time.