British football is a breeding ground for cliches; “It’s still 0-0 lads”, “Give 110%” and “Leave nothing out on the pitch” all instantly spring to mind. Most football cliches are over-used (hence them being a cliche) and frustrating, but none more frustrating - for me anyway - than ‘Plan B’.
I find it frustrating because, nine times out of 10, it means the same thing. A proper plan B would usually vary depending on what plan A is, right? There’s no point in both of your plans being the same thing.
But that doesn't happen in football. Plan B can loosely be translated as “whack another striker on and go long”. Let’s take Burnley for example, whose plan A is essentially what I’ve just described. Does anyone ever call for them to bring a playmaker on and start playing out the back when they’re not playing so well? No, and Sean Dyche wouldn’t do it anyway.
That’s not a dig at Sean Dyche or Burnley, by the way. If anything, I applaud it. When this topic of debate comes up, I often think about a press conference that I once saw Russell Martin do while he was managing MK Dons.
He was asked whether or not he had a plan B as the ‘tiki-taka’, playing-out-of-the-back style of play he was trying to implement at MK Dons had seen a few bad results on the trot. He simply replied, “we don’t need a plan B, we just need to get better at plan A”. I could not have said it better myself, Russell.
The above is a bit of a general rant, really. So let’s apply it to the current happenings at our beloved Reading. The ‘lack of a plan B’ comment has been thrown at Pauno a lot recently, amongst other things. In fact, I think there’s a consensus among a lot of the fanbase that not only does Paunovic not have a plan B, he doesn’t have a plan A, either.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that Paunovic isn’t the best in the world tactically and he’s had his fair share of shockers. However, I have a few problems with these accusations.
My main one is that the whole idea of having a plan A and a plan B has pretty much disappeared from football over the last decade or so. At the top level of football the high quality of players allows managers to implement specific styles, but it’s much more rare in the Championship.
Could Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka be as effective if he was managing us in the Championship? Maybe, maybe not. But having De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ruben Dias certainly helps him. The same goes with Klopp’s gegenpress and having the quality of Salah, Mane and Jota up front. Managing better players makes it easier for managers to implement a set style of playing.
In a 46-game season, when matches come so quickly and managers tend to get so little time to work with their players, it’s difficult to implement an ideology on a squad. You have to be able to adapt quickly and regularly. And I think his season Pauno has done that when and where he can.
Just off the top of my head I can think of a few different formations he’s played. 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 3-4-3 and the infamous 4-3-2-1 against Sheffield United not so long ago. Some may say he’s been forced into those formations, or that some of those formations didn’t work. But what you can’t say is that he isn’t flexible. He’s clearly willing to adapt, evolve and try different things.
Don’t get me wrong, the 4-2-3-1 is his go-to. When everyone is fit, I’m 99% sure we’ll see that more often than not. But the fact that he’s shown he’s willing to mix up formations is a positive thing. What’s even more positive is that even when we mix up the formations, we rarely mix up the way we play.
Pauno’s pragmatic, but he likes to give his attacking players freedom and for his team to play out of the back when and where it’s possible. That’s been consistent no matter what formation we play. We very rarely go long and direct up to a Lucas Joao or an Andy Carroll (which is what I have a niggling feeling most people mean when they say he doesn't have a plan B).
So, in my opinion, he’s consistent and he’s flexible, which is what I want from a manager. I’d much rather him spend more time nailing plan A - something I think he’d be very close to doing if he had all of his players fit - rather than doing a little bit on one style of play and then another little bit on going long and direct.
I think this whole argument stems from the fact we haven't been getting the best results recently, too. Well, I say think, I know it definitely does. When we were in the midst of that four-game winning streak earlier in the season, there were no questions marks over Pauno not having a plan B.
Even during that winning streak though, Pauno showed his flexibility. Largely using a 4-1-4-1 formation, but switching in-game depending on the match situation. For example, he started the win away at Cardiff with the aforementioned 4-1-4-1. However, during the match, when Cardiff started piling on the pressure, he moved Laurent into midfield along side Drinkwater to more of a 4-4-1-1 to sure up defensively. If I did agree with the concept of a plan B, I’d say that that definitely sounds like one.
Throwing it back to last season too, Pauno got criticised for shaking things up too much and changing a winning formula. At the start of the season, during that sensational winning run, it was the 4-2-3-1 and that was that. However, as soon as Pauno began to switch things up a little bit (which he had to, because we were starting to get found out) he started getting criticism.
Throughout his time as manager, whether he’s winning matches or losing them, he has shown willingness to tweak things and be flexible while still staying true to his principles and ideas. Sometimes that has been to his detriment, sometimes it’s worked for him - but hey, that’s football at the end of the day.