The opinions after Tuesday’s defeat were pretty clear: Pauno has to hold up his hands as his strange and incomprehensible team selection was the main reason for the disappointing performance. Without a doubt, the Royals’ manager has made some mistakes in recent weeks. But having a look at all the post-match comments, it felt that some of the critics have been a bit too harsh. If we analyse his decision-making at Wycombe, it’s best to separate the one regarding the starting line-up from his substitutions.
Beginning with the latter, I also agree that Pauno hasn’t been very lucky (to put it positively) with the introduction of fresh legs throughout the game all season. The players coming on barely have a positive impact on the final result. In addition to that, he definitely left it too late at Adams Park with the first change coming only after 79 minutes. That’s obviously a weakness of his and something he needs to improve on.
In contrast to that, I don’t think Veljko Paunovic should be blamed that much for his starting line-up as there have been some good reasons behind it (at least from my perspective). The introduction of captain Liam Moore was absolutely logical to me as he had fully recovered from his injury. The skipper’s experience will be a key asset during the next weeks. He needed to gain match practice.
That leads us to Pauno’s first big question. If Moore starts, what should he do with Tom McIntyre? The only possibility to keep him (without changing the whole system) was to play him at left back. And he fully deserved to stay in the team. If I would have had to choose between the out-of-form Omar Richards and the Reading-born defender before kick-off, I most surely would have given the number five the starting spot.
Apart from that, Pauno opted for Tom Holmes again at right back, a position where two other players were available: Andy Yiadom and Tomas Esteves. After being injured for nearly three months, Yiadom played three times over the full 90 minutes within 10 days. Giving him a rest wasn’t such a big surprise and made sense.
So, Pauno had to choose between Holmes and Esteves. The decision in favour of the academy graduate was to me as well comprehensible as he offered a useful physical presence. Personally, my only change would have been to start Sone Aluko instead of Alfa Semedo in order to give a bit more creativity to our wing play. But again, someone could argue now that also Semedo deserved to start after his last performances in a deeper midfield role…
Overall, four decisions (Moore, Holmes, McIntyre and Semedo) that can be criticised, no doubt. But on the other hand, were the ideas behind it so wrong? To that, I would like to add that I’m really happy to see how Pauno supports our younger (local) players like Holmes and McIntyre and gives them the opportunity to play.
Of course, we can discuss the timing. Was Wycombe the right opponent to start both as full-backs? Maybe not. But what were the alternatives? Starting them at Rotherham, another relegation-battling opponent, wouldn’t have been made any difference. And leaving out Holmes for four and McIntyre for two consecutive matches respectively in weeks when the Royals play every three or four days seemed to me pretty harsh after they’d done so well before.
That said, I also think both Holmes and McIntyre are technically absolutely good enough to play at full-back. I don’t see them out of position there. Yiadom, to name a different example, played at the beginning of his career mainly as a winger. Richards was valued many times last season as defensively too weak for a left back. In modern football, players should be able to call more than one position their own.
In the end, the manager’s tactic will be always the first thing that’s criticised. But concerning the Wycombe game, one important aspect has moved too much into the background from my point of view: our set pieces. We had 11 corners, several free kicks in promising positions and one penalty. Still, we were unable to score one single goal!
Especially against an opponent that leaves little space in their own half, it’s so important the set pieces are spot on. Something we definitely lacked against Wycombe and definitely also something Pauno has to work on. I’m pretty sure we’d won the match if we’d scored the first goal. And then maybe no one would have talked about the gaffer’s “strange” team selection...