The RB spot at Reading has been a hot topic over the last few weeks following the return from injury of Andy Yiadom. Going into this season, Yiadom was the clear first choice for the spot and arguably the only recognised RB at the club. An injury in the opening-day victory at Derby County (and the subsequent injury to Araruna) opened the door to academy CB Tom Holmes and Porto loanee Tomas Esteves to fill in.
Over the last few months Holmes has put himself ahead of Esteves in the pecking order and played well in a team that looks well placed for a PO spot. The question now seems to be: stick with the young CB that’s filled in well or turn back to one of the best-performing RBs in the league over the last few years. To aid in this conversation I’ve taken a look at the RB role in this team and what Holmes and Yiadom can both bring to that position.
This season we’ve typically set up in a fairly recognisable 4-2-3-1 formation. On a few occasions we’ve adjusted for a specific opposition setup (Pauno explaining the 4-1-2-1-2 at Blackburn) but more often than non that basic 4-2-3-1 structure is tweaked to combat threats or exploit weaknesses in the opposition.
We’ve seen that in the responsibility of the CAM to either drift and link play or the run in behind. The same can be said for the RW position also. We’ve seen in some, but not all, games the LCDM pull into the LB space, LB push on and hold width and the LW move central as an orchestrated move to progress the ball from defence to attack.
In recent games we’ve seen the CAM and a CDM rotate to pull opposition markers away to create space. Crucially (to this article at least), it appears Pauno identifies the outcomes he wants to see from his team and selects what he thinks is the best personnel for that as opposed to assessing the personnel at his disposal and building the plan from there. Semedo and Meite are typically used when we want runs in behind but, we’ve also seen Swift and Aluko play that role in some games and look to pick up the ball deep and central in others.
With all the subtle, and more wholesales, tweaks to roles and structure, the role of the RB in this team has remained largely unchanged regardless of personnel available or opposition. I find that particularly interesting given the different profiles of RB options available.
So, what is that role?
Defensively, full backs on both sides tend to stick to their opponent wingers very tightly especially when we press high. When the press is beaten or we choose not to press, we tend to retreat to a deeper, narrow position. Full backs will follow wingers infield if needed but will stay compact if they hold width. Once the ball reaches their side, the full back will aggressively close down the winger on the ball and follow them throughout. Overlapping FBs are left to the reading winger to track.
In deep possession the RB will sit wide and be a passing option for the RCB and RCDM. First thought on the ball is to find the RW up the line or CAM between the lines. If that is not possible both the RB and RCB favour lofting a ball into the right channel for ST or midfield runner to try and pick. If not, then the ball tends to get recycled through a CDM and RCB out to the left where Reading tend to build most attacks.
Once into the opposition half, the RB is there to provide width. In this team the RB is often the only width on the right-hand side. Not usually there to provide an overlap, the RB tends to sit just short of the penalty box as an option to recycle the ball through Reading’s attacking players. When the LB has the ball high the pitch, the RB tends to tuck in to help compress the pitch and pick up second balls from crosses.
A more recent development has been the use of Holmes as a target from goal kicks when we are without both Meite and Semedo at CAM.
That contribution to shape and system has been the same regardless of who has played there despite the obvious differences in skill set between Holmes, Esteves and Yiadom. Does that mean that we won’t see the RB role change now that we have such good, flexible option available for selection in Yiadom? Possibly, but the RB role is heavily influenced by the options we have at RW. None of the current RW options want to hold wide. That limits the opportunity (or merit) of the full backs working infield, a strength of Yiadom and Esteves, so I don’t really see that role changing with the options we have there.
*Side note, we’ve seen Esteves used at RW and hold width in recent games so it will be interesting to see if that continues and whether that changes the RB role.
If picking between Holmes and Yiadom does little to change their respective roles within the team set-up then we must look at what each of them brings to the position. Defensive metrics do not paint a full picture of how well an individual is doing but they can help us compare our options as well as provide context against the wider division.
Middlesbrough was the first time Yiadom has started consecutive games this season so instead I am comparing Holmes 2020/21 to Yiadom 2019/20. It is not a perfect comparison given the change in manager but should give us some insight into what a fully fit Yiadom could bring to this team.
Yiadom is in orange, Holmes is in blue.
It’s no surprise to see Holmes involved in more aerial battles given we target him from set pieces and GKs. It is encouraging to see how Holmes compare relatively well to the rest of the division despite playing out of position. Again, these metrics will be influenced by lots of other factors aside from how the individual is performing.
That said, I feel like people forget how good a defender Andy Yiadom is. Maybe because of Yiadom’s good attacking output (more on that shortly), it feels like the narrative around these two RB options has descended to a defensive vs attacking selection. Yiadom is no defensive liability and in my eyes is still the better defender out of the pair.
Holmes’ CB traits have served him well in aspects of the RB role. His added height has been a nice bonus for winning balls at the back post and he has filled in well when we are scrambling. That said he has, understandably, struggled with other aspects. His lack of mobility has been exploited on occasion and he does not have the same recovery speed when caught up field as our other options. That mobility affects how aggressively he can press out to a winger when the ball is switched, and we’ve seen that play out in some games as an inability to prevent crosses. We’ve seen that Yiadom has the engine and pace to contribute at both ends of the pitch.
*Small shout-out to Tomas Esteves who comfortably beats both for # and success % of defensive duels per 90. Personally, I don’t think tales of his defensive unreliability really stack up but that’s a topic for another article.
In attack is where we see Yiadom really pull away from the competition for the RB spot in my eyes.
Holmes is a decent passer… from deep. You can see when watching him play that he is comfortable on the ball, happy to receive it and tries to play forward. We’ve seen him pick the ball up deep in our half and fire it into Joao’s feet to take three or four players out of the game. Where he is less effective is further forward.
Yiadom is in orange, Holmes is in blue.
Comparing his solid progressive passes (a forward pass that attempts to advance a team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal) to his much weaker smart passes (a creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition's defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in attack) suggests a player that can move the ball forward effectively but is not much use against a set defence.
Paired with how little Holmes carries the ball and how rarely he passes or crosses into the box, we build a picture of a player that gets less effective the further up the pitch they get. This all suggests to me that Tom Holmes could become a very good passing CB. In his brief appearances at CB he looks to have good body shape and awareness to move away from pressing forwards and play into midfield. The best aspects of his passing would be well suited to a deeper, central role.
Yiadom is in orange, Holmes is in blue.
Andy Yiadom is one of the best attacking fullbacks in the division and it is his ball carrying that sets him apart from the other options we have currently. Having someone who attempts so many dribbles, and progresses the ball so well with them, gives the team a whole new dynamic down the right-hand side.
When he passes, he is incisive and plays the ball into dangerous areas (smart passes and deep completions). Crossing is not a strong point for either player and is something we sorely miss from all our options. Reading are a team that have thrived this season on set pieces and transitions. When neither of those is really working, we’ve seen our attack get predictable and stodgy. Adding in another source of creativity without sacrificing Pauno’s non-negotiables could be exactly what we need to add the variety in attack that this team often lacks.
Whilst my preference between Holmes and Yiadom has probably been apparent throughout this piece, I hope that does not detract from how excited I am about Tom Holmes. Holmes is a good player. He possesses a lot of great attributes and his time at RB suggests he will go on to be a very good CB for us. He’s filled in admirably at RB but, in a team that sometimes lacks attacking variety or enough attacking players, he has contributed to some slow, stodgy attacking play with his lack of output high up the pitch.
With Yiadom, if we can keep him fit and get him back up to speed quickly, we’ve got one of the best full backs in the division. His ball-carrying ability could give us a whole new way of progressing the ball down the right-hand side, something this heavily left-sided team could benefit from. His effectiveness around the oppo box offers some much-needed variety and forces our opponents to contain an additional threat. More so than any other player in the squad, Yiadom is a FB you can give the entire wing to and trust he will contribute at both ends of the pitch.
I’m delighted that Tom Holmes has forced his way into having this breakout season and whichever division we are in next year I think he is well placed to put pressure on Morrision for a CB spot. I’m sure he will continue to provide a solid RB option this season but, in my view, it is time for Yiadom to be the go-to choice at RB for the rest of the season.
Thanks to Matthew Williamson (@Photomattic) for the excellent pass networks and heat maps for this piece.