England’s use of the 4-3-3 in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Croatia got me thinking: would that be the right formation for Reading too? Gareth Southgate’s choice of that setup certainly paid off: his side were defensively solid, had good control of the game in midfield and created chances going forwards - even if the Three Lions weren’t at their free-flowing best.
The 4-3-3 came as something of a surprise. Going by the team sheet, it had been expected that England would set up in a 4-2-3-1, with Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice acting as the double pivot behind Mason Mount. However, Phillips being pushed up into a higher role and Mount coming back into a slightly deeper one meant the Three Lions were in fact in a 4-3-3.
That’s a crucial difference, and one that should be of interest to Reading. After all, Veljko Paunovic has predominantly set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 so far, with a defensively solid double pivot of Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent that’s reminiscent of the one England could have gone with against Croatia.
So should Pauno take after Southgate, rejig his midfield next season and go with a 4-3-3? Although there are more specific reasons that I’ll go into below, the principle of Reading making some significant tactical change in 2021/22 is worth considering. The 4-2-3-1 was the logical choice for Pauno’s debut campaign because, as he told The Coaches Voice, it was a straightforward formation.
“We tried to keep things simple. We went with a system they had played in the past – 4-2-3-1 – and one that my staff and I knew well enough that we could work with quickly.”
However, it had its shortcomings. A lack of variation in available personnel in the ‘2’ and ‘3’ - Reading’s deeper and more advanced midfielders respectively - meant the side seemed to run out of tactical ideas in the second half of the campaign.
A few other approaches were tried, most notably the 4-4-2 diamond from March that was designed to pair Lucas Joao with George Puscas. There were even a few variations on the 4-3-3, with centre forward Michael Olise flanked by two others. That worked wonderfully against Blackburn Rovers (Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite out wide), but less so at Brentford (Ovie Ejaria and Sam Baldock out wide).
Given that no alternatives to the 4-2-3-1 stuck, it would be worthwhile for Pauno to consider a new formation next season. It shouldn’t be too different from the 4-2-3-1, but would of course need to retain the current setup’s strengths while removing its weaknesses.
That’s where the 4-3-3 comes in.
It would bring so much more out of Rino
Let’s start with the surprise change made by Southgate at the weekend that was most key to England being in a 4-3-3 rather than 4-2-3-1: Phillips playing higher up.
Normally lining up much deeper at club level, the Leeds United man instead was more of a box-to-box midfielder for England, and put in a man-of-the-match display. He helped out in defence when required, but took up a higher position as a passing option in build-up (rather than going alongside Rice) and was given the license to push into the final third - hence his part in Raheem Sterling’s winner.
Crucially, when it comes to Reading switching to a 4-3-3, we essentially have our own Kalvin Phillips: Andy Rinomhota. There are some trivial similarities between the two (both were born in Leeds and are close in age at 25 and 24 respectively), but also an important tactical one: Rinomhota would be much better deployed as a box-to-box midfielder, so he would stand to benefit significantly from a 4-3-3.
Like Phillips for Leeds, Rinomhota generally plays closer to his own goal for Reading - although in his case he’s alongside a partner (Laurent), not on his own. That’s paid off for the Royals at times, most obviously in the early games of 2020/21 when Rinomhota and Laurent were imperious in protecting the backline.
With Reading largely sticking to the 4-2-3-1 throughout the season, it became increasingly clear (to me at least) that Rinomhota was wasted in the double pivot. My regular impression of his performances was of reliable solidity defensively, but few moments that put Reading on the front foot or created something in the final third.
For someone playing in such a deep spot, he lacks the required traits to progress the ball past the opposition’s midfield. Despite being tidy in possession, Rinomhota doesn’t really have the incisiveness to play through the lines or the range to consistently knock accurate long balls out wide or over the top. His two assists last season came from the latter scenario, but given that it wasn’t a regular feature of his play throughout the campaign, I don’t see long passing as a reliable source of creativity for him.
Where Rinomhota really comes into his own is in making driving runs forward. Admittedly that’s a slightly vague, overused term; I take it to mean direct dribbles, typically through the middle, that quickly take a team up the pitch due to the player’s strength and acceleration (more than quick footwork).
At full flow he’s a handful to deal with, particularly in the box. Rinomhota’s shown that he can win penalties when making a run into the area: examples in 2019/20 matches against Charlton Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City stand out to me, but he was playing higher up the pitch each time. His only goal of 2020/21, doubling Reading’s lead against Coventry City in January, was an isolated
I’d to see that more, but Rinomhota needs to be unshackled first. Switching to a 4-3-3 and pushing him into a higher role, allowing for greater license to push forward and find space, would do just that.
The midfield set-up of a 4-3-3 suits all of Reading’s midfielders and allows for varied combinations
Switching to a 4-3-3 wouldn’t be a drastic change for Reading’s midfield: it’s essentially a case of bringing the number 10 deeper and pushing one of the double pivot higher up. But it immediately creates a much more flexible structure. Rather than having two players committed to defence and one committed to attack, only one is kept back while the other two have the license to get up or down the field at different stages of the game, making a more fluid and less predictable setup.
Making that work though requires Reading having the right players for those two more advanced roles. They should be able to contribute across the park, whether in terms of having the energy to get up and down the pitch throughout the match or having the positional flexibility to be a threat on the ball in different areas. If you have too many midfielders specialising in one department though (such as a classic holding midfielder or outright number 10), you may as well just play a 4-2-3-1 instead.
As I mentioned above, Rinomhota is a particularly good example. He’s got the engine to help out in defence one moment, win tackles in the middle the next, and then arrive late in the box for a chance, all without breaking a sweat.
Although he’d likely play the deepest role in a midfield three, Josh Laurent’s experience as a box-to-box player means he could easily play higher up. John Swift has similar flexibility, having demonstrated in his Reading career that he can play in one of the higher positions of the trio or even as a quarterback in front of the defence. Ovie Ejaria isn’t an option as the deepest midfielder, but certainly has the creativity and energy to be a potent weapon in one of the more advanced spots. Plus, he’s already played there (alongside Rinomhota) in the closing stages of 2018/19.
That leaves us with Reading’s two back-up midfielders: Felipe Araruna and Dejan Tetek. Although we’ve seen little of either in the Royals’ first team, I’d certainly classify both as good fits for the box-to-box roles; they have the required energy to cover plenty of ground, in Rino-esque fashion.
Of course, I’ve missed out one key player here: Michael Olise. Although he’s versatile enough to play in the midfield or off either flank in a 4-3-3, he’s very much best deployed as a number 10, so a 4-2-3-1 suits him. Given his probably departure this summer though, this is a tactical dilemma that is unlikely to be an issue next season.
In fact, it’s an opportunity for Reading to - in popular political parlance - “build back better”. The Royals don’t need to directly replace Olise with a specialist number 10 and shouldn’t; any available funds from Olise’s sale could be reinvested into players that fit a 4-3-3 better, such as an alternative deep midfielder or wide forwards.
There’s precedent for Reading doing pretty much this exact same thing. Consider how the Royals reacted to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s departure in 2010: no new number 10 was signed. Instead, his set piece threat was replaced by Ian Harte at left back, while Mikele Leigertwood stepped into midfield. Both transfers helped reinforce the new formation Reading had moved into: in that case a 4-4-2.
The fascinating thing for me though is that, even if Reading made no new signings this summer, there are already a few really interesting tactical ideas for Pauno to play with. For example:
- Swift as a quarterback behind two box-to-box players, allowing for better control of the game through possession.
- Ejaria and Swift in the more advanced positions ahead of a defensive player. A much more attacking setup, reminiscent of Jose Gomes’ trio in early 2019/20, that could be used for breaking down tough opposition.
Reading’s forwards stand to benefit too
On the face of it, this is less of a pressing issue. Reading have just had the best season in ages when it comes to goal-scoring return from forwards, given that Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite netted 22 and 12 goals in all competitions respectively last term. Throw in the potential for more to come next season (George Puscas and Meite hopefully being much less affected by injury) and a complete overhaul isn’t required.
Evolution would still help though, and that’s what Reading can get from the 4-3-3.
The biggest beneficiary of this switch would be Meite. I’ve thought for a while that he’s more a wide forward than an outright centre forward (where his lack of technical ability can be exposed) or winger (which can leave him too far from goal to have an impact). The logical solution is to find the sweet spot in between.
Deploying him as a right-sided forward does just that. Although he’ll still need to drop back and do defensive work, he’ll generally be freed up that bit more to both charge at defenders with the ball and make runs in behind. Letting him do the latter as a wide forward, not a central striker, means he’d be harder to pick up.
Meite being moved means closer support for the central striker, whether that’s Lucas Joao or George Puscas. The benefit of pushing Meite upfield is most obvious for Puscas, who - considering he’s not a target man - needs bodies around him when he gets the ball. Joao too though would win. Meite’s runs stretching the opposition’s defence would create more room for Joao, making it less likely that he’d be crowded out and marked out of the game, as we saw often in the second half of last season.
This doesn’t work without new wingers coming in
The elephant in the room though is the players Reading lack: wingers. There’s no point switching to a 4-3-3, which relies on width in the front trio, if the Royals don’t have quick and direct wide forwards capable of stretching the play and running in behind.
Given the lack of options currently available (Meite, Mamadi Camara and Femi Azeez if he signs a new contract), Reading need three wide signings at least. The level of business required is similar to the summer of 2016 - the last time the Royals were developing a 4-3-3, and also when there was only one established wide player in the squad (Garath McCleary).
Back then, three wingers were signed in the summer (Roy Beerens, Yakou Meite and Callum Harriott) with another arriving in January (Adrian Popa). That mixture of experience level and playing style is a decent template for this summer’s transfer activity, even if the signings themselves were hit and miss.
To sum up
Changing formation isn’t without its risks, not least that moving to an unfamiliar system takes time and practice. In going to a 4-3-3 specifically, Reading would be that bit more exposed defensively, seeing as there’d be one fewer defensive midfielder and both wide players would be pushed higher for more of the game.
For me though, the benefits outweigh the negatives. Switching from 4-2-3-1 isn’t too drastic a change, but still allows Pauno to rejig his midfield to create a structure with better all-round balance.
A quick word on the defence, which I’ve not talked about yet. Its makeup naturally wouldn’t change if Reading were to go to a 4-3-3: it’s still a back four with the need to provide width and creativity from the full backs, and ideally centre backs who can play out. Simply put, no major changes there are required at all - I can’t foresee, say, Reading transitioning into playing a back three every week any time soon.
Here’s how a 4-3-3 could look for Reading:
Failure to evolve tactically can result in Reading becoming increasingly predictable and, ultimately, going backwards. Moving to a 4-3-3 is the best way to avoid that.