Reading named exactly the same XI as they did at Stoke City on the opening day but switched formations. Out was the 4-2-3-1, a familiar set-up from last season that required a couple of square pegs in round holes (Tom McIntyre at left back, Ethan Bristow on the left wing), in was a system that’s probably best described as a 3-4-1-2.
Given the absence of wide players Ovie Ejaria and Yakou Meite since before the Stoke game, going to a system with wing-backs instead of wide players higher up the pitch (like in a 4-2-3-1) made sense. Not using this set-up at Stoke was either down to trust in the 4-2-3-1 or a lack of preparation time for a change (or both), but whatever the case, it’s interesting that Pauno changed tack at the first time of asking.
That meant Reading lined up something like this:
By most accounts the decision to go 3-4-1-2 paid off. Reading had good control of the contest for most of the match, played some good football and didn’t look obviously weak in any area.
There’s room for improvement though. Pauno will probably want his side to have more possession in home games such as these than the 43% Reading ended the match with, and to be more dangerous in the final third. Two goals from two shots on target (plus 10 off target) got the job done but it can and should be higher in future.
While some of that is down to Azeez’ inexperience in letting some good openings go, I felt during the game that Reading lacked cohesion between midfield and attack. It was often as if the forward three (Joao, Azeez and Swift) were a bit too separate from those behind them; indeed, the central midfielders and wing backs finished the game having created just three chances: one for Bristow, one for Yiadom (a long ball from Reading’s half) and the assist from Laurent (not registered by WhoScored but I’ll add it anyway).
All four did tidy, efficient jobs in their own right but there’s more to come as Reading develop this system. After all, being fluent going forwards in a new formation doesn’t come overnight.
The kids are alright
Despite the prior-mentioned room for improvement, it’s worth highlighting the encouraging signs I did see from Reading’s two junior starters: Ethan Bristow and Femi Azeez. For context, both were playing in slightly different roles to last week (left wing back rather than left winger, striker rather than right winger) and are still very new to starting games at this level, but if either had any nerves they weren’t evident.
If Reading are to make a success of the 3-4-1-2, we’ll need good attacking runs from the wing backs. We saw that a couple of times from Bristow. First in making a run into the box early in the game and almost getting on the score sheet...
...while he also showed a keen desire to get into the box during the move that was ultimately finished off by Azeez. On another day, Laurent feeds Bristow rather than going for the back post himself and Reading have a different good crossing opportunity.
Reading may have finished the game with only the two goals from two shots on target, but the fact that Azeez could realistically have gone home with four goals for himself shows the effect he had on the game. In fact, he was joint top for shots taken in the game, level with Preston’s Daniel Johnson on four, and highest for shots inside the area (three).
The three efforts Azeez didn’t score from paints a picture of what he can offer to the side: pace in behind. While there were signs of that at Stoke a week ago, it came to fruition much more against Preston.
Azeez twice got runs on goal before letting fly with his stronger left foot (albeit being forced a bit too wide each time and firing off target from a narrow). In the first half that came from an Andy Yiadom long ball, while John Swift picked out a run with a through ball in the second. His best chance, a counter after nicking the ball away and charging up the pitch, demonstrated his outright pace in running at a backpedaling defence.
In all three cases sharpening-up is required, but that’ll come with match experience. The morale boost of a goal will undoubtedly help too. Plus, based on his positioning, more goals should be a matter of when, not if. Of Azeez’ 35 touches against Preston (a decent return that edges strike partner Joao’s 32), 11 were inside the box.
For context, Joao’s 32 came deeper and more central.
So Azeez gets on the ball a good amount, drifts out to either flank, gets into the box and gets shots away. Of course this is just evidence from one game, but there’s enough there to show that Azeez has the potential to add variety to Reading’s attack and cutting edge in the final third. I’m intrigued to see how well he’ll be able to keep it and develop on it in the future.
Pauno hasn’t learned his lesson with substitutions
Reminiscent of last season, Pauno again neglected to use his bench. It took until the 85th minute for the first Reading change (after Preston had done so on 63). Not only was that an enforced one (the injured Joao being withdrawn for Puscas), but it proved to be the only Reading switch.
That’s frustrating given how the game was going in the latter stages: Preston were mounting pressure on Reading, who needed to adjust the flow of the contest to protect the lead. That could have been done by introducing fresh legs into the midfield (Dejan Tetek and Tom Dele-Bashiru were available), while Tom Holmes was an alternative option for solidifying the back line with aerial presence.
Switching things up is a gamble, but so is keeping things as they are. It feels very much as if Pauno’s instinct is to trust those on the pitch at any particular time, even at the expense of the kind of proactivity that can really help out in such situations.
Reading weren’t punished this time, but still had to rely on Rafael in the latter stages. On another day, one of Preston’s late chances goes in, we draw 2-2 and come out of Saturday’s game with a very different result. Pauno can and should do better with how he uses his bench in the future.
Fitting Ovie Ejaria into this side isn’t easy, but an answer may have to be found - unless an injury opens up an obvious space for him or Pauno switches back to 4-2-3-1. At the moment Reading’s best bet is probably to have him as an option off the bench, but he’d provide an appealing alternative option in two ways:
- Using him instead of Rinomhota or Laurent to give a particularly attacking central midfield three, reminiscent of how Jose Gomes set up his 3-5-2 in early 2019/20.
- Using him instead of Azeez to create a 3-4-3. Playing Ejaria and Swift off a centre forward would mean less threat in behind, but better ball retention in midfield if Reading want to see a match out.
Pauno deployed his back three with Morrison on the right and Moore central. While that’s similar to the back-four setup and is therefore probably the safest choice defensively, from an attacking point of view I’d like to see them the other way around. Like McIntyre, Moore is good at bringing the ball out from the back, and he’d do that more easily in the right channel.
It was good to see Kian Leavy and Jahmari Clarke on the bench against Preston. While neither played, their involvement suggests that Pauno likes both of them. The former in particular had an encouraging evening against Swansea City in the League Cup, so I’m looking forward to him getting more involvement this season.