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Further Reading: The Royals’ Evolution From 4-2-3-1 To 4-1-4-1

Having predominantly used the 4-2-3-1 for much of last season and the early stage of this one, Pauno’s started to rework Reading into a 4-1-4-1 since the international break.

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

Saturday’s 1-0 victory against Middlesbrough was a hugely pleasing one in numerous regards. Reading getting any win to make it three on the bounce was great in its own right, but adding a clean sheet with a makeshift defence added a couple of cherries on top of an already delicious cake.

What I found really interesting though was what it told us about the ongoing evolution of Reading’s shape. The 4-2-3-1 dominated Veljko Paunovic’s thinking last season and, while it was successful for much of the 2020/21 campaign, it ultimately ran out of steam; Reading needed tactical reinvigoration.

In the summer I argued why 4-3-3 would be the right choice, although that was dependent on recruitment that didn’t come to pass, and injuries would have made it redundant anyway. Instead, Pauno started the season by flicking between 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2, eventually settling on the former. However, it increasingly feels as if that formation is a thing of the past. Saturday was in fact the latest evidence that the Royals are now best described as a 4-1-4-1 side.

In this piece I’ll look back at how Reading set up earlier in the season, the changes Pauno has made since the international break to forge his new 4-1-4-1, why his version of the 4-1-4-1 is different to one used by his predecessor Paul Clement in 2018/19, and why two players are so important for the current system: Danny Drinkwater and Junior Hoilett.

First up, cast your mind back to Reading’s last three matches before the international break: Bristol City at home, Coventry City away and Huddersfield Town away. I’ve chosen these as the Royals committed to playing in a 4-2-3-1 for the last two of these games, having also used it for most of the first (switching from a back three when 2-0 down). The preceding win over Preston North End came with a back three.

Here’s Reading’s positioning for the Bristol City loss. Note the clearly identifiable double pivot that’s been so synonymous with Pauno’s 4-2-3-1: Andy Rinomhota (8) is close to Josh Laurent (28). Further up the pitch, although George Puscas (47) is very deep, you can make out the attacking three of Ethan Bristow (41), John Swift (10) and Femi Azeez (30).

Now the Coventry City loss. Although right winger Azeez is much higher and Puscas is again deeper, you can still see the double pivot and three midfielders ahead. Yiadom’s (17) position is so central because he switched to left back after Tom McIntyre’s (5) injury.

And finally the Huddersfield Town loss. Right winger Tom Dele-Bashiru is so deep as to be just behind Rinomhota, but you can still make out the 4-2-3-1.

Consistent with the basic ‘double pivot’ structure from last season, in all of those graphics Rinomhota isn’t far ahead of Laurent. If Rino’s further upfield, it’s not by much. The ‘central attacking midfield’ job is very much given to Swift, who takes up a very similar position in each match.

After the international break though, an injury for Rinomhota meant Dele-Bashiru taking the spot ‘next to’ Laurent. At that point, there was an immediate change in Reading’s midfield shape. Here’s how the Royals looked in the 3-3 draw with QPR:

It still broadly resembles a 4-2-3-1, but TDB is noticeably higher upfield than Rinomhota had been. Squint a bit and you can just about make out the early signs of a 4-1-4-1.

TDB’s more advanced positioning makes sense as he’s a distinctly better attacking option than Rinomhota. Comparing TDB’s 2021/22 stats with Rino’s 2020/21 stats (to get a bigger sample size for Rino), the Watford loanee is well ahead in shots per game (1.6 to 0.4), dribbles (2 to 0.5) and key passes (1 to 0.4).

While those stats can partially be explained by Dele-Bashiru being put into a more advanced role (which may well have similarly benefitted Rinomhota), TDB’s involvement in a few key attacking moments illustrates the difference between them. TDB’s brace against Peterborough United means he’s beaten Rinomhota’s ‘season bests’ for goalscoring (he’s netted once in each of 2018/19, 2019/20 and 2020/21), he was involved in the winner against ‘Boro and should have had one himself when sneaking in behind for a one-on-one.

Side note: while I’d accept that Rinomhota is the better defensive option of the two, that’s a separate discussion which I won’t get into here.

Since the QPR draw, Dele-Bashiru (19) has maintained his more advanced positioning in relation to the deepest central midfielder. Here’s the 3-1 win against Peterborough United...

...and the 1-0 win over ‘Boro, for which Danny Drinkwater (15) took Laurent’s spot in midfield. Also note how deep Junior Hoilett (23) is. We’ll come back to that later.

(I deliberately ignored the Fulham game for two reasons: 1) It was tactically a very different game so isn’t directly comparable to the others, 2) Laurent starting in midfield and then playing most of the game at centre back meant I don’t have an accurate, comparable positioning graphic).

Looking at those last two graphics, you can see a 4-1-4-1 taking shape. Consistent with the 4-2-3-1, Reading still have a back four with the full backs pushed high for width and a lone centre forward. However, instead of a double pivot and attacking trio, the midfield has been rejigged: now a single deep-lying central midfielder behind four more advanced midfielders.

The 4-1-4-1 isn’t a new formation for Reading, but Pauno’s take on it feels inventive.

Cast your mind back to the first half of 2018/19 under Paul Clement, who used the 4-1-4-1 various times. He initially had success with it by deploying Saeid Ezatolahi and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson in the anchor and target-man roles respectively, before having to drop the system when both were injured. He’d later return to the 4-1-4-1 shortly before his departure, this time with Liam Kelly and Yakou Meite in those spots.

Back then, the 4-1-4-1 felt pretty conventional: a holding midfielder to shield the defence, two more advanced central midfielders (one or both being box-to-box players such as Andy Rinomhota or Leandro Bacuna), two outright wide players such as Josh Sims and Modou Barrow, and an orthodox centre forward. The basic structure was pretty similar to that of a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1.

Pauno’s take on the 4-1-4-1 however feels like a slight reinvention of the concept because he’s coming at it from a different angle to Clement. While Clement may have taken influence from a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, the lasting influence of the 4-2-3-1 on Pauno’s 4-1-4-1 is clear. This time the midfield quartet is made up of four advanced creators who are broadly similar stylistically, rather than there being box-to-box players and wingers thrown into the mix.

As a result, the balance of the midfield is very different: less structured, more fluid.

A bit about Danny Drinkwater...

What also sets this 4-1-4-1 apart from Clement’s though are the two ‘1s’ in the formation: the deep-lying midfielder and the centre forward. While Clement chose a ball-winner in Ezatolahi and target man in Bodvarsson, Pauno was able to go for very different personnel: quarterback Danny Drinkwater and false nine Junior Hoilett.

Let’s look first at Drinkwater, who’s rightly come in for plenty of praise for his performance against Boro. He was far more involved and influential in possession than we’ve had from a deep-lying midfielder in years. On a statistical level he had the most touches (82) and passes (73), but even just by the eye test he was impressively authoritative with the ball at his feet.

There was this lovely one-two with Hoilett before releasing Dele-Bashiru...

Reading FC on YouTube

...and a pass from deep - again to Hoilett - that bypassed Boro’s midfield in the build-up to Reading’s goal...

Reading FC on YouTube

Those passes look simple, but that’s not the point. The art of a really effective deep playmaker is being able to quickly read the game, spot what opportunities are on and then exploit them with an accurate pass. Drinkwater does all of that in both of those clips without needing an extra touch, and Reading’s forward play is all the more succinct and incisive for it.

Reading do have other players with a similar skill set. We’ve known full well for years that John Swift can pick an intricate pass, while Alen Halilovic has done so a few times to eye-catching effect this season. But if they’re to do that they need to drop deep from more advanced positions. While that’s a useful option and both were happy to do so on Saturday - as you can see from Halilovic at the start of that second clip - it’s not something Reading should rely on all the time.

Having someone of Drinkwater’s quality in a dedicated quarterback role is a better option. That positioning will generally allow him more space in which to operate, and the play being in front of him means he can constantly be assessing passing options before he gets the ball. It’s no accident that, in those two clips above, Drinkwater looks like he knows exactly what he wants to do before he does it.

...and a bit about Junior Hoilett

If it’s useful having a consistent source of attacks, it’s just as valuable to have a consistent outlet for them too. Watching the game in real time on Saturday I’ll admit some modest frustration with lone striker Junior Hoilett: no outright concerns, but a mild annoyance that he wasn’t more of a goal threat himself.

The more I’ve thought about it, both after the game and during the process of writing this, the more I’ve realised that I missed the point. After all, surely it’s no coincidence that Hoilett was involved in both of those clips above? Each time he was the target that Drinkwater opted to hit. Surely that dropping off and finding space to receive a pass demonstrates his own astute reading of the game?

Let’s roll that second clip on a little. It’s quick, simple, clever stuff from Hoilett: he opts to stay in space so he’s not drawn into a direct physical confrontation, lures the defender out a little, turns quickly and pops the ball into Swift. It’s not complicated, but Hoilett does it succinctly and effectively to keep the ball moving.

Reading FC on YouTube

Side note: I really like how quickly Dele-Bashiru, Swift and Halilovic break beyond Hoilett after he turns. There’s no point in Hoilett being there if he doesn’t get the support.

So, how do we best describe Hoilett’s role? Has he been asked to replicate Puscas’ role of being an outright centre forward who plays on the last man and looks to get in behind, or operate as a false nine who drops deeper with the explicit task of getting on the ball and linking play?

The answer is definitely the latter. We can see Hoilett’s style in his touch map: his 49 touches (a high score for a centre forward) came across midfield, centrally and out wide, as he gravitated into different positions to get on the ball. He barely got in or even near Boro’s penalty area.

Junior Hoilett’s touches against Middlesbrough

For context, let’s compare that to a Puscas touch map. As you can see from his performance against QPR, Puscas didn’t get on the ball anywhere near as much (only making 25 touches), but more of them came in or near the penalty area.

The stylistic differences between the two can also be seen in their passing stats. In contrast to Puscas’ two last starts (QPR and Peterborough, his best two all-round performances of the season) Hoilett played significantly more passes and at a greater accuracy.

Hoilett vs Middlesbrough: 32 passes, 90% accuracy

Puscas vs QPR: 12 passes, 66% accuracy

Puscas vs Peterborough: 18 passes, 83% accuracy

Those stats and touch maps don’t prove that Hoilett is a better striker: it’s not necessarily a centre forward’s job to get as many touches and passes as they can. They do however demonstrate the stark stylistic dissimilarities between the two players; Hoilett is being asked to do a very different tactical job to Puscas. If you’ve been wondering why Puscas hasn’t started the last two games, this probably explains Pauno’s thinking: he wants something from his centre forward that Puscas can’t offer.

We can also see a clear distinction with the runs Hoilett makes - even when he doesn’t get the ball. Watch his movement on the edge of the area in the build-up to Swift’s first-half chance. Instead of trying to dart into that gap between the centre backs, he drops off.

Reading FC on YouTube

Now ask yourself how that scenario plays out if Puscas is leading the line instead of Hoilett. He’d surely continue that run into the box, hoping to get on the end of a Halilovic through ball himself. This isn’t a criticism - if Puscas is in the team you really want him to be trying to get in behind. It is however evidence of how stark the stylistic difference between the two ‘strikers’ is.

Having a false nine with Hoilett’s movement in these instances is beneficial for Reading’s attacking four midfielders. In that clip, besides offering himself as a short passing option for Halilovic, Hoilett’s movement also has the effect of disrupting Boro’s back line by dragging a defender out of position, giving Swift that bit more time to pull the trigger - even though he fluffs his lines.

We’ve seen Hoilett have a similar impact on other occasions in the last two matches. His movement and link-up play were important in the chance for Dele-Bashiru and Halilovic’s goal, while he was also involved - directly or indirectly - in the moves for Ovie Ejaria’s brace at Fulham, which I looked at in more depth here.

A trend is emerging: Reading are getting better at creating high-quality open-play chances for the midfield four, helped heavily by the movement of false nine Hoilett.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to like about this 4-1-4-1. Against Boro it looked fluid, inventive, suited to getting a lot out of our currently available attacking talent, and - dare I say it - capable of breaking down stubborn defences in open play. That’s something we’ve struggled with in recent years, particularly at home, not least in last season’s 2-0 defeat to Boro (ironically).

There are downsides to the 4-1-4-1 though. Even with this system and personnel at their best there are clear tactical weaknesses that could be exploited: the lack of a more defensive midfielder to add steel to the middle of the park, no outright quick winger (which has been a long-term complaint far predating the 4-1-4-1) and no target man to hold the ball up by winning aerial duels.

It’s not that Reading lack potential solutions. Injuries permitting, Pauno will at some point be able to add any of Josh Laurent, Andy Rinomhota, George Puscas, Lucas Joao, Femi Azeez and eventually Yakou Meite to the midfield and attack. All of those players could be the stylistic tweaks that strengthen this system.

Given the ongoing need for tactical evolution across a season, you can easily see how introducing some of those players at different points would freshen things up and provide new ideas, whether across multiple games or simply as options off the bench. However, you can also see how Pauno may struggle to fit some of those players into the starting XI, especially if the injury list really clears up.

At the moment though, Reading have a promising new tactical blueprint that still requires work and improvement - not the finished article. Seeing how it develops in the coming weeks and months though will be fascinating, and may well play an important part in how this season unfolds.