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Further Reading: A Strike Pairing Could Be The Royals’ Way Forward

Pauno’s decision to partner Puscas and Joao on Saturday showed signs of potential.

Reading v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by John Early/Getty Images

A quick foreword before I begin: I wrote pretty much all of this before it started to look increasingly likely (on Friday) that George Puscas will be off to Pisa on loan. It’s typically poor timing but, off the chance this article doesn’t age really poorly, you can read it below anyway. Also a hat tip to Benjy Nurick who did a similar piece on this topic for the Reading Chronicle - you can read it right here.

If you were to put together a shortlist of the most-discussed tactical topics in the Reading fanbase in recent years, the concept of ‘going two up top’ would rank very highly. It’s a long-standing issue with plenty to be said on both sides, plus a hefty amount of nuance in the middle. We all have our own take and won’t form a consensus any time soon.

While there’s only so much you can learn from one game, Saturday’s defeat to Huddersfield Town certainly moved the debate forward. Veljko Paunovic’s decision to pair two strikers together - in this Lucas Joao with George Puscas - and his success in doing so were significant for the tactical story of Reading’s 2021/22 season.

This was after all the first time Reading have unequivocally gone with a strike pairing in the starting XI this season. It’s been tried as a plan B by subbing on Jahmari Clarke or Andy Carroll to partner Puscas, Swift has played off Puscas in something vaguely resembling a partnership if you squint hard enough (Millwall away), and Reading seemed to be a in a 4-4-2 with two false nines (Swift and Tom Dele-Bashiru) early on in the 2-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers.

There’s been no shortage of calls from fans for Reading to go two up top this season - particularly for the sake of Puscas. In reality the Royals should be ahead to get more out of him as a lone striker anyway (both in terms of the team giving him service and the player specifically raising his game), but it’s hard to deny Puscas would be helped by playing with a partner.

Making that happen has been easier said than done. Joao’s been absent for almost all of the season, Clarke has promise but is far from the finished article and Carroll only played eight times for Reading before his short-term contract expired. Even in that latter period, Pauno generally opted for an extra midfielder and no partner for Carroll, who’s capable of leading the line on his own anyway.

Conditions changed for the Huddersfield game though. Reading had two fully fit centre forwards (Puscas and Joao) and a dearth of wide players (Ovie Ejaria, Alen Halilovic, Femi Azeez completely uninvolved; Junior Hoilett only fit enough for the bench), but enough centre backs and central midfielders.

3-1-4-2 it was.

It didn’t take long for the strike pairing to pay off. Puscas was involved in the routine for a pleasingly well-worked opener finished off by Joao. The move begins with Reading clearly in the 3-1-4-2 shape that was used at the start of the game to facilitate Puscas playing alongside Joao: you can make out the back three, Danny Drinkwater just in front, a four consisting of wing backs and central midfielders, plus the strike pairing.

The ball is with left wing-back Baba Rahman who’s looking for the run of Puscas.

Reading FC on YouTube

Rahman plays it into the feet of Puscas who’s drifted out wide to the left wing, dragging a defender out of position in the process. Look at how much space has opened up between Puscas and Joao!

He controls the ball and knocks it back into the path of the onrushing Rahman, who can stride forward into open space like a stallion galloping across an open plain... which point Reading essentially have a two on one in the middle, Rahman has an easy job of playing in Joao who provides the finish.

It’s an aesthetically pleasing, beautifully simple routine that takes the ball from a relatively non-threatening area of the pitch to the back of the net in around 10 seconds.

And it’s one that could really only have been pulled off by a strike pairing. The key ingredient isn’t a piece of impressive skill from assister Rahman or scorer Joao (although they’re certainly capable of such moments) - it’s the movement of Puscas to stretch Huddersfield’s back line. Puscas’ run from a central position to a wide one forces Town’s defence to react in two instances: first in covering his movement and then in closing down the space that pops up centrally.

Yes, it’s really simple stuff, but it’s the kind of disruption that Reading generally don’t seem to do that much. It could be achieved in a sole-striker system and in fact has - false nine Junior Hoilett stretched Middlesbrough in the 1-0 home win for example - but it’s not been a regular feature of Reading’s play this season.

After all, the lone striker this season has generally been Puscas (16 starts), but he’s struggled to get decent service out wide and into the channels where he can be more effective. We’ve also seen Andy Carroll more recently but he’s a pretty static target man who’s best off staying central.

Opting for a strike pairing however allows Puscas the license to drift out wide where he can do more damage - without also carrying the responsibility of being the central focal point, which he struggles to do. Note how many of his 30 touches against Huddersfield came out on the left:

For context, here are Joao’s 30 touches:

30 for each of Reading’s front two is a pretty decent return. It’s also encouraging that both managed to touch the ball a reasonable amount in Huddersfield’s box - more so Puscas (7/30).

And one of those seven capped off a really well taken first league goal of the campaign. I’m reticent to read too much into this goal from a ‘two up top’ standpoint, especially given that Joao isn’t involved, although I do wonder if lone-striker Puscas would be making this run. After all, in a manner reminiscent of the build-up for the first goal, he starts central but moves out wide (this time well in advance of the ball coming to him).

Huddersfield Town on YouTube

At the very least, it was great to see Puscas not only finding the net but also showing great confidence as part of a really well-taken goal. It’s exactly the kind of goal we want him to be scoring, so hopefully this’ll be a boost to push him on in the future.

There’s plenty of room for improvement though. Puscas and Joao may have scored once each but, as you’ll see from the above touch graphics, they only managed five shots between them - just two of which were in the second half when Reading were chasing the game. The Royals must supply the front two more than that in the future.

It’ll naturally take practice, which hasn’t been available so far. Saturday was just the second time Puscas and Joao have completed 90 minutes together for Reading. It was also the first time they’ve played together at all since March 2021 - a brief period when Pauno experimented with a 4-4-2 diamond and had some success: Joao set up Puscas for the winner against Blackburn Rovers (1-0) and Puscas won a penalty to open the scoring against Sheffield Wednesday - a 3-0 win in which Joao also netted. However, a combination of Yakou Meite’s superior form (to Puscas’) and the manager’s ultimate preference for 4-2-3-1 ended things after the 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest.

4-4-2 diamond is an option now and, indeed, it’s the system Reading went to later on in the first half against Huddersfield. However, while that’s a promising attacking set-up for when the Royals need to take the game to the opposition, we’d probably get more defensive solidity in a 3-1-4-2, although it’ll obviously need improvements itself after the Huddersfield game. That could well start at QPR on Saturday; Rangers use a back three themselves so Pauno will be tempted to match them up.

As for personnel, Reading have a nice mix of options. Ideally we’d want a focal point (someone who can play with their back to goal) and a runner (someone looking to stretch the play horizontally and vertically like Puscas did for the goals against Huddersfield).

Potential focal points: Joao, Clarke, Hoilett

Potential runners: Puscas, Meite, Azeez

As for the rest of the team, Reading in theory have the options to either set it up in a 3-1-4-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond. However, given our luck with injuries this season, you could well see Pauno leaning towards one formation or the other depending on who’s available. A few general points:

  • Reading don’t have much centre-half cover now Liam Moore’s gone AWOL
  • Reading’s abundance of central midfielders, many of whom are more attack-minded (John Swift, Ovie Ejaria, Alen Halilovic) or effectively used as box-to-box players (Josh Laurent, Tom Dele-Bashiru, Andy Rinomhota) makes a diamond more likely
  • Pauno generally prefers a back four
  • Then again, Reading’s inexperienced back-up full backs (Ethan Bristow, Tyrell Ashcroft) would be better deployed as wing backs - if they have to start - where they have less defensive duty
  • I’d love to see Tom McIntyre as the left-sided centre back in a three where he can bomb forward to his heart’s content

All in all there’s a lot to think about here but, knowing Pauno, he’ll probably end up back at the 4-2-3-1 anyway. But he’s shown tactical growth earlier this season, increasingly using a 4-1-4-1 for better midfield balance, so he could be tempted to evolve again and pick a 3-1-4-2 to accommodate a strike pairing.

Then again, he might not. This season’s been a weird one to try to predict.