Some say the 2-0 lead is the most dangerous situation. Some say Beauty and the Beast is a heartwarming tale of true love. In reality, both are simply scary stories to tell the kids at night. The former is a cliché based on immeasurable psychological effects like complacency and concentration. I personally used to love being two goals up, but then I suffered this season.
In 2021/22, Reading have lost 46.7% of their leads, topped by only Derby, Bristol City and Barnsley. Yet, Reading have squandered two-goal leads on three occasions, and that trio have achieved that feat only once combined. Pauno’s side are the worst Championship team with a scoreboard advantage.
Why are Reading throwing so many leads?
So, what is happening at Reading? Ignore the amateur psychology. We could discuss if Reading dropped two points to Derby based on desire, but that is only adding 2+2 to make a Graeme Souness soundbite. Talk of xP (expected PASHUN) is tedious. Likewise, match fitness may be an issue, but remains completely unsubstantiated.
So, we focus on the measurables: 12 points dropped from winning positions, a +2-goal difference in the first half and a -9 GD after the break. Everything boils down to game state. Ie: Reading become more passive if they are winning a match. All teams face the same problem – taking the lead incites a more defensive approach.
StatsBomb wrote this piece on game states a while back. It is a long, detailed read, but the key takeaway is that teams with a lead are expected to score the next goal 55.3% of the time, but only achieve 50.6%. “Expected” refers to statistical adjustments for team quality and other variables. Essentially, a scoreboard advantage makes a team 5% worse on average. Which makes sense, right? Humans are driven by their needs. In Team A 1-0 Team B, Team A does not need to score another goal to win the match. Hence, they are less likely to.
So Reading are no different to other teams?
Well, not quite. Reading are a particularly bad example of the impact of game state. With help from a few examples (courtesy of @experimental361), the expected goals timelines tell the story. xG is no perfect metric but can visualise patterns over a period of time. Reading create almost zero chances and concede plenty more chances when ahead. Which is bad.
There are two explanations. Either it is an unconscious move and Pauno cannot identify or fix the problem, which would make him an ineffectual manager. Or it is a conscious choice, which would make him a foolish manager. Neither explanation is particularly good.
The more likely explanation is that it is a tactical decision, coined ‘turtling’. A pretty self-explanatory term – a team retreats into a defensive shell (like a turtle) when leading a match. The idea is that you solidify your lead and make it more difficult for your opponents to equalise. Jose Mourinho made a career out of turtling like a champ, which means it can work! Like most tactical innovations, the concept is quite simple, but the execution is why some coaches get paid the big bucks. The issue is Pauno’s Plucky Turtles do not have very strong shells.
Of course, it works sometimes. Fulham, Boro and Cardiff are all games when Pauno parked the turtles in the 18-yard box and secured the lead. However, each time Reading conceded many shots and many chances. Then, most recently against Derby, it often fails spectacularly. We all saw it happen – after Hoilett’s second the Royals surrendered possession, territory and all attacking intention. Curtis Davies spent the last 10 minutes playing striker because Derby felt so comfortable defending potential counters.
Obviously, not everything is about on-pitch positioning. A more astute man than me (@photomattic) is regularly in utter disbelief at the substitutions, or lack thereof, from Paunovic. On Monday renowned injury-magnet Andy Carroll played the full 90 minutes. With the team camped out in their own box, there was a desperate need for an outlet which an exhausted Geordie could not fulfil. Other lowlights include George Pușcaș off for Tom Holmes on 83’ at 3-2 against QPR and the constant appearance of the disappearing Alfa Semedo last season.
But doesn’t more defenders = better defending?
No. I cannot stress this enough, NO. Look to the extremities – Pep Guardiola plays attackers all over the pitch and is never prone to turtling (unless Donatello, Raphael and the lads are practicing their rondos in the sewers). Yet Man City have a consistently excellent defensive record. They have given up 0 (zero) points from winning positions this season because defending is a team game. It is as much about keeping the ball safe as making last-ditch tackles. Giving up 20+ shots a game, as Reading are very fond of doing this season, means the keeper will inevitably let one in.
There is far more to say about why Reading turtle, and why they are bad at turtling. The main point is that they stop attacking. Giving Derby 40 minutes to score two goals might work, but if you score the third, then it is game over. Why put so much pressure on the defence to repel waves of attacks? Try to win the game, rather than trying not to lose the lead. Fortune favours the bold and Reading are a team running scared.