With no club football to think about due to the World Cup break, my mind turned to something random: how would previous Royals managers set up this squad if they were in charge today? What would the Reading side of 2022/23 side look like if Steve Coppell, Jaap Stam or Jose Gomes suddenly rocked up in the dugout?
The most realistic conclusion is a boring one: if a prior boss were to be appointed now, they’d very probably be pragmatic. Regardless of their philosophy, in all likelihood they’d adjust their thinking to get the most out of the current squad rather than ignoring certain personnel based on tactical purity.
Pure realism is no fun though, so that’s not really what I’m going for. I’ve picked out five managers from the past two decades and attributed to them a specific system they used substantially at Reading - ie not just for the odd game here or there. They’re not necessarily the dominant system from their spell in Berkshire or even the one they used from the off.
There are some notable managerial exceptions in this article. I deliberately wanted to focus on managers who brought something distinct tactically - otherwise there’d be too many mentions of 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. This certainly isn’t to say that those excluded were bad managers or those included were good managers - or even that the five systems under discussion were particularly effective. I just found them interesting enough to cover.
Some players inevitably dominate these selections. That’s particularly true at the back: Joe Lumley is the established number one, Andy Yiadom and Baba Rahman are Reading’s best full-backs in a four, Tom Holmes is vice-captain and Sam Hutchinson is probably more suited to a four than Naby Sarr.
Liam Moore and Scott Dann could be options but, having seen little of them in the last 12 months, I’ve kept things simpler and not really considered either. Otherwise though, the midfield and attack are a lot more malleable and that’s where the real variety comes into play.
So without any further ado...
Steve Coppell’s classic 4-4-2 (2005/06)
Let’s start with an old-fashioned set-up from when Reading took the Championship by storm all the way back in 2005/06. Steve Coppell’s 106 side was based on a classic 4-4-2 that’s not often used in the modern game, now that teams so often opt for features such as a three-man midfield, inverted wingers or lone striker.
So to replicate ‘Coppell Ball’ we need the following: orthodox wingers who tend to stay wide and get crosses in, a midfield combination of a box-to-box player and a ball-winner, and a strike pairing of a target man and someone to run the channels. It’s pretty apt that, for the most part, we have to turn to Reading’s older players to find the personnel who can make this 4-4-2 work.
In the middle of the park I tried (stress on the word tried) to copy the James Harper/Steve Sidwell combo with Mamadou Loum and Jeff Hendrick. The former provides the muscle while the latter is the closest Reading have at the moment to an attack-minded box-to-box midfielder with a goal threat. Ovie Ejaria could be an alternative offensive option instead of Hendrick, but is too lightweight to play centrally in a 4-4-2.
Out wide are Junior Hoilett and Tom Ince, swapping wings from their usual sides to put them on their stronger foot - so Hoilett on the right, Ince on the left. They have in fact both played on these sides in a 4-2-3-1 last season - Ince under Veljko Paunovic, Hoilett under Ince - so they’d certainly have no trouble in this 4-4-2.
Up top I considered Yakou Meite as the target man, but if you’re going to play a classic 4-4-2, really you need to go with Andy Carroll and Shane Long. They have no shortage of experience playing this system. The latter is a no-brainer given that he was in the 2005/06 squad himself. As an aerial threat on the end of crosses from Ince and Hoilett, you can’t do any better than Carroll.
Steve Clarke’s lopsided 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid (2015/16)
Although he largely stuck to the more straightforward 4-4-2 he inherited from Nigel Adkins in his first season, Steve Clarke tried something a little different in the early stages of 2015/16. Reading had an eclectic mix of talent to fit together: Aaron Tshibola, Oliver Norwood, Stephen Quinn, Nick Blackman, Orlando Sa, Matej Vydra and others. Clarke’s solution was a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid: a midfield trio “consisting of a ball winner, a playmaker and a Duracell bunny” as Hugh summed up at the time, and a fluid front three, but with the right-sided forward (Blackman) dropping back to make a 4-4-2 out of possession.
Annoyingly there’s no deep-lying, expansive passer in this squad to take on the Norwood role in midfield. The closest we get is Hendrick who probably just about has the ability to operate as a quarterback. As for a Tshibola-esque ball-winner who doesn’t need to do anything complicated in possession, that’s Mamadou Loum.
We now need an energetic ‘Duracell bunny’ who can look after the left flank - sometimes as a winger, at other points more like a conventional central midfielder. While it’s different to his normal roles at Reading, Tom Ince would be really well suited to this one. I’d actually be really interested to see him do this in real life.
And finally our fluid front three. On the right, taking Blackman’s ‘winger/striker’ spot, is of course Yakou Meite. As someone mobile who’s played up top and out wide in recent years, he’s a no-brainer.
I interpret the final two slots as a ‘target man/second striker’ pairing, but with both being mobile enough to facilitate interchanging between the three. That immediately rules out Lucas Joao and Andy Carroll. Shane Long is a must as Reading’s Sa-esque target man. Taking Vydra’s place is a centre forward who’s happiest when running at defenders and who happens to have played on the left of a three before joining Reading: George Puscas. I know I’ve cheated by recalling him from Genoa, but needs must.
Jaap Stam’s possession-based 4-3-3 (2016/17)
Surely the most distinct manager tactically that Reading have had in recent years, Jaap Stam would have a difficult time enacting his possession-heavy philosophy with the current group. The Royals don’t have that many technically gifted players who are key to making ‘total football’ work.
This is the only time I’ve changed the goalkeeper, bringing Dean Bouzanis in for Joe Lumley; the Aussie hasn’t played all that much so far but appears to have better distribution than Lumley. In front of him I’ve opted for Naby Sarr at left centre-back. I had considered Liam Moore due to his history with Stam, but Sarr being an adept, left-footed passer makes him the best option to progress the ball upfield from that position.
The midfield is a little tricky. While I know Stam would want a deep-lying midfielder capable of moving the ball forward on the deck (Tyrese Fornah did this at Shrewsbury Town) and Ovie Ejaria is the closest fit for an attacking midfielder in a possession-based side, the last slot has no obvious candidate. In reality it was filled by Danny Williams, an all-action box-to-box player. I suspect Stam would ask Jeff Hendrick to do a similar(ish) job.
Up top we need a striker capable of holding the ball up and bringing others into the game rather than getting in behind or providing an aerial threat. Given his ability with the ball at his feet, Lucas Joao gets the nod. Either side of him are wingers playing high and wide to stretch the play in the mould of Garath McCleary and Roy Beerens: Tom Ince and Junior Hoilett respectively.
Side note: that time Jaap Stam played with a false nine in 2017/18
Briefly in his second season Stam played a 4-3-3 with one rejig up top: a false nine (Pelle Clement) instead of a classic centre forward. So how could he do it with this squad? The best candidate for the false nine spot is Junior Hoilett, who played this exact role in a 4-1-4-1 under Veljko Paunovic last season.
That then requires Reading to find another wide forward to go on the left. It could be Ince, with Yakou Meite going to the right wing, but given Stam’s reticence to use Meite in 2016/17 and decision to loan him out in 2017/18, I suspect Femi Azeez would get the nod as a pacy wide forward stretching the play on that flank.
Jose Gomes’ attacking 3-5-2 (2019/20)
Admittedly I mainly included this set-up because I didn’t want to just write about formations based on a back four. Gomes’ approach isn’t all that different to what we’ve seen at points under Paul Ince, but it does have a few differences.
In the early part of 2019/20, Reading used a 3-5-2 with really high wing-backs, a pair of attacking central midfielders (John Swift and Ovie Ejaria) behind two strikers (usually George Puscas and Lucas Joao, but Yakou Meite and Lucas Boye were also used). The set-up was seemingly used to fit in a load of offensive talent that didn’t quite suit a more balanced system. So far, so reminiscent of Steve Clarke in 2015/16. To be fair though, when it worked it really worked, such as in the 3-0 win over Cardiff City at the Madejski Stadium.
Ince has done something similar in a pre-season friendly at AFC Wimbledon (2-0 win) and the 0-0 draw at Luton Town. On those occasions Reading played their three most creative central midfielders (Hendrick, Ince and Ejaria) rather than adding one or two ball-winners such as Fornah, Loum or Hutchinson, thereby creating a more attacking balance that Ince doesn’t usually fancy and which is reminiscent of Gomes’ style.
For me there are four small differences that would make a ‘Paul Ince attacking 3-5-2’ into more of a ‘Jose Gomes attacking 3-5-2’:
- We’re likely to see Andy Yiadom at right-wing-back rather than right-centre-back (as was the case under Gomes)
- We need an outright ball-winner at the base of midfield instead of Hendrick (remember the Pele/Andy Rinomhota selection dilemma?)
- A quick and direct left-wing-back in the mould of Omar Richards is required to play high up the pitch
- Gomes fancied a striker who can get in behind, which Ince has seemingly been less keen on this season
To achieve all that I’ve done the following: Holmes to right-centre-back with Hutchinson staying central (mirroring Michael Morrison as the experienced middle centre-back), Loum in midfield, Nesta Guinness-Walker at left-wing-back and Meite up top.
Meite’s actually partnered Joao a couple of times under Ince so far, but he seems to be more of a target man than runner in behind, so his role changes in this Gomes XI. I was really tempted to start Puscas instead of Meite for the sake of replicating those ‘Cardiff 3-0’ vibes, but really, it’s got to be Meite.
Veljko Paunovic’s rigid 4-2-3-1 (2020/21)
I could have gone for various other editions of the 4-2-3-1 in this article. At the start I was intending on looking at Gomes’ narrow, possession-based version in late 2018/early 2019 before later changing my approach and moving to a 3-5-2 (see what I did there?), while Brian McDermott and Mark Bowen have also put an interesting spin on the formation. I particularly liked Bowen’s use of John Swift in a deep-lying playmaker role which I touched on here.
Instead though, let’s go with the edition of the 4-2-3-1 that fired Reading to that terrific start in 2020/21. Pauno had minimal time to settle on a system, having only been appointed on the eve of the season, and ended up choosing a rigid 4-2-3-1 that provided defensive stability while reserving room for attacking flair higher up the pitch.
The defining aspect of this set-up was the double pivot of Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent: two energetic ball-winners that gave the team real muscle in the middle of the park. Mamadou Loum is an obvious replacement here, and for the other spot I’ve chosen Tyrese Fornah for his stamina over less mobile options such as Sam Hutchinson and Jeff Hendrick.
Three of the front four are easy picks as they’re still at the club. Lucas Joao starts up top on his own, Yakou Meite goes to the right wing and Ovie Ejaria retains that left-sided spot which he rarely deviated from under Pauno. While I’ll go with Tom Ince in the 10 role, knowing how Pauno used Alfa Semedo in 2020/21, he could well have put Fornah there, which would leave Mbengue to partner Loum.
Which system comes out on top?
Let’s say all these set-ups went up against each other in a five-team mini league - which one would win?
Trying to factor out the individual quality of each manager and instead looking at the systems and personnel, I’m tempted to go with Pauno’s 4-2-3-1. Naturally he has the advantage of being the most recent gaffer on this shortlist, but this squad probably fits his approach better than it does that of his predecessors. Otherwise, Coppell and Stam would probably have difficulty making their systems work, while the Clarke and Gomes sides would be entertaining to watch going forwards if nothing else.
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