The last 10 days will have been a period of tough introspection for Veljko Paunovic. He’s had plenty of time to stew on his part in the 4-0 battering at Queens Park Rangers - which capped off a dire January run of one draw then six consecutive defeats - and how to enact a turnaround in February.
But the mini break will have also been an opportunity for a soft reboot. Reading tried different things tactically in the last few weeks, such as the 3-1-4-2 used from the off at home to Huddersfield Town, the 4-4-2 diamond that took precedence later in that match and for the first half at QPR, and the 4-2-3-1 then introduced after the break to help claw back some pride. Well in that sense it worked: Reading managed to only lose 4-0.
So what approach to take now? Well, while the first two of those systems (both featuring a strike pairing) had their attacking merits, they did nothing to make Reading more solid at the back. If anything they made the issue worse, given that the Royals conceded seven times while they being used. They’re probably redundant anyway now that George Puscas has joined Pisa on loan for the rest of the season.
The set-up I’ve found myself drawn to in recent days is a version of the last one: the 4-2-3-1. I say version deliberately: Pauno’s interpretation of it in the second half at QPR included Andy Rinomhota again playing on the right wing - something that didn’t work last season at Wycombe Wanderers or this season at home to Luton Town. After about a quarter of an hour, Rino took a deeper position when Josh Laurent was subbed off for Tom Dele-Bashiru, meaning Reading still had only one defence-minded midfielder (Rino rather than Laurent).
What I’d like to see at Ashton Gate and perhaps beyond that is a more retro take on the 4-2-3-1: one modelled on the Reading of last season. For clarity, this is the 2020/21 line-up I have in mind:
So a 4-2-3-1 yes, but specifically one that includes the Rino/Laurent double pivot. It’s an added boost that we have the option of using Ovie Ejaria and Lucas Joao too, given that both have recently returned from injury and should now be at full match sharpness.
Pauno’s commitment to using a clear defensive-minded double pivot was key to this system’s success last season. Rino/Laurent provided cover for the defence, muscle in the middle and allowed the front four that bit more freedom to work their magic. It’s a testament to their pairing that they were never dropped for tactical reasons last season, even as players around them came in and out of the side.
This system had its drawbacks though, particularly in what I’ll crudely refer to as the ‘bottom right’ of the team: right back Holmes, right centre back Morrison and right central midfielder Rinomhota.
While all have clear defensive value, their quality in build-up from those positions was limited: Rinomhota has a limited range of passing and can’t really beat a man from a standing start, Morrison’s distribution also isn’t that great, and while Holmes does tick that box, his lack of acceleration and dribbling ability made him a clunky fit as an attacking right back. As a result, Reading often seemed to get stuck with the ball in that area of the pitch, unable to progress it on the deck into the front four.
My hope was that Reading would evolve away from this system. So I was pleased when Andy Yiadom returned from injury last season and Pauno evolved the 4-2-3-1 into more of a 4-1-4-1 earlier on this season, while the long-term prospect of Holmes becoming a ball-playing centre back was exciting. We’ve seen signs of that potential this season.
However, Pauno is yet to find a convincing formation that can work regularly for Reading in 2021/22. That’s been for a variety of reasons which transcend tactics - such as injuries, fatigue, morale and Reading generally not being very good at football. We’ve seen promise and frustration in the 4-1-4-1, 3-5-2, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-4-2 with two false nines, 4-1-3-2, 3-4-3 and pretty much everything else tried at some point this season.
Pauno’s even had the option of spicing up the 4-2-3-1 by playing one of the more creative Danny Drinkwater and Dele-Bashiru in the double pivot. Contrast this to last season when Pauno almost seemed scared of breaking up the Rino/Laurent pairing by deploying actual defensive midfielder Alfa Semedo there. Perish the thought.
So Reading need to settle on a system. The brief for that new set-up is clear: stop the bleeding defensively, tighten the team up and give it a fighting chance of picking up points. Given how low the Royals’ morale is, it makes sense to go back to something tried, trusted and familiar.
There’s precedent for this. Reading’s February 2021 featured the second-worst run of form all season (four losses and a win pipped only by four consecutive defeats in October and November), so a solution was required. Pauno put the Royals back to basics somewhat with a more defence-focused approach, as he said after a 1-0 home victory over Blackburn Rovers (in the middle of a three-game clean-sheet winning run):
“We didn’t play a beautiful game. But it was the appropriate way to beat a very difficult team who are very good on the ball - one of the best technical teams in the division. When we couldn’t keep the ball, we had to have an alternative. And that alternative worked very well. We showed what we had at the beginning of the season in terms of the solidity of our defence. We are keeping clean sheets and getting good results.”
“Keeping clean sheets and getting good results” - that concept feels alien nowadays, doesn’t it?
The parallels between that tactical change and what I’m endorsing now don’t completely work. Reading actually went to a 4-4-2 diamond for the last two of those three wins. But I still find it interesting that Pauno drew on the Royals’ early-season approach for the sake of defensive solidity to dig him out of a hole six months or so down the line.
While there’s no 100% sure-fire way of returning to those halcyon days of “keeping clean sheets and getting good results”, for me, trying to ape last season’s 4-2-3-1 is the safest bet. Here’s how it could look in practice:
This is pretty similar to the 2020/21 version. The back four is rejigged in various ways (more on this later), while Reading are able to put out a midfield and attack that’s almost identical to what we could have deployed last season. The only personnel change there (Michael Olise for Tom Ince) isn’t a huge deviation stylistically.
The biggest benefit of this system is that, at least in theory, it provides more security. Reading’s back line (whether a three or a four) has been too exposed recently, so having a double pivot to act as a screen is a big plus. Effective outlets in the final third are an added defensive boost: Ejaria can retain possession and win fouls while Joao can hold the ball up.
In theory is the operative phrase though: throwing in another defensive midfielder isn’t a magic bullet. After all, Reading used the Rino/Laurent pairing before the first international break this season and still shipped at least three goals on three separate occasions: Stoke City, Bristol City and Huddersfield Town.
I’d still argue though that there were bigger issues at play that make a direct comparison between then and now tricky. For one thing, Reading had significantly worse options at full back - Baba Rahman hadn’t been signed while Yiadom had to be used on both sides as and when required. Plus, the Royals leaked goals from free kicks even quicker than I go through a tube of Pringles. IE: at an unhealthily rapid rate.
And anyway, personnel-wise there are good arguments for restoring the double pivot. We know that ‘more Andy Rinomhota = good’ for this team. He was probably the only one to come out of January with any credit and accordingly won our player-of-the-month award, so it makes sense to try to get value out of him in the team. That means letting him charge about in the middle of the park, not playing him as a right winger, Pauno.
And perhaps putting the dynamic duo back together will reinvigorate Rinomhota’s midfield partner. Laurent’s had what’s tactfully described as an ‘up and down’ season, looking short of the assuredness and focus that defined his debut campaign. Letting him channel the spirit of 2020/21 - focusing on performing a deeper screening role while assisted by a trusted partner - could kick him into life.
Picking this duo also has the added benefit of Drinkwater not playing.
Furthermore, Reading have the capacity with the players now available to improve the 2020/21 edition of the 4-2-3-1. Remember the bit earlier when I had a go at the ‘bottom right’ (Holmes, Morrison, Rinomhota) of the team? Well, while the latter remains in the side, Reading would have better personnel for progressing the ball upfield at centre back and right back: Holmes has a nice range of passing and Yiadom is a great dribbler. Baba Rahman on the other side isn’t necessarily an upgrade on Omar Richards, but he’s still adept technically.
That’s crucial to this system working properly. It’s not sufficient to just divide the team into six defensive players and four attacking ones - you need some kind of plan to progress the ball from back to front on the deck, not simply hoofing it to Joao. The varying distribution qualities of Yiadom, Holmes and Rahman should compensate for the creative shortcomings of Rinomhota and Laurent.
I don’t know for sure this approach would work - not that we can ever be entirely certain of any system succeeding. But I feel that bit more confident in the idea of it being deployed than of Pauno trying something more experimental or expansive. I’ll give him credit for trying just that against Huddersfield and QPR (trying to fit in two strikers), but he needs to learn from how badly those set-ups went.
At the moment, safe security is what Reading need. Players returning to action means Pauno will have alternatives to call on from the bench (Clarke, Camara, Hoilett, Dele-Bashiru, Drinkwater), and in the longer term the Royals may well need to evolve to a different system, even if this 4-2-3-1 does work. But that’s an issue for another time.