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Musings: Reading’s Bizarre Issue With Substitutions

With the bench being back to reasonable strength, now is the time to course correct from the repeatedly poor substitutions.

Reading v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Last week, I used this column space to speak about three of Pauno’s consistent issues that Paul Ince could solve for an immediate positive impact. The first thing I brought up was the need to improve the use of substitutes. It came up first because it seemed the most obvious and most pressing: under Paunovic, Reading wouldn’t get reinforcements onto the pitch until far too late, and when they did, they were often the wrong choices.

Unfortunately though, during the defeat to Blackpool at the weekend, it appeared that Reading’s issues with getting the right subs on the field at the right time were rearing their head again. While perhaps not the entire reason, it’s hard to argue that the late and poorly chosen substitutes didn’t contribute to the side’s capitulation in the final 10 minutes. Late goals have been a feature this season, and given the issues with getting the right substitutions on the field, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

This is a real axe to grind for me. Substitutions seem like such an easy thing to get right, an easy thing to do better than we have been doing, and yet it appears beyond our coaching staff. Today then, we’re going to do a deep dive on the quality of recent benches, the ways in which they’ve been used in the past month, and provide a flow chart for Reading managers to follow when choosing substitutions.

Bench quality

Reading v Blackpool - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

All season, it has appeared that the coaching staff would rather complain about the bench than use it. Pauno would constantly bring up the lack of depth on the bench in the early months of the season, and while there were. It’s become a theme though.

After his first game in charge, Paul Ince made sure to mention that he had “kids on the bench” after the victory. The bench could be better, yes, but for me, that excuse got very weak in February. Reading played six games last month. Below are the players who featured on the bench and the number of times they did so.

6: Kelvin Abrefa

5: Luke Southwood

4: Yakou Meite, Jahmari Clarke, Tom Dele Bashiru, Tom McIntyre, Mamadi Camara

3: Brandon Barker

1: Ovie Ejaria, Alen Halilovic, Coniah Boyce-Clarke, John Swift

The immediate thing that sticks out is the number of quality players who have been on the bench four times. Camara and Clarke are young but have both proved they can at least affect games at this level. Meite and Dele Bashiru are clearly Championship-level players, and versatile ones at that. McIntyre is somewhere in the middle.

I’m not arguing that it doesn’t feature a lot of youth players or that it couldn’t be stronger, but we are a club under FFP restrictions and a transfer embargo. Given those circumstances, this really isn’t bad quality. Reading could name at least three quality replacements in five or six games by my estimation, and ironically they won the game in which they couldn’t (against Birmingham City).

Reading v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Furthermore, with Ejaria and Halilovic arriving back on the bench last week and hopefully available through the end of the season, the idea that Reading don’t have a quality bench right now just doesn’t appear to be true. So, if the bench is actually more than just somewhat usable, that suggests the issues with substitutions lie elsewhere than the players themselves.

Bench usage

Let’s take a look at how the available benches were used through February. If you stare at these lists for long enough, you’ll undoubtedly find head-scratchers of your own that couldn’t fit into this piece.

Blackpool 4-1 Reading

Subs available: Meite, Ejaria, Halilovic, Clarke, Barker, Abrefa, Boyce-Clarke

Subs used: Meite for Dele Bashiru 79, Ejaria for Hoilett 79

Reading 2-1 Birmingham

Subs available: Meite, Dele-Bashiru, Leavy, Barker, Abrefa, Southwood

Subs used: Meite for Hoilett 74, Dele-Bashiru for Ince 89

Preston North End 2-3 Reading

Subs available: McIntyre, Meite, Barker, Dele-Bashiru, Camara, Abrefa, Southwood

Subs used: McIntyre for Rahman 62, Meite for Hoilett 67, Barker for Ince 90

Reading 2-3 Coventry City

Subs available: Meite, Abrefa, McIntyre, Dele-Bashiru, Clarke, Camara, Southwood

Subs used: Meite for Rinomhota 68, Abrefa for Holmes 87

Bristol City 2-1 Reading

Subs available: Swift, Drinkwater, Clarke, Camara, McIntyre, Abrefa, Southwood

Subs used: Swift 60, Drinkwater for Rinomhota 67

Peterborough United 0-0 Reading

Subs available: Dele-Bashiru, McIntyre, Camara, Clarke, Leavy, Abrefa, Southwood

Subs used: Dele-Bashiru for Meite 82

What we see here are a few common themes:

  1. Not enough substitutions being made
  2. Substitutions being made too late
  3. Players being dragged around the country for seemingly no reward.
Reading v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

The Peterborough game in particular exhibited all of these themes coming together at the same time. Despite Clarke and McIntyre being available to provide a different attacking focus or change the shape, Reading looked past them.

The substitution that did actually happen did attempt at least to address the midfield battle that Reading were losing, but it came far too late for Reading to take back control of possession and begin establishing an attacking rhythm. Meanwhile, the exciting Abrefa and Camara huddled deeper into their warm coats, probably fully aware they had no shot at an appearance.

Not enough subs

If you don’t count Barker’s brief incursion against Preston (and I doubt he does), Reading averaged fewer than two subs a game in February, despite having two or more quality replacements available every game as we saw above.

We do not have the depth to rely on an identical or similar lineup every match, and expect to only make one or two changes a game. Players are going to tire, lose their shape, and the side will suffer late in games, as they have been doing.

Reading v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

All this constitutes a bad use of good benches. Against Blackpool, we had three game-changing players available in Meite, Halilovic, and Ejaria. Reading were struggling to create chances with a weak hold on the midfield, and yet left Ejaria and Halilovic out either entirely or until it was too late.

Against Preston, Reading were lucky to hold onto their lead after dominating the first 60 minutes, yet there was no effort made to bring on the lively Dele-Bashiru to add more defensive grit and disrupt Preston’s rhythm. What’s the point in bringing players who can affect a game if you’re not going to use them?

Subs made too late

Reading v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Beyond just not making the right substitutions: late, late, FAR too late substitutions have also been a constant issue for Reading. The attempts of the team to get Meite back to full fitness recently have thrown up some outlier times for substitutes being made but I think this is more indicative of the efforts to get one of the club’s best goalscorers back into the starting XI as soon as possible rather than a conscious attempt to make an earlier substitution. Despite that, he’s been the only player Reading have consistently tried to get on ahead of the 80-minute mark for a month.

I can understand arguments to not make substitutions, especially when the team is playing well and seeing more of the ball. Removing one player can throw off the attacking rhythm of the entire team: this is true. However, if that rhythm is a) not breaking down the opposition’s defence or b) nonexistent in the first place, then what exactly would be disrupted?

The subs made on the road at Bristol City seem closer to the mark. Having made changes to the starting 11 that game, we were able to bring on quality substitutions and did so at the correct time, giving us a chance to chase the game. The overbearing mental weight of Pauno’s impending exit and an unlucky Michael Morrison were likely more to blame for that loss than poor substitutions.

Endless bench appearances: no game time

Derby County v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

While some are clearly not ready, youth players have been given the short end of the stick by both Pauno and Ince this season. Why has Clarke had to spend the season picking splinters out of his backside rather than picking corners? I understand the desire to get him around the first team to experience Championship match days, but after months of the same process - making the bench but not making an appearance, what else can he be getting out of this?

Clarke must know when he’s named to the squad that he has no chance of playing. Would it not be better to have him focus on getting as many minutes on the pitch as possible with his age group? This goes for several young players, especially Abrefa in recent weeks, but Clarke stands out. We’re supposed to be a club that brings through youth talent - let’s try to do that.

This goes beyond youth players though: why is Brandon Barker here if we’re not going to even try him? Barker seemed like an odd pickup when he arrived midway through February, and not playing him only increases the confusion for fans, and I’m sure the manager, alike. Surely it would be best to at least give him 20 minutes to see what we have?

Solutions

Reading v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

So then, what do we do to solve these issues? Given that there seemingly are obvious answers to the above issues, I’ve put together a flow chart below starting in the 60th minute of the game. Some of these answers are repetitive, but that’s just a reflection of how frustrating it’s been to see the same mistakes made with subs repeatedly.

It’s the 60th minute. Reading are...

...losing by more than one

An attacking change must be made in the next five to 10 minutes. There is absolutely no point in wasting 10 minutes that a sub could be getting into the speed of the game. Clearly whatever we’re doing isn’t working and, unless the goal is to push Andy Yiadom and (if he returns in time) Baba Rahman higher up the pitch, all substitutions from here on out should be attacking. If we want to bring on a defender, move to a back three to push the wing backs forward. Our goal difference is already shot. If it comes down to that, we’re going down. So stop worrying about it when we’re chasing games.

...losing by one

Are Reading dominating and failing to break the last line of defence? Bring on a new attacker immediately. There’s no point in throwing the same attacking sequence at a defence that gets a little better at stopping it every time. Change it up.

Are Reading getting beat in midfield and struggling in transition? Bring on a new midfielder to attempt to disrupt the opposition’s flow and give them a different problem.

...drawing

Take the quality of the opposition and location of the game into account.

If Reading are holding their own against quality opposition and affecting the game, subs can be avoided until the midfield begins to run out of gas. Ensuring midfield dominance and keeping opposition attacks wide should be the priority against better teams. This is especially true away from home or in general If a point is a good result,

If Reading are failing to break down a weaker team, an attacking substitution should be made immediately.

...winning by one

Again, take the quality of the opposition and flow of the game into account. If Reading are dominating, now is time to freshen up the attack and attempt to finish the game with an extra goal. Reading cannot defend leads, so they should always try to extend theirs.

If Reading are being pinned back and have been the benefactors of a lucky goal, consider a substitution to the midfield to attempt to disrupt the opposition’s ability to work through the centre of the pitch.

If the game is effectively won, bring on a youth player in the last 10 minutes, preferably not in defence.

...winning by more than one

Depending on the threat level the opposition is providing, make a sub in midfield or bring on a youth player. If the opposition is still threatening, bring on a midfielder. If the opposition is effectively neutralised, wait 10 minutes and bring on a youth player.

General rules

Reading U18 v Manchester United U18 - FA Youth Cup Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

A player sits on the bench no more than five times in a row without getting at least 10 minutes. We’re just going to break the spirit and disrupt the development of the academy players in particular if we drag them to every game but refuse to play them. These academy players are going to be hugely important to next season’s squad whether or not we stay up, so let’s actually develop them, not just put them on a coach tour of Britain.

Peterborough v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Holyoak/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If Meite doesn’t start, he has to get on before the 70th minute unless Reading are two goals to the good. His speed and power are a difficult question for defenders to answer in minute one, let alone when they’re tired in minute 71.

Reading v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Tom Ince in fact can be substituted, Paul. Tom Ince has perhaps unsurprisingly played all but one minute since his dad took over first-team duties. The younger Ince has been steady for Reading since his arrival and not let us down, but realistically, he doesn’t appear to offer more quality than Meite, Junior Hoilett, Ejaria, or even perhaps Halilovic. If he starts, he has to be hooked for any of those players if he’s not having a fantastic game.

As a final thought, I want to reiterate that these might not be the solutions to the problems Reading are creating for themselves with their substitutions. These are ideas though, and the club could do with developing a few good ones to ease relegation fears over the coming months. The imperative thing is that Reading do something to improve the return they’re getting from their substitutes bench, or they’ll continue to concede late goals and subject us all to a nervy run in. Your move Paul.