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Further Reading: The Royals’ Pre-Season 3-4-3 And 3-5-2

An in-depth look at what we learned tactically from Reading’s pre-season friendlies against West Ham United and AFC Wimbledon.

Reading v West Ham United - Pre Season Friendly - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images

It’s been a good week for Reading on the pre-season friendly front. After Yakou Meite earned the Royals a 1-1 draw in an encouraging performance against West Ham United, he scored again in a 2-0 win over AFC Wimbledon on Tuesday night (Jeff Hendrick with the other goal). It was again a positive display, this time naturally more comfortable against lower-league opposition.

We also got some interesting insight into Paul Ince’s tactical thinking. Going into this week’s games, I was expecting Reading to at least predominantly play 4-3-3. The Royals had used that system throughout the match against Benfica (the first viewable game of pre-season), so another one or two run-outs of that system felt likely.

Instead, Reading largely lined up with a back three in both matches - save for a period against West Ham when Ince shunted his side into what looked like a 4-2-3-1. So there’s been a clear shift in the Royals’ tactical set-up during the course of this pre-season, creating something distinct to what we generally saw last season when a back four was common for both managers, although not used exclusively.

There’s room for some variety within the broader structure of a back three, and Reading exploited that by rejigging the midfield and attack over the course of the two games. The Royals began in a 3-4-3 against West Ham before returning to 4-2-3-1 in the second half. A few days later, Reading began in a 3-5-2 before switching into a 3-4-3 in the second half.

So what does that look like on paper? First, the West Ham 3-4-3:

As for how this formation looked in the second half at AFC Wimbledon, there were a few differences in personnel:

  • John Clarke instead of Tom McIntyre
  • Kelvin Abrefa instead of Andy Yiadom
  • Nesta Guinness-Walker (triallist) instead of Junior Hoilett
  • Ovie Ejaria instead of Jeff Hendrick
  • Yasin Ben El-Mhanni (triallist) instead of Tom Ince
  • Junior Hoilett instead of Ovie Ejaria
  • Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan instead of Lucas Joao

The match at Plough Lane began however with Reading in a 3-5-2, which looked like this:

So in the first case, you have a midfield duo with two attacking players supporting the lone centre forward. In the latter, you have a midfield trio (one deep, two higher) and a strike pairing.

The choice of personnel heavily influences the overall look of the side, but the 3-4-3 broadly looks like the more defensive option while the 3-5-2 appears more offensive. The 3-4-3 provides another body in a deeper position to protect the defence, and having four central midfielders overall (even if two are there to support the front man) allows for more control of possession. Ejaria and Ince aren’t quite so advanced in the 3-5-2 as in the 3-4-3, but they’re still there to provide creativity, and have another centre forward to pick out.

After two pre-season friendlies and with plenty more transfer activity (hopefully) and match practice to come, it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about which system is better. It may well be the case that Reading switch between these two set-ups (as well as using a back four) over the course of next season. Still, there are some points to be taken from what we’ve seen so far.

Reading have a nicely balanced back three

The biggest constant over the last two games has been Reading’s back three: Tom Holmes, Sam Hutchinson and Tom McIntyre. Although the Royals are short on defensive options during the enforced absences of Scott Dann and Liam Moore, Paul Ince has made little attempt to switch things up by, say, trying a youngster such as Jeriel Dorsett or Louie Holzman. He’s stuck with the Sam/Toms trio, presumably to allow them to develop as much of an understanding as possible.

I really like the balance in this trio. Reading get a commanding and experienced organiser in the middle, in conjunction with two more mobile players either side. A more conservative right-footer on the right, a more adventurous left-footer on the left. Lovely stuff.

You can certainly see how other options would fit into this set-up. Moore, if he’s brought back into the fold, could line up as an outside centre half on either side, not to mention being a more offensive option than Holmes on the right specifically. Left-footers Clarke, Dorsett and Nelson Abbey can deputise for McIntyre, while Dann - probably the least mobile centre half Reading have - goes into the middle.

The fascinating thing from an attacking perspective though is the support which McIntyre can provide on the left. The idea of an outside centre back pushing upfield is nothing new, certainly not from McIntyre, who we know to be an adept carrier of the ball into advanced positions, and the presence of two other centre backs in this system gives him cover to get involved higher up.

We saw that in the West Ham friendly when McIntyre provided the assist for Meite’s equaliser. Watch in this footage as he hangs back before eventually bursting into space on the left. It’s a tricky run for the opposition to pick up, and that doubt creates his opening.

Reading tried the same thing against AFC Wimbledon. On more than one occasion, Hendrick played a long pass out to left-wing-back Femi Azeez - positioned very wide on that flank - who then immediately had support from McIntyre making an underlapping run.

This seems to be better suited to when Ejaria is playing as the left attacking midfielder - whether in the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. He often roams into other areas from that original position, opening up space for McIntyre to get forward. In contrast, when natural wide player Hoilett is deployed in that area (more likely in the 3-4-3), that’s the part of the final third he’s likely to stay in. It’s surely no coincidence that, when Hoilett came on as the left attacking midfielder in a 3-4-3 at Wimbledon, McIntyre’s forward runs stopped.

Reading badly need a left wing-back

I’m not so concerned about the right side of the pitch - Reading have a specialist right-wing-back in Yiadom, as well as a talented youngster in Abrefa providing cover. Indeed, Abrefa’s involvement in pre-season thus far - staying in first-team contention while other under-23s have dropped away - suggests Ince rates him.

The left side is another matter though. Reading have tried out three different options in the last two games, including converted wide attackers Hoilett and Azeez. While they have obvious value going forwards (particularly Hoilett’s crossing and Azeez’ pace), they’re unproven both defensively and also in the specific positional task of covering the entirety of a flank on their own.

Reading v West Ham United - Pre Season Friendly - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images

Guinness-Walker had a promising trial run against West Ham, looking pretty comfortable and being involved in the build-up to Meite’s goal. You can see him playing the ball into McIntyre in the clip above. But he’s unproven at Championship level so may be a better bet as a back-up than a regular starter.

Whoever Reading settle on, it needs to be the right choice. Good wing-backs aren’t just full backs or wingers shoehorned into a slightly different position - it’s a specific role with specific requirements defensively, offensively and in transition between the two. Getting a good left-wing-back would elevate the quality of the overall system substantially.

Hendrick and Ince are wildcards in midfield

Reading have two versatile attack-minded (albeit in different ways) midfielders in summer signings Hendrick and Ince. Based on a combination of what we’ve seen in pre-season and earlier in their careers, Hendrick can line up in a deeper role, as a box-to-box or number 10, while Ince can be deployed as a 10 or more of a conventional winger.

Against West Ham they took up fairly unsurprising roles in the 3-4-3: Hendrick in a deeper pairing alongside Tyrese Fornah, Ince playing off Joao. Those choices made sense - Hendrick provides a nice mixture of presence and ball progression while Ince is a strong dribbler and can get in behind. So far, so straightforward.

In the 3-5-2 you’d have expected Hendrick to be used in one of the two more advanced central midfield roles due to given his goal threat - which he ended up proving with a sweet strike from range into the bottom corner. As for Ince, his destination was less obvious, but shoehorning him into a similar position to Hendrick would have been most people’s guess. After all, Ince did something very much like that in the 4-3-3 against Benfica and kinda like that in the 3-4-3 against West Ham.

Instead, Reading did something subtly (but interestingly) different with each.

  • Hendrick was the deepest central midfielder in the trio. Putting an attacking player there with no defensive partner gave the set-up a much more offensive feel
  • Despite starting as a central attacking midfielder, Ince seemed to often drift out to the right as an auxiliary winger (stress on the word seemed as I may be over-analysing, but I saw it enough to notice a pattern)

On paper those moves had clear benefits: Hendrick is a good passer over range and can pick out the wing-backs from that deeper role, as mentioned in the section on McIntyre’s forward runs. Ince on the other hand, as a natural wide player, can support wing-back Yiadom and provide inswinging deliveries from the flank.

I’d be remiss however if I didn’t point out that I’ve seen both these exact moves before - at the same time in the same game in fact. When Reading were chasing an equaliser in the 2-2 draw at Queens Park Rangers in October 2019, John Swift was (for the first time at Reading) used as a sole deep-lying playmaker in a 3-5-2, while wide player Garath McCleary came on as a central attacking midfielder but pulled out to the right wing. Given that those moves were enacted by one M. Bowen, history repeating itself now may or may not be a coincidence.

Whether Bowen’s had any input here or not doesn’t really matter. The significant point is that Reading are coming up with some inventive variations on what you’d normally expect, even if they’re currently only in the pre-season experiment phase.

Such ideas won’t necessarily be used constantly. Reading will face sterner opposition in the Championship, so adding Fornah into the midfield (whether alongside or behind Hendrick) would provide some more security. The Nottingham Forest man is a natural fit in a deeper position, and pushing Hendrick up would turn the Irishman into more of a goal threat.

Other observations

  • In either the 3-4-3 or the 3-5-2, Ovie Ejaria gets to play in the middle and with some freedom to express himself. He’s probably better though in the 3-5-2’s slightly deeper role, allowing him to bring the ball upfield and then have a runner in behind (Meite) to pick out.
  • Reading don’t have enough options to go in the two behind Joao if we want to stick with 3-4-3. That role requires number 10s with pretty broad skillsets; besides Ejaria, Ince and maybe Hoilett, the Royals look light. This could influence the rest of this summer’s recruitment.
  • What Reading don’t lack however is centre forwards, particularly ones who are better with a partner, whether that’s because of tactics (Shane Long, Azeez, Meite) or their own inexperience (Nahum Melvin-Lambert, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, Jahmari Clarke). The 3-5-2 therefore helps here.

I didn’t intend to just reel off a list of reasons for why the 3-5-2 is probably a better fit for this group of players than the 3-4-3 - honest - but that’s what I’ve inadvertently done in the course of jotting down those bullet points. As I mentioned above though, the 3-4-3 has its worth as a more conservative option than the 3-5-2, so I guess we’ll see that against Brighton and Hove Albion.

Beyond that, the next stages of recruitment will be instructive in how Paul Ince sees these set-ups taking shape. Defensive midfielder Mamadou Loum looks likely to arrive on loan and, whether in the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, there’s room for the solidity he’d (presumably) provide.