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What We Learned From Reading’s 2-0 Defeat To Benfica

The Royals’ first viewable friendly of the summer provided some interesting information about the team going forwards.

Luton Town v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Kenilworth Road Photo by Kirsty O’Connor/PA Images via Getty Images

Reading continued their pre-season preparations on Saturday with a 2-0 defeat to Benfica at St George’s Park. While there’s naturally only so much we can learn from a friendly game against unique opposition that’s coming well before the Royals’ recruitment is finished, this game did give us some interesting information.

In the build-up to the match we learned the identities of eight players who are currently on trial. They are:

  • Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill: LB, 26
  • Julian Jeanvier: CB, 30
  • Sam Hutchinson: CB/DM, 32
  • Grant Ward: CM, 27
  • Jacob Davenport: CM, 23
  • Jodi Jones: Winger, 24
  • Josh Murphy: Winger, 27
  • Connor Wickham: ST, 29

All but Ormonde-Ottewill featured in today’s game. In addition, we saw nothing of Luke Southwood, Jokull Andresson, Junior Hoilett or Scott Dann, while George Puscas and Liam Moore haven’t been involved with the first team in pre-season so far anyway.

Here’s how Reading set up from the start:

The rest of the squad was: Bouzanis, Holzman, Abrefa, Leavy, Scott, Murphy, Davenport, Jones, Fornah, Ward, Wickham.

Again with the caveat of the lack of options, it’s interesting that Jeanvier and Hutchinson not only started but also played more than an hour before finally being replaced. At a guess, Ince is more keen on those two triallists than the other five who played. Going by today’s evidence that’s a good call - Jeanvier looked confident at centre half, while Hutchinson was committed as a holding midfielder and flew into challenges a few times.

It’s probably also safe to say that Joe Lumley is regarded as the first choice in goal, not Dean Bouzanis, although that’s not surprising. And it was reassuring to constantly hear Lumley bellowing instructions to teammates, whether in relation to team shape (don’t drop too deep) or individual advice (Lumley giving pointers to left back Tom McIntyre).

It’s notable that Reading have tweaked things in terms of the formation. We often (although certainly not always) saw a 4-2-3-1 under previous manager Veljko Paunovic, but Paul Ince has rejigged the midfield. Now, the shape looks more like some kind of 4-3-3.

That means a sole deep-lying player in front of the back four, as opposed to using a double pivot. In the first half that was triallist Hutchinson, while his move to centre back in the second half opened the slot up for new signing Tyrese Fornah. The task for the player in this spot seems very much for them to stay deep and keep the midfield organised, even during attacks, as was clearly audible in an instruction from a Reading coach in the first half.

I’ve seen various references on Twitter to one of the other central midfielders ‘playing as a 10’ in today’s friendly. Of course, that role is a familiar one, given that it was the hotspot of creativity in Reading’s 4-2-3-1, whether it was filled by John Swift, Michael Olise or anyone else.

However, to my eye it didn’t appear as if either Ejaria or Ince was specifically given that higher role. Both could get forward, sure, but neither was obviously playing further up than the other. Therefore the shape is more fluid, with two central midfielders having the license to get up or down the pitch, as opposed to one being tasked with staying back and the other being a dedicated advanced playmaker.

This change seemed to suit Ejaria better than Ince. Being brought into a central role, Ejaria’s able to get on the ball more and keep things moving rather than being tasked with taking it forward as quickly as possible as a wider attacker may have to. On the other hand, Ince didn’t quite up to the task of this position, and even got audibly yelled at for sloppiness by his dad on the touchline.

Otherwise, the back four, plus a central striker flanked by two wide players, wasn’t much different to what we’ve seen previously. I would however not be keen on seeing Yakou Meite on the left again, which didn’t suit him. If Reading are to keep with a 4-3-3 of some kind, Hoilett playing on that side and being able to pick out Meite’s head at the back post is a tasty proposition.

After the break, Reading seemed to retain a similar shape but with nine new players on the pitch in relation to the starting XI. Those nine did however include Josh Murphy who’d replaced Meite on the left wing around 40 minutes in. The XI at the start of the second half was as follows:

Later in the second half, Louie Holzman and Kian Leavy replaced the two starters still on the pitch: Jeanvier and Hutchinson. Holzman partnered Kelvin Abrefa in the middle with Leavy going to left back, a role I doubt he’s familiar with and won’t want to stay in long-term. Rashawn Scott got a late run-out in place of Murphy.

While the first-half performance was steady and organised defensively, albeit quiet offensively, Reading understandably looked more disjointed after the break and didn’t really affect proceedings much. Because of that, while few players really stood out in the second half, I’m loathe to be too critical of triallists who didn’t really stand out: Murphy, Davenport, Jones, Ward and Wickham. All may have done better in the first-half set-up.

Fornah did look good though, demonstrating his comfort in possession. He’s a better option technically than the apparently defence-focused Hutchinson, and it’d make for a nice mix of options if Reading go through next season with those two competing for the deep-lying spot.

Otherwise, although it was just one moment, I really liked a chip out to the right wing from Bouzanis at one point in the second half. He’s got a reputation as a goalkeeper with good distribution, and it was on show there.

On the basis of today’s evidence, Reading should:

  • Sign Hutchinson and Jeanvier
  • Keep Ejaria as a central midfielder
  • Move Ince back out wide
  • Not play Meite as a left winger (admittedly this would mean Reading now have three right wingers in Meite, Ince and Azeez)
  • Return Abrefa to right back (hopefully he was only playing LB and CB because of a lack of other players)
  • Return Tetek to midfield (ditto on the circumstances of him being at RB)

As for the other triallists I can’t really provide a proper judgement, although Davenport looked a bit livelier than the rest and went close with one effort in the second half. Given the other options we have out wide, I’d not be in a hurry to sign Jones (who played on the right) or Murphy (who played on the left).