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Further Reading: A Midweek Masterclass Against Blackburn

Sim adds some context around an excellent performance against Blackburn: how good it was, why it happened and how it happened.

Reading v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

I’ve had a closer look at some aspects of Wednesday’s win over Blackburn Rovers which interested me the most, namely:

  • Putting the quality of the performance into historical context using our Player Ratings
  • Why Reading were very bad against Rotherham United but very good against Blackburn (spoiler: it’s partly about ‘getting a reaction’ but I think it’s also more than that and speaks to a broader issue)
  • The 3-5-2 working really well
  • Reading’s aggression and proactivity out of possession
  • And some extra points on Junior Hoilett & Andy Yiadom, Joe Lumley, Kelvin Abrefa and John Clarke, and the short turnaround between Blackburn and Middlesbrough

This was the best performance since... when exactly?

Reading were dominant on Wednesday night. After the opener from Tom McIntyre in the 14th minute, there was really only one winner. Although nagging doubts remained (this is Reading Football Club after all), second-half goals from Junior Hoilett and Lucas Joao put some deserved gloss on a terrific display that could well have yielded a much heftier scoreline.

So when was the last time Reading were this good?

Of course, we’ll all have our own opinions on this depending on how exactly you analyse a performance. Personally I’m tempted to go for Bournemouth at home in January 2021, while Fulham away last season would be another strong contender. However, to give an alternative view, I’ve gone through our old Player Ratings to see what they show us.

A quick disclaimer here: while we try to be as objective and consistent as we can with these grades, it’s still human judgement. Furthermore, numbers don’t necessarily match up to the eye test - after all, we’re grading 11 players individually and averaging them out, not grading the XI overall.

With all that in mind, here’s the data...

So, based solely on our Player Ratings, Wednesday was Reading’s third-best performance since the start of the Jaap Stam era. It was edged out by two of the strongest displays under Veljko Paunovic - when the Royals took apart Blackburn Rovers (ratings here) and Bristol City (ratings here). For me, the 3-0 win should come out ahead of these two games due to Reading’s dominance across both halves and the clean sheet.

Do Player Ratings constitute an objective ranking of performances? No, of course not. It also doesn’t help that the quality of opposition isn’t really factored in - you’ll notice that neither 2-1 win at promotion-bound Fulham made the cut (6.85 in 2019/20, 6.83 in 2021/22). But, if nothing else, it all underlines the fact that Wednesday was right up there with recent Reading displays.

So how come we improved so much after that Rotherham fiasco?

There’s a simple and uncontroversial answer, as well as another which is more of a slightly nuanced theory. They’re not mutually exclusive but both deserve examination. Let’s start with the former.

1) Paul Ince did a terrific job in inspiring his team to react to how poor they were at Rotherham. It’s less that Reading happened to be bad in one game and excellent in the other - Ince was able to use the first experience to provoke a response. Being able to do that is not only a fundamental part of management, but in a season bound to revolve around a relegation battle, it’s absolutely vital for this side specifically.

For all the criticisms of Ince last season, we still knew he had that motivational ability up his sleeve. After all, Reading stayed up on his watch thanks to a run of form which started in similar fashion to what’s happened this week: a second-half fightback at Bournemouth after being taken apart at Nottingham Forest.

Ince’s role on Wednesday deserves particular praise. It wouldn’t be fair to simply blame him when things go wrong and not do the opposite, so credit where it’s due.

2) The games also played out very differently in large part due to the tactical questions that were asked of Reading. Ince highlighted after Saturday’s thrashing the problems Rotherham had posed:

“I said to the lads - you can’t perform like that in the first half. I said you got bullied and were weak. When you’re playing a team that’s just been promoted, they’re going to go long and we’re going to have to win second balls and fight - but in the first half we didn’t fight. We’ve let everybody down.”

(Emphasis mine).

The Millers knew how to hurt a Reading defence that’s still pretty young, still pretty new and still badly lacking authority. They went direct and got the ball in behind, while the Royals didn’t gain much comfort until a switch to a back four (as opposed to more of a back three) at half time.

Contrast their playing style to that of Blackburn Rovers. Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side are eighth for the average number of passes they play per game (443), well ahead of rock-bottom Rotherham who play 262. A far higher proportion of Rovers’ attempted passes are accurate short passes than Rotherham’s (71% vs 54%).

NB: Stats via WhoScored. While Blackburn’s four league games and Rotherham’s three constitute a small sample size, it’s enough to give a broad indication on style.

So they’re distinctly different sides: one is more direct, the other plays with the ball on the deck more.

Reading seemed much better equipped to deal with Blackburn, who didn’t ask similar difficult questions to the ones posed by Rotherham at the weekend. Rovers didn’t appear that keen on going direct or trying to get in behind the Royals, instead more often playing in front of Reading’s back line. While our own defensive structure helped, the opposition’s style played its part too.

Essentially, my conclusion is that the Royals are currently set up better to cope with one kind of opposition than with the other. Being able to consistently deny a variety of attacks is certainly difficult, and for Reading it would probably take two things: plenty of practice on this system (remember the back three is still fairly new) and a properly commanding middle centre half when things are going wrong. That could be a physically dominant Naby Sarr (he’s more imposing than all our other options) or an experienced Sam Hutchinson. Either would help in the long run.

That all being said, our own tactical changes were also significant on Wednesday:

Wednesday was more evidence that Reading are better in a 3-5-2 than in a 3-4-3, and 3-5-2 was right for this match specifically

We largely knew the first bit of that statement already after pre-season, when the Royals looked a more dangerous outfit in a 3-5-2 than a 3-4-3. Reading would surely have stuck with it in the opening weeks of the Championship campaign had multiple strikers been available at the same time, but absences for Shane Long, Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite overlapped.

Instead, before Wednesday Paul Ince mostly went with a 3-4-3 that was typically made up of Ovie Ejaria and Tom Ince as dual number 10s supporting a lone striker. The 3-4-3 was hit and miss, although it looked at its best with an Ince/Ejaria/Shane Long combo up top.

Ejaria was absent for Saturday’s trip to Rotherham though. Without a direct replacement, Paul Ince shunted Jeff Hendrick into Ejaria’s ‘left-sided 10’ role and it simply didn’t work. The overall set-up looked like this:

While a lot of that XI looks about right, Hendrick sticks out. He lacks the mobility and guile of other candidates for the 10 roles, and as a result Reading’s attack lacked dynamism. To be fair, Hendrick seemed more at home when moved to a more regular 10 role (flanked by two wingers) in the second half as Reading went 4-2-3-1.

After the Rotherham debacle, Reading required something fresh for Blackburn’s visit. Although Paul Ince didn’t make any changes to the XI, he did switch up the formation: out with 3-4-3, in with 3-5-2. Here’s how that looked:

The two most interesting alterations for me here involved Tyrese Fornah and Tom Ince, who each took up more advanced positions than they’ve had recently. Fornah is typically better as a deep-lying midfielder but ended up as more of a box-to-box player, while Ince was pushed from ‘right-sided 10’ to being an out-and-out striker alongside Long.

Fornah and Ince each have plenty of stamina and work rate, so in giving them more advanced positions, Reading were getting more energy higher up the pitch, and that was beneficial for the game plan. As Paul Ince said after the match:

“We set our team to play on the front foot, set traps and they executed it absolutely perfectly.”

This wasn’t a case of the Royals staying deep and hoping to nick the ball back - Reading were proactive and forward-thinking. You can see how positive the Royals’ overall approach was in the average positions of all players on the night - particularly Ince (10) and Fornah (19).

To nick a line from Matthew Batten, “their 29 was, on average, offside”.

Reading’s proactivity out of possession is clear in dispossession stats, which you can see plotted just below. Blackburn (blue) were dispossessed 11 times in their own half, in contrast to just 1 occasion when that happened for Reading (orange).

The dispossession highlighted in red in the top right corner was the most decisive. Fornah, harrying like a man possessed, won the ball back before playing in Lucas Joao to make it 3-0. This individual case was less down to tactics and more about Fornah’s sheer single-mindedness. It’s one thing to press heavily in the first half, but maintaining your intensity in the 78th minute around the opposition’s goal line - when you’re already 2-0 up - really highlights his determination.

Credit is due also to Tom Ince who attempted three tackles on the night - all of which were in Blackburn’s half and all of which were successful. But I shouldn’t overlook the application of two players lining up in more natural positions: defensive midfielder Mamadou Loum and right-wing-back Junior Hoilett, who completed 6/6 and 5/6 tackles respectively.

The overall picture for successful tackles is really encouraging. In this graphic (we’re talking about a team’s tackles so the colours are flipped from the dispossession graphic), note the vast swathe of orange dots (successful Reading tackles) in Blackburn’s half on the right - in contrast to blue dots (successful Blackburn tackles) in Reading’s half on the left.

Of course, excellent work rate isn’t exclusive to the 3-5-2 - Reading should be capable of such application in the 3-4-3. After all, this formation switch doesn’t majorly impact Hoilett or Loum, who were the most productive when going by the metric of successful tackles. But I’d still argue that these tweaks helped - a couple of extra bodies higher up makes a difference.

Setting Reading up to be able to soak up pressure, win the ball back and break is one thing, but this version of the 3-5-2 probably wouldn’t work quite so well when the Royals have more of the ball (we had around 35% against Blackburn). I’m sceptical for example of how effective Fornah and Ince would be in their respective positions when the Royals need creativity and patience to unlock a defence. That’s a problem for another time though.

Some stray observations

1) Before Wednesday night I’d assumed it was simply a case of waiting until a centre back returns before we can move Tom Holmes to right-centre-back and subsequently Andy Yiadom to right-wing-back. While that’s still probably our best bet, particularly when we need more defensive solidity, I’m warming to the current Hoilett/Yiadom link-up.

It’s hard not to do so when Hoilett scores a goal as good as he did. It highlighted what he brings to the table as an attacking wing-back: the confidence and ability to bring the ball forward, take a man on and then add some end product. In this case it was a venomous shot, but I like his crossing from deep too, so that presents another route to goal.

Yiadom is certainly capable of playing as a right-sided centre back in a three, having done it before. He’s strong defensively and good on the ball. In this system though he can essentially play as an auxiliary wing-back; at points on Wednesday (more so in the first half from memory), Yiadom took the opportunity to charge past Hoilett on the overlap in a way that no other Reading centre back could.

A more attacking Yiadom however means a less attacking McIntyre on other side. That’s a bit of a shame (his underlapping runs in pre-season were fun to watch), but he can still contribute with his passing - and did so in the build-up to Hoilett’s goal with the original long ball that moved possession into Blackburn’s half.

This wasn’t new on Wednesday though. Reading Between The Lines highlighted all of this in an excellent Twitter thread after the Cardiff City win which you can see here:

2) Wednesday couldn’t have been much better for Joe Lumley, who was in need of a confidence-boosting performance after Saturday. He had a remarkably stress-free evening thanks to the excellent defensive work in front of him, only facing one shot on target. That shot brought the best out of him though: an excellent one-handed stop to deny Ashley Phillips at 1-0 in the second half.

3) Being 3-0 up in the 78th minute gave Reading something we’ve not had in what feels like forever: a stress-free conclusion to a match. Bar the obvious health benefits to everyone in the home end, it was also a great opportunity for Paul Ince to dish out more first-team experience to some youngsters, and I’m glad he took it. Kelvin Abrefa was handed a full 10 minutes (he seems highly trusted at this level) while John Clarke got about five in injury time. They’ll both be better for it.

4) The very best thing Reading can do now is to carry Wednesday’s energy into Saturday, so a turnaround this quick is ideal. While only having two days off could be better from a fatigue point of view, being able to go into another home match almost immediately is perfect for building momentum.

Stats are from WhoScored.