It’s funny how neatly history repeats itself.
At this stage of the season two years ago, 10 matches in, Reading had enjoyed a surprisingly positive start and found themselves in the top six. The Royals’ formula for winning matches was clear to see: defensive resolve and organisation rather than free-scoring attacking football, although set pieces were an effective source of goals.
That broad approach served the Royals well in the opening weeks of 2020/21 under Veljko Paunovic and it’s done the same in 2022/23 under Paul Ince. There are certainly some differences between then and now: Reading currently have less individual ability to work with, did have a proper pre-season this time round, generally play 3-5-2 rather than 4-2-3-1, and are much less keen on keeping the ball. But the pattern of winning matches by relying on a solid defence rather than an expansive attack is the same.
The stats are very clear on what this side’s approach is like: stay deep and don’t press the opposition. Reading have the lowest average possession of any side in the division (40.2%), spend the fifth-lowest amount of matches in the opposition’s third (27%) and are third-lowest for press intensity. This last point is illustrated by passes per defensive action (PPDA) - the lower this figure, the more intensely a team presses. While most Championship sides are in the 11-13 PPDA range, Reading are on 16.1.
Going forwards, Reading are one of the more direct teams in the division, rather than one which attacks patiently, as shown by this graphic from The Analyst:
Reading aren’t good at creating chances, with an average of just 8.5 shots and 3 shots on target per game - 24th and 21st in the Championship respectively. When looking at expected goals (xG), which assigns value to chances based on location and is therefore a better metric than raw shot data, it’s a mixed picture. Reading’s open-play xG (5.76) is the fourth-worst in the division, although we’re eighth-best for set-piece xG (3.42).
In reality we’ve marginally under-performed both of those stats, having scored five times from open play and three times from set pieces (plus two penalties). Breaking the goalscoring down game by game, Reading have drawn a blank 4 times, scored once 3 times, twice in 2 matches, and three times in just 1 game.
Defensively, Reading’s underlying numbers are encouraging. We’re 13th for shots faced per game (11.6) and 12th for open-play xG against (8.13). Those figures would probably be even better if I were able to factor out the three heavy defeats (Rotherham United 4-0, Sheffield United 4-0 and Sunderland 3-0), but they’re still solid. Again, the set-piece picture is even better; Reading have a set-piece xG against of 1.97 - the fifth-best in the division.
The game-by-game goals-conceded stats are probably the most impressive bit of all the data. Reading have kept 4 clean sheets, conceded a solitary goal 3 times, three goals 1 time and four goals on 2 occasions. Take out the random collapses and the Royals are consistently good at shutting out the opposition.
Put it all together and, at the very least, you can see the foundations of a solid side for the rest of the season which should be able to grind out points at a decent rate. Reading are already a mostly consistent side defensively which can create chances from set pieces, and that’ll stand us in good stead.
But there’s also plenty of room for improvement on the attacking side of Reading’s game - upping the number/quality of chances created and amount of goals scored. That could be achieved with some stylistic tweaks - more control of the ball and being more proactive out of possession - as well as alterations in personnel.
So with all of that in mind, what would evolution look like in practice?
Let’s start with what shouldn’t change, at least for the time being. Reading are clearly best in a 3-5-2, having moved away from the 3-4-3 which had been developed as an alternative for a time during pre-season and the first three weeks of the league campaign before being jettisoned.
The 3-5-2 mostly suits the players we have available. Although some would be better fits in other formations, everyone is versatile enough to at least be able to adapt to this system (wingers Tom Ince and Junior Hoilett being good examples). Recruitment has also seemingly been based around the 3-5-2; Reading don’t lack options at wing back, centre back or up front, but are lighter on attacking midfielders. Thus, it makes sense for the Royals to stick with this structure as the main formation and make tweaks rather than wholesale changes.
Reading still need tactical versatility though, which was conspicuous by its absence over the course of 2020/21 and was one of the factors which prevented the team from kicking on. Back then, Paunovic predominantly employed a 4-2-3-1. Although he tried other formations - most prominently the 4-4-2 diamond - nothing stuck. Reading’s success tended to depend on how well we could make the 4-2-3-1 work and it seemed to run out of road in the second half of the campaign.
In 2022/23 we’ve seen four formations by my count. As well as the 3-5-2 and 3-4-3, Reading have moved to a 4-2-3-1 twice: in the second half at Rotherham (too late) and just before the opening goals at home to Sunderland (foolish). In the second half of that 3-0 loss, the Royals appeared to try something akin to a 4-4-2 diamond as a desperate attacking ploy.
The best option as an alternative to the 3-5-2 is the 4-2-3-1. Reading are familiar with it already after the last couple of years, and it would offer something distinctly different to the current formation: more bodies higher up the pitch despite having to sacrifice a striker while still allowing for defensive solidity. I don’t see a clear benefit to the 3-4-3, and it’s tricky to put together a well-balanced front three in that system - as Reading have already found out. The Royals don’t have to go to a 4-2-3-1 regularly, but committing to developing it as a plan B would be a good idea.
There’s certainly room for improvement when it comes to Reading’s pressing. As shown in the 3-0 win over Blackburn Rovers, besides being an effective defensive approach, aggressively winning the ball back can also yield attacking opportunities on counter attacks. That approach was however an exception to the rule: Reading defend deep and aren’t proactive out of possession higher up the pitch, hence the PPDA figure of 16.1.
Given the example of that Blackburn game, pressing to a greater extent would in principle be a good thing. But evolving too drastically risks undoing the defensive solidity Reading have already established with the more conservative approach. And anyway, do Reading have the players and depth to do this consistently? We’re talking about a relatively old XI and small squad, so maintaining high-energy football throughout an intense part of the season isn’t realistic.
There’s a balance to be found here though. Reading would do well to gradually increase their level of pressing, adjusting the approach game by game, rather than a sudden and complete overhaul.
I’ll base this section on the 3-5-2, given that it’s the setup Reading should be predominantly using for the time being. For me there should be three main aims:
- Add creativity to the midfield
- Ensure there’s a threat in behind
- Develop the side’s width
All of these things can be achieved in the confines of the 3-5-2 and as evolution from the current playing style - rather than completely overhauling it.
The obvious way to increase creativity is to bring Ovie Ejaria back into the side. He’s the only real playmaker in Reading’s entire squad, with great close control and dribbling, plus a knack for a defence-splitting pass. Ejaria would fit in well as a creator in the 3-5-2, protected by two more withdrawn midfielders but still having two centre forwards to work off and provide for. Giving him real freedom to express himself, bring the ball up the pitch and create chances for the front men will give this side another dimension.
I’d also like to see more from Jeff Hendrick, who’s started slowly - for me at least partially due to him lacking a clearly defined role in midfield. However, going by the eye test, he’s got the ability to be an expressive passer over long range, which is exactly what Reading’s midfield needs. Being able to pick out wingbacks with a crossfield ball or a runner in behind with a pass over the top would enhance Reading’s direct style. I’d like to see him do more of that.
Reading haven’t been good enough this season at stretching the opposition by getting in behind, which is a touch frustrating. There’s certainly an opportunity to do this with the extra striker the 3-5-2 allows, not to mention the fact that Reading have the players to make such runs: predominantly Shane Long and Yakou Meite, but also Femi Azeez.
Keeping these players fit is a challenge in itself, but I’m keen to see at least one on the pitch pretty regularly to ensure Reading have a good amount of movement up top. That would give Reading a different route to goal as well as creating space for Lucas Joao, Ejaria and others to work in.
Reading don’t need to change anything substantially out wide, but I’m intrigued to see how both flanks develop. On the left, the Royals have a wing-back in Baba Rahman who can add quality going forwards, and giving him a skillful playmaker in Ejaria to combine with could make him more productive.
On the right, Junior Hoilett’s success as a wing-back has been a welcome surprise this season. His combinations with Andy Yiadom provide real dynamism on that side when Yiadom’s the right-sided centre-back - as shown in the first half at Wigan when the duo created Reading’s best openings. Really though, both Hoilett and Yiadom are good options for the wing-back role specifically, with the latter being a confident and skillful ball carrier.
There’s an extra layer of opportunity here though. Admittedly based more on the eye test than stats, Rahman and Hoilett strike me as being good crossers of the ball, capable of putting in dangerous lofted deliveries from their respective flanks. Given the recent return of Andy Carroll, not to mention also having Meite, this is a potential aerial route to goal that Reading could explore.
The complication to all of this is where Tom Ince fits in. In a way he’s emblematic of the Reading side we’ve seen so far: he puts a shift in defensively, isn’t consistently productive in the final third but is capable of a moment or two of quality. Despite naturally being a winger, Ince’s versatility has helped him fit into the 3-5-2, having played so far as both an out-and-out striker and a central midfielder in that formation.
Ince certainly deserves to start consistently, but it’s tricky to work out what his role in the 3-5-2 should be going forwards when Paul Ince has more options to choose from. When he plays as a striker, it’s unclear what his job is when Reading attack (he’s neither target man nor runner in behind); perhaps getting him to do the second of those would bring more out of him. Then again, Long and Meite are better options as runners in behind.
He could always drop into the midfield, as he did in the 2-1 win over Stoke City when Long partnered Joao up top. In isolation that’s probably Reading’s best bet, given the number of specialist strikers in the squad who would be better picks up top, but getting the midfield balance is vital. Select Ince with Ejaria and, even with a holding player behind, the midfield could be too lightweight.
Still, I’m drawn to the idea of using Ince as a right-sided central attacking player in the midfield trio, whether Ejaria plays or not. When Reading are sitting deep, he’d be a valuable outlet in driving forwards into space on the counter.
He’s generally less effective when the opposition’s structure is settled and gaps aren’t there, lacking the ability in tight spaces that Ejaria has. However, one workaround would be to return to something tried in pre-season: when Reading are probing for an opening, Ince could drift over to the right flank and combine with the right wing-back as, essentially, an auxiliary right winger. Thus you get overloads on that side and the potential for both inswinging and outswinging crosses.
Reading would do very well indeed to develop central-midfield creativity, threat in behind and width to the degree that all are consistently productive, in addition to finding a spot for Ince - all while maintaining defensive solidity and results. Achieve all that and we’re on for promotion, let alone staying in the division.
A more attainable goal, in the short term at least, would be to retain the current foundations of defensive solidity and set-piece threat while adding one or two extra elements onto how the team plays. That could mean the same element consistently coming up with the goods (for example Ejaria becoming a key player for the rest of the season), or those elements rising and falling in prominence over the campaign depending on who’s available.
Either way, the key point is that Reading need more variety in attack in order to reduce reliance on the defence and scoring goals from set pieces and/or moments of magic. Reading can’t afford to simply stick with the current approach, as effective and commendable as it’s been, otherwise we’re not insulated against the danger of one of those strengths fading.
If a team doesn’t progress, it regresses.
xG and PPDA stats are taken from The Analyst’s page on the Championship, which you can find here and I highly recommend. Other stats are taken from WhoScored.