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Reading Should (Partially) Swap 4-2-2-2 For 3-5-2

Sim argues that Reading need tactical evolution, not revolution, and the ideal way to do that is by taking up the 3-5-2 as an alternative alongside 4-2-2-2.

Some managers are naturally pragmatic, more than willing to adapt tactically according to circumstance, and others are strong believers in a specific philosophy. Although he’s only been here a matter of months, Ruben Selles seems very much to belong in the latter camp. It was obvious before Reading had played a competitive game under him that he favoured a pressing style and a 4-2-2-2, and the last few months have certified that.

Selles has had 15 competitive matches in charge at Reading so far: 11 in League One, two in the League Cup and two in the Papa Pizza McJohns Trophy Cup (we’ve used the official name for commercial reasons). The Royals have used a 4-2-2-2 almost exclusively in those 15 games, only deviating when going to a 3-5-2 at half-time away to Blackpool, as well as adopting a sort-of 4-2-3-1 from the start at Leyton Orient. While the former was a pretty substantial shift from 4-2-2-2, the latter was more about dropping one of the two centre-forwards (Dominic Ballard) a little deeper while otherwise not really deviating from the 4-2-2-2.

The 4-2-2-2 though is where Selles’ heart lies. Although on the surface similar to a 4-4-2, the distinction is important: the two ‘wide’ midfielders in this system play unusually centrally; width is instead provided by attacking full-backs who consequently seem to have a role more akin to out-and-out wing-backs.

It’s a formation based around some core principles. Selles wants Reading to press aggressively - particularly in the middle of the pitch (hence tucking in two ‘wide 10s’ to congest the centre) - and to play vertically, getting the ball forward quickly and purposefully (hence two strikers).

An example of how Reading have set up in the 4-2-2-2

It’s also a formation that hasn’t fully worked for Reading just yet, at least not consistently. While it’s helped the Royals produce some of their best, most entertaining and most comfortable wins in recent years in the cup, as well as showing some promise in the league, it’s also been exposed too many times by the stronger sides Reading have faced so far. Accordingly, it’s increasingly becoming a source of concern for many supporters.

Some of the discourse has feel a tad wide of the mark. For a start there’s an element of recency bias at play: the 4-2-2-2 wasn’t really discussed as a major issue until the hammering at Blackpool, since when it’s been discussed endlessly. There’s also been an over-emphasis on Reading’s broader tactical setup in relation to problems on an individual level. Any formation will be undermined by young players still working on their positioning (Matty Carson), a centre-back being deployed at right-back (Tyler Bindon) or by a goalkeeper failing to make straightforward saves (David Button).

Still, Reading have certainly looked too open of late - excluding the 0-0 with Burton Albion and the 5-0 thrashing of Swindon Town. The Royals’ last three league away games have included nine goals conceded and two of the worst all-round performances of the season: Blackpool and Northampton Town away. There’s a concerning downwards trend emerging.

The time feels right for some kind of tactical change. But what should that look like in practice?

For all the off-field woes and poor form on the pitch, what marks this Royals side out from its predecessors is that there’s a strong long-term element at play. Reading have a manager with clear tactical ideas and have recruited accordingly, including younger players with a high ceiling. Although short-term concerns are absolutely valid, we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. There’s value in being aware of the long-term goal and working towards it.

So I’m reluctant to advocate for a complete tactical overhaul. Selles must stick to his principles of wanting Reading to press aggressively when they don’t have the ball and attack quickly when they do. Instead, the approach should be to take on board what’s worked so far and what hasn’t, then look for a slightly different way forward: a formation that’s the other side of the same coin to the 4-2-2-2 - not a different coin entirely.

Blackpool v Reading - Sky Bet League One
Reading started in the usual 4-2-2-2 at Blackpool, but switched to 3-5-2 when 3-0 down at the break
Photo by Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images

Handily, Reading have already played one such formation this season: 3-5-2 in the second half at Blackpool. Just 45 minutes in a contest that was already lost isn’t a great sample to learn from, but the fact that Selles went to it at all - his first deviation from 4-2-2-2 - is significant in and of itself. Clearly he sees something in the 3-5-2.

The most obvious similarity to the 4-2-2-2 is up front: going two up top is less common nowadays so it was striking (get it?) to see Reading stick with that aspect at Bloomfield Road despite altering the defence and midfield. But other key themes from the 4-2-2-2 are also identifiable in the 3-5-2, albeit with the emphasis adjusted:

  • Width is still not provided by wingers or wide forwards. This time the full-backs are pushed up to be out-and-out wing-backs
  • There are plenty of bodies in the middle of the pitch for pressing and winning the ball back quickly. This time it’s three dedicated central midfielders rather than two deeper ones being aided by two more advanced players

The key difference though is that players in vulnerable positions get cover from others to do more of what they want to do:

  • Swapping one ‘wide 10’ for a centre-back means more license for the wing-backs to push up and provide width
  • Swapping another for a central midfielder creates more freedom for the remaining two midfielders to get forward and support the strikers

Currently in the 4-2-2-2 there’s little room for error. A deeper central midfielder or full-back in that formation being caught out of position can mean space opening up and that space being exploited. It’s one thing when we’re talking about established professionals who have the know-how to walk that tightrope, but these problems are exacerbated when many of the players being exposed haven’t even completed a full season at this level before. They’ll improve, but they’re not there just yet.

Switching to 3-5-2 needn’t be seen as an entirely negative move anyway - more of a rebalancing. Although it would require sacrificing two creative players in those wide 10 spots, thereby meaning less ability to capitalise on turnovers, in return Reading would get more attacking threat from the wing-backs and central midfielders. While some players would therefore lose out (to varying degrees: Harvey Knibbs, Mamadi Camara, Femi Azeez and Paul Mukairu), some would stand to win big.

Left-back Carson in particular is a good example of someone who’d benefit from a change in formation. While he’s a huge attacking asset due to his excellent crossing, he’s also looked exposed defensively in recent games - admittedly not helped by the tough demands of being a full-back in the 4-2-2-2 or by the lack of support from a teammate. So pushing him higher up the pitch as a left-wing-back, with cover behind him, would maximise the best side of his game while reducing the risk from his worst.

Similarly, if you add in a holding midfielder - likely Sam Hutchinson, but alternatively Michael Craig or Amadou Mbengue when he’s back from injury - Reading would unlock more of the attacking side of Lewis Wing, Charlie Savage and Ben Elliott. All three are technically proficient midfielders who could provide plenty of creativity if given more of a license to do so.

Otherwise Reading currently look fine for options at centre-back with Tom Holmes and Clinton Mola as back-ups (I’d be intrigued to see the latter in a three). Also, Nesta Guinness-Walker, Mukairu and Azeez are options at wing-back (to varying degrees of familiarity), although really we need Andy Yiadom and Mbengue back for the right side.

On Saturday, Reading could set up in the 3-5-2 like this:

But when players return from injury and suspension, I’d like to see something more like this:

One of the biggest misgivings many of us would have about switching to 3-5-2 comes from the scars of last season. To put it kindly, Reading were distinctly tactically negative under Paul Ince in the 3-5-2 (although I prefer the word nihilistic).

That shouldn’t influence our view of the 3-5-2 too much though: there’s a lot more to a team’s overall tactical approach than the formation used for its lineups, and there’s no reason to believe Selles can’t have more success with the same setup. And, ironically, Reading did produce an excellent all-round performance of pressing and countering in the 3-5-2 under Ince: the 3-0 win over Blackburn Rovers.

Picking 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 as the new formation instead of 3-5-2 is also an option: in essence, swap one of the two centre-forwards for an extra central midfielder to shore things up. This would however be more of a departure than going 3-5-2 and not one that solves Reading’s problems.

In possession the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 facilitate stretching the play through natural wingers. Out of possession the extra wide attacking player lends itself more to a high-pressing game, restricting the opposition in their third, as opposed to trying to win the ball back in a more congested middle third. Neither of those changes would be consistent with Selles’ ideas.

There are personnel problems too, with Reading’s squad suiting a 4-2-2-2 or 3-5-2 much more than a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. The Royals’ attacking midfielders tend to be ‘wide 10s’ rather than out-and-out wingers. Reading could use a narrower 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, but it would be a poor use of the personnel available while not adding more width - surely a big part of going 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 in the first place.

Similarly, strikers such as Caylan Vickers and Ballard need a partner, so 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 wouldn’t suit them. And retaining the back four wouldn’t do anything for the left-sided players who are stronger going forwards but weaker defensively: Carson and Guinness-Walker.

Selles shouldn’t go 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 for the sake of it when there’s a more natural alternative formation sitting right there: the 3-5-2.

And now for why I said ‘partially’ in the headline

I’m generally not a fan of the idea - prevalent in football tactics discourse - that teams should ‘have a plan B’. To extrapolate the logic, teams should be prepared to use both a specific ‘plan A’ as well as an back-up that is inherently worse but is still turned to when ‘plan A’ doesn’t work.

It’s better to consider this in terms of alternative formations sitting alongside each other. Think of it this way: you have different pairs of shoes for different occasions - your posh ones for a date, your casual ones for social events, your trainers for exercising. None are inherently better than the others, they’re all good fits for the same pair of feet and are picked according to the occasion.

Reading should have the same approach with the 4-2-2-2 and the 3-5-2: not making one the ‘plan A’ and the other a ‘plan B’, but having both as viable options that can be rolled out according to circumstance.

Despite its flaws, we know the 4-2-2-2 is the most ideal long-term fit for Selles’ philosophy, Reading have recruited according to that formation and it’s shown promise in some games - particularly when Reading have been able to play on the front foot. Reading shouldn’t abandon the 4-2-2-2 entirely, but at the same time, some eggs should go in a different basket.

There’s precedent for pretty much exactly this. In 2016/17, Jaap Stam came in with clear tactical ideas around controlling possession and a specific formation for achieving that - the 4-3-3 - but he developed an additional setup (3-5-2, ironically) later on in the season that also worked for a side wanting to keep the ball. It helped get Reading to Wembley.

That element of tactical evolution, not revolution - consistent with the manager’s principles - was the right approach then and it would be the right approach now.