On Saturday, there was as much to analyse off the field as there was on it, with a lot of speculation and controversy on social media regarding the post-match events at Brisbane Road. They unfortunately featured the young players taking the brunt of the criticism from an understandably riled away end, while the more responsible and “mature” older players fled down the tunnel.
Despite it being potentially directed towards the wrong crowd, the fans’ message was one which was absolutely necessary to be delivered, after we fell to an unsurprising, uninspired, defeatist and damning 2-1 defeat to Leyton Orient which consigned the Royals to a relegation place for another week.
The short version of some analysis for this would be that we were simply far worse than the Os in nearly every metric. If you’d prefer a slightly longer answer, then read on, as I’ll try to analyse what went wrong for Reading on Saturday.
Selles’ trademark 4-2-2-2 has come under some scrutiny among the fans recently, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been up for debate what our shape actually looks like when in play, whether it’s more of a 4-4-2, but to me against Orient it seemed like a 4-2-4, with a gaping gap on the wings just in front of the defence, often leaving the Reading fullbacks at a numerical and positional disadvantage.
Here, a clipped ball over the midfield in the opening stages of the game left Matty Carson with two to mark, meaning Rob Hunt, the Leyton Orient right-back, could easily flick the header on, playing his teammate in behind.
Questions could be asked of Carson’s commitment to win the ball here, but understandably he’s probably hesitant to fully commit to the duel and he knows that if the ball breaks then he is out of the game.
Conversely, Harvey Knibbs can be seen jogging back, seemingly unaware of his marking equal’s attacking intent and that Hunt’s run is probably worth tracking.
From this, Sanders, the winger, runs to the byline and pulls it back, creating a promising chance for the Os. Fortunately it’s blocked by the certified legend that is Nelson Abbey.
Interestingly, Lewis Wing and Abbey are seen instructing Carson following this play, presumably to offer advice on what to do in that situation, despite it being a very poor hand dealt to the young left-back.
It was the same story on the opposite side too. I felt especially sympathetic for Tyler Bindon playing out of position at right-back.
As shown here, our pressure on the Leyton Orient wide men was often compromised as we allow so much space for Archibald, the left-winger, to deliver a cross for yet another opportunity to threaten David Button’s goal.
If the Orient number 11 opted to pass out to the overlap too, then he has an unprecedented amount of space, and the only person in support is actually our best attacking threat - Dom Ballard - with Femi Azeez nowhere to be seen.
Against a team with the third-slowest build-up style in League One so far this season, at just 1.63 metres/second, essentially meaning they are intricate, calm and possession-based, our pressing was surprisingly frantic and uncoordinated.
It’s all well and good having players who could run for days without tiring, as obviously we can hold a high level of intensity throughout the 90. However, just charging towards the ball in a straight line whenever the Orient defenders had the ball was never going to win it back against a team that claimed a massive 71% of possession, as well as having 77% passing accuracy, compared to Reading’s shocking 47%.
In this screenshot, the Royals manage to have five players in the opposition third, pressing the Orient centre-halves and defensive midfielders, while their full-backs push up high.
However, because our wingers are so high - although Brandon Cooper, who’s on the ball here, is under pressure - it hardly takes a world-beating defender to take a touch and pass around the corner to their right-back.
And, as they say, if one piece of the pressing puzzle is missing, the whole team is pulled out of shape, as it is here, when Carson then has to step up, the defensive line is stretched and Orient progress the ball easily.
Allowing the opposition into chances like seen here is essentially manufacturing a counter-attack for our opponents. Suddenly, instead of pressing them, all our players are sprinting backwards to try to make up numbers in the defence.
Breaking Reading’s lines at the moment is about as easy as taking candy off a baby. In fact, I think the baby might put up a bit more of a fight. Us doing it to our opponents, contrarily, is as likely as Paul Ince not playing seven centre-backs in each game. It’s just never going to happen in this current climate.
Instead of praising vigour and intensity in pressing moments, the focus should rather be on strong decision-making, recognising triggers and not running around like a headless chicken: sapping energy and achieving nothing.
I don’t write about the failure in positioning and pressing in order to directly criticise the players who it involves, or even Ruben Selles’ system, because realistically every player will have certain systems that fit them, and every system will fit a certain set of players and a certain league. If neither worked anywhere, it’s unlikely they’d be anywhere near a professional football pitch.
Instead, I feel like this is a team of square pegs in round holes, and no-one really knows what they’re supposed to be doing and when.
This team is disjointed, divided and degenerating into League One relegation fodder, and unless something changes, we have not a chance of surviving in this division. Charlton Athletic away is the next league game, and it’s reaching breaking point at Reading. Not in terms of the manager getting sacked, but the toxicity surrounding the whole club.
With the burden of the potential year wait for an away win looming, results have to come soon.
God help us.
Up the Royals.