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Reading 2-3 Portsmouth: Tactical Analysis

Tom assesses Saturday’s loss to the league leaders.

Reading v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

As Charlie Savage hit home Reading’s second of the game in the 27th minute on Saturday, sending the home crowd into delirium, I - like many others in the stadium - was thinking something along the lines of: “Portsmouth 25 unbeaten, two goals down to crisis-club Reading, fresh off a loss to Fleetwood, this is too good to be true!”

And unfortunately, to complete the old saying, if something’s too good to be true, it usually is. That was proved by the Royals in the second half when Pompey’s persistence following their late first-half equaliser proved too much for us, completing a remarkable comeback. However, from a Reading fan’s perspective, it is exactly in our character to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory.

It was always going to be a tough task facing the league leaders in top form, but our players certainly didn’t help themselves, and yet another game went by with no points, leaving us eight from safety in League One.

Let’s analyse what went down in Reading’s latest league loss.

Control and positioning

Portsmouth have an average possession of 59% this season, the highest in the league, so it was always going to be difficult for Ruben Selles’ team to put their own stamp on this game.

However, Reading had just 32% possession in the first half, with 76% of their passes being played in their half, meaning Selles most likely opted for a more defensive setup at first. That made sense since, in playing the new 4-3-3, we had just one dedicated defensive midfielder with two players higher, a bold move when playing a team with one of the highest goal tallies in the league.

To contrast, in the second half, when Reading went to a 4-2-3-1, we played just 54% of our passes in our own half, clearly demonstrating a more attacking outlook from the manager. This paid off in terms of the number of shots, as we bettered our first-half total, but not in the quality of chances, as Reading created an xG of just 0.26, compared to Portsmouth’s 1.1 in the second half.

Against a top team, going more attacking, even if we showed we could compete in the first half or so, is a game-management mistake in my opinion. Yes, we had bottled our lead, but everyone in that stadium would have taken 2-2 at half-time prior to the match, and this tactical switch - coupled with two offensive substitutions in Paul Mukairu and Ben Elliott in the 66th minute - could have made us more open in the second half.

Selles’ famed pressing also seemed to take a backseat in this game. With only Sam Smith up top, and the wingers pinned to the Pompey fullbacks when the away side were building out, it was often left to Savage and Lewis Wing to join the effort.

When it did happen, the pressing to me seemed especially frantic from Reading. With the exception of one or two moments, I think it’s often fruitless for a single striker to go gunning for the ball at all times when any composed goalkeeper or centre-back, as Portsmouth had in Will Norris, Regan Poole and Connor Shaughnessy, can pick a player out with ease.

Our generally more defensive attitude on Saturday is shown in the average player positions below.

Michael Craig (number 36), drops so deep as to almost make a five at the back, even playing with Harlee Dean ahead of him.

In build-up he would often drop in, allowing the centre-backs to be stretched wider, allowing Nesta Guinness-Walker and Andy Yiadom to push further up the field and provide more options. This is shown in the screenshot here.

Craig did a good job when playing out, but defensively he only won 27% of his duels, so I’d like to see Tivonge Rushesha given a chance in this position, given his very impressive performances for the under-21s, in terms of ability, leadership and the energy he can give to the team.

However, the midfielders were not rooted to their traditional positions, with the three free to rotate to allow the more technical, creative and direct players in Wing and Savage deeper to collect the ball when Pompey allowed us some space, as seen here.

When we only have the double pivot that the 4-2-2-2 provides, they are essentially fixed to their positions, as either player drifting would leave us far too exposed, and it’s hardly like the wingers/wide midfielders, who are usually Femi Azeez and Harvey Knibbs, are the type of players to drop deep in the centre.

Attacking threat

One thing that was so refreshing to see was the ferocious physicality of Sam Smith up top. Even if he evidently didn’t have his shooting boots on on Saturday, throughout his 75 minutes he gave the Portsmouth centre-backs far more to do, even if it was just giving them a bit of a push and shove to let them know he’s there, which I find far more preferable to a listless backing into a defender and not going for the header, which Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan seems to have inherited from Lucas Joao.

Smith won an incredible 91% of his 11 aerial duels against Pompey, the highest of any player on the pitch. This gives a great reassurance that, if we have to play route-one football, we have a player who can give the defenders a torrid time.

Both our goals came from a cross which was knocked down and struck beautifully from distance through a crowd of players. This is shown here for Savage’s goal where, granted, he is left in far too much space, but the difficulty of the finish can’t be underestimated, and Knibbs’ knockdown is crucial to this move too.

I think balls into the mixer will be crucial if we continue to play this formation, especially with the players we now have at our disposal. When we win the headers, great, as Smith is a good finisher at this level. If we don’t, we have Savage and Wing lining up to hit a long shot, the former having proven his goalscoring, and the latter coming into form with a great goal tally at Wycombe Wanderers behind him.

The positive is that we are competing in most matches and putting up a somewhat honourable performance. Against Portsmouth, I think it would be hard to fault the team, based on their effort.

Provided we iron out the stupid mistakes on the pitch and off it (I’m looking at you, Amadou Mbengue), I still believe we can climb to safety in League One, especially if Selles swallows his pride and goes with the 4-3-3 for the rest of the time he’s here.

A week’s break until the FA Cup match against MK Dons follows... and well... if we don’t beat them, especially with the squad depth we have, I can’t say we have much chance of avoiding competing on level terms with the Dons next season.

Anyway, I’m off to my local Sports Direct to invest in a bit of Mike Ashley before he (hopefully) invests in us.

Up the Royals.