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What’s Gone Wrong With Harvey Knibbs And How To Fix It

Sim takes a closer looks at what we’ve seen from Harvey Knibbs so far - and makes the case that keeping him as a central midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 is the right way forward.

It’s not quite working as it should for Harvey Knibbs, is it? I like him, I’m convinced there’s a really good player in there and he’s certainly shown that in a Reading shirt, just not consistently enough.

Knibbs was Reading’s first addition of what was, without doubt, a chaotic summer transfer window. At the time his arrival painted a bright picture for the Royals’ rebuild however: this was a League One-proven forward with potential to improve, who’d clearly been scouted properly and closely fitted Ruben Selles’ pressing style of play.

Four months on though, he’s not got going yet. Knibbs certainly hasn’t been awful - his average score from our Player Ratings comes out at 5.9/10, a touch above the squad-wide average of 5.8 - but he’s not caught the eye as others have. There’s so much more to come from him.

It’s also clear that he’s a hugely important player for Selles. Knibbs has played more matches than anyone else in the squad across all competitions (21 out of 22 games), only being denied a perfect record by being kept on the bench in the 4-1 hammering at Blackpool. Focus on game time in the league and only four players - David Button (1,350), Charlie Savage (1,169), Femi Azeez (1,134) and Nelson Abbey (1,122) - have played more minutes than his 1,110.

There are certainly bigger problems with this team than Harvey Knibbs, including broader tactics, the squad’s inexperience and mentality, so this article isn’t an attempt to pin all Reading’s woes on one guy. But there’s just something fascinating about The Harvey Knibbs Situation. He should have fitted this side like a glove but things haven’t quite clicked for him. Why is that?

The good

First of all, what isn’t going wrong. Knibbs joined Reading with a reputation from his Cambridge United days for being excellent out of possession, working hard to press high and win the ball back. Although the Royals haven’t yet become the efficient pressing side Selles has tried to build, Knibbs has still done well in his own right.

Knibbs puts in an impressive number of tackles each league game: 2.6 to be precise. That’s the best of anyone in Reading’s squad and it puts him 10th in League One overall; eliminate defenders and deeper midfielders from the list though and he’s top of the division entirely. Knibbs is a hard-working machine of a forward who relentlessly engages the opposition - exactly what Selles wants from him, and surely a significant part of why Knibbs plays so often.

Overall, his end-product stats look good too. Knibbs has scored six times and registered three assists in 21 games across all competitions this season, a very respectable return that means he’s tied with Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan on total goal involvements (nine).

The not so good

At the end of the day a goal or an assist is valid as any other, and across all competitions, Knibbs has proved effective at coming up with both. The league is the most important competition for Reading this season though, and that’s where Knibbs is falling short on his end product.

Knibbs has only scored once in the league so far this season, equalising just before the interval in the 2-1 defeat at Exeter City. While he’s also registered three assists - setting up Dom Ballard at Northampton Town, Savage against Portsmouth and Sam Smith at home to Bristol Rovers - three assists in 15 games still isn’t that great for an attacking midfielder.

It’s the best league assists tally for anyone in the squad, but really that says just as much about Reading’s overall lack of creativity. That’s underlined by the fact that only five players have come up with an assist in the league at all, including defender Amadou Mbengue and goalkeeper David Button (one each).

Although Knibbs’ league goals return is poor, his lack of assists is the more pressing issue (if you’ll pardon the pun). He’s not really in the side to be a goalscoring attacker, particularly in the 4-2-2-2 when a pair of out-and-out centre-forwards are supported by Azeez, who typically plays higher up than Knibbs.

All of that is reflected in how often Knibbs shoots (not very) in comparison to Azeez, Reading’s core striking options and even creative deeper midfielders Savage and Lewis Wing.

But then again, Knibbs isn’t creating a lot of chances either. In the context of Reading’s squad his 0.9 chances created per game looks OK, putting him third behind Savage, Azeez and Wing, but across League One overall that’s only good enough to put him joint-79th. Even Savage - Reading’s most creative player in the league statistically - is joint-37th in League One.

So how should Knibbs be getting assists?

From the eye test, Knibbs doesn’t strike me as a standout passer or dribbler. He’s fine at both, but don’t expect him to constantly slalom through 10 players like prime Ovie Ejaria or play an inch-perfect defence-splitting pass like Michael Olise. His career-wide stats back that up: Knibbs has never excelled at either (with the caveat that he played as a striker or number 10 in his pre-Reading days, so had a different role to how he’s played this season).

Where he can get assists however is in his high pressing.

We saw a great example of how well that can work in the Bristol Rovers game. Knibbs (red) closes a man down aggressively - so tightly in fact that he’s hidden behind that Rovers player in this screenshot - wins the ball and plays it into Smith (blue) in acres of space. It’s a simple but effective way of creating high-quality chances - when you can manage it.

Reading FC on YouTube

Unfortunately though, that’s the only example you’ll find of Knibbs registering an assist via a successful high turnover this season. For me that’s down to Reading’s broader inability to get the high-pressing style going fully - it’s certainly not for a lack of effort on Knibbs’ part. Whatever the truth of the matter, Reading are missing out on a potential avenue to goal.

The 4-2-2-2 didn’t help, but the 4-1-4-1 should

Although Knibbs is a great fit for a pressing style, he’s not a great fit for the specific role he’s had in the 4-2-2-2: as a left-sided wide 10 (part winger, part central playmaker).

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

Given how narrowly Reading tend to play, those two ‘wide 10s’ tuck infield to congest the middle of the park - particularly when looking to press the opposition. However, in possession, those ‘wide 10’ roles do still require some of the qualities of a winger: particularly pace and the ability to stretch the play somewhat. That’s not Harvey Knibbs.

So where should he play instead? Well, Knibbs gave a clear indication of that just over a year ago in comments to the Cambridge Independent:

“I’ve always been a striker growing up but I feel in the system we’ve got the number 10 role is really good for me. It’s a position where I can help to set our off-the-ball press.

“[Manager Mark Bonner] says I sort of play two positions when I’m in that role. I can help back and be an eight defensively but then I get forward to stretch teams and help Joey [Ironside] or Sam [Smith] if they’re playing through the middle.”

That seems pretty much to be where Selles is moving him, and it’s come about as a result of the recent shift to 4-1-4-1. Reading used that formation for all of the Portsmouth match, the first half against MK Dons, all of the Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury Town games, and then for some of the second half against Arsenal’s under-21s.

Knibbs was on the left of the midfield four against Portsmouth and Bristol Rovers, and played in his familiar left-sided 10 role in the 4-2-2-2 when Reading used that formation in the second half against MK Dons, but has since been brought more central on two occasions. Savage’s absence for the trip to Shropshire meant Knibbs was used as an advanced central midfielder in the 4-1-4-1, playing the full 90, and he returned to that role when he came off the bench in the second half against Arsenal.

Here’s how Reading’s team lined up at Shrewsbury:

That game won’t be remembered fondly by Knibbs, whose error gifted the hosts a crucial first goal, but the bigger picture for him that day was still really encouraging. Significantly, for a player who’s so often failed to have enough of an impact on games, this was his most-involved league performance of the season.

Knibbs generally doesn’t touch the ball that often - he’s actually had more league games this season with fewer than 20 touches (three) than league goals (one). Against Shrewsbury though he had his joint-second-highest touch tally (43), and when you put that into the context of the number of touches Reading had overall when he was on the pitch, this game was the standout.

Knibbs was also hugely involved out of possession, attempting more tackles against Shrewsbury than in any other game. Far, far more in fact.

That’s not because Knibbs was dropping too deep to make those tackles. On the contrary, he was typically engaging Shrewsbury in their half, as shown in the graphic below (Reading are shooting from right to left).

So playing Knibbs as a central midfielder means he gets on the ball more and he can get stuck into the opposition to harry them too. Another crucial element though is of course end product.

It’s important with any formation that those playing up front are supported properly, but it’s even more vital when only using one centre-forward, as is the case in the 4-1-4-1. Reading struggled to do that in the earlier games using this formation, especially the MK Dons match, when a half-time switch to 4-2-2-2 was required (and yielded a much-improved second-half performance).

Reading supported the lone striker a lot better at Shrewsbury (Smith in this case), particularly in the first half, although a lot of that was down to the performance of lively, goalscoring left-winger Ballard. Knibbs showed how it’s done a few days later in the Bristol Temple Meads Super Vase against Arsenal though, with a really well taken goal to make it 4-2.

As the long throw comes in from Mbengue to Ehibhatiomhan (blue), Knibbs (red) is on the charge from deep in support.

Reading FC on YouTube

Knibbs spots the space, Ehibhatiomhan picks his run out with a clever header over the top...

Reading FC on YouTube

...and Knibbs is through on goal to slam the ball home at the near post.

Reading FC on YouTube

Keeping Knibbs as a central midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 makes sense

So, Knibbs as a central midfielder, based on the evidence we’ve seen so far: more involved in possession - check, more involved out of possession - check, able to provide a goal threat in open play - check.

When I say ‘central midfielder’, I don’t mean giving him a role exactly like that of his peers. Savage and Wing are the other main contenders for one of the more advanced central spots in a 4-1-4-1, but they’re more orthodox box-to-box 8s, generally operating deeper than Knibbs. Both are creative players, take a reasonable amount of shots per game and have already scored a few each this season, but don’t expect either to do what Knibbs does: intense pressing high up and runs in behind - like for the goal against Arsenal.

Let’s look back to that quote from Knibbs from earlier:

“I’ve always been a striker growing up but I feel in the system we’ve got the number 10 role is really good for me. It’s a position where I can help to set our off-the-ball press.

“[Manager Mark Bonner] says I sort of play two positions when I’m in that role. I can help back and be an eight defensively but then I get forward to stretch teams and help Joey [Ironside] or Sam [Smith] if they’re playing through the middle.”

Use Knibbs in a central midfield role in the 4-1-4-1 and you potentially get a three-in-one player. At some points he can help out defensively as an 8 would do, at other times operating more as a 10 or auxiliary striker; he’s got the engine and the intelligence to switch between those roles in-game.

Having someone with that profile in the 4-1-4-1 has broader tactical benefits for Reading. Selles wants energy and intensity from his side out of possession to press the opposition and create transitions, and “vertical” (direct) football going forwards, but those are best achieved in the 4-2-2-2 (hence that being his formation of choice for so long).

Switching to 4-1-4-1 has provided more solidity in open play but generally at the cost of that energy and intensity. After all, in the 4-1-4-1, the middle of the park is less congested (three central midfielders rather than four) and fewer bodies up top (one striker rather than two). Therefore: less capacity to swarm the opposition in the centre of the pitch and a less well supported lone striker when going direct.

So if Selles is to get the 4-1-4-1 to click - both in and out of possession - mixing in an element of the 4-2-2-2 would help. Using a versatile, dynamic pressing machine like Knibbs in a central area, allowing him to also effectively become a second striker, does just that.

Of course it’s too early to conclusively say keeping Knibbs in that central midfield role will work consistently, but it’s definitely worth a go.