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In Defence Of Ruben Selles’ Recent Team Selections

The manager’s taken some flak this week for how he set Reading up against Eastleigh and Charlton, but for Sim, a lot of the criticism has been wide of the mark.

Eastleigh v Reading - Emirates FA Cup Second Round Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

It’s been an unusual week for Reading Football Club, and for a change, I’m just talking about matters on the pitch. We’ve been in the odd position of having two consecutive cup games in different competitions, meaning the post-international-break fixture list has read: league, league, FA Cup, EFL Trophy... before an immediate return to league action this Saturday against Barnsley.

And that period’s brought a mixed bag of performances and results. After an excellent away win at Wycombe Wanderers and comfortable (albeit not entirely convincing) victory over Carlisle United, Reading were dumped out of the FA Cup at non-league Eastleigh before outplaying Charlton Athletic a few days later, but requiring a penalty shootout to progress.

The particularly big bone of contention among the fans this week though has been team selection. Ruben Selles has come in for a hefty amount of flak on this front at various points this week, primarily along the lines of Reading playing too weak a side at Eastleigh and going too strong against Charlton, soon before the Barnsley match.

For me, a lot of the criticism has been wide of the mark and somewhat unfair, so I wanted to offer a different perspective, one that I suspect puts me firmly in the minority. For instance, Ben and Ross did a great job of making the opposite argument on this week’s podcast, which you can check out here.

So, here goes...

Shrewsbury Town v Reading - Sky Bet League One Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

Selles had previously found, settled on and benefitted from a strong XI in the league games against Wycombe and Carlisle:

Reading vs Wycombe/Carlisle (4-1-4-1): Button; Yiadom, Bindon, Abbey, Dorsett; Craig; Azeez, Wing, Knibbs, Ballard/Mukairu; Smith

Undoubtedly Selles would have tried to maintain that XI if Reading only had league games coming up, but the brace of cup fixtures made things much more complicated. He had a range of options available to him:

  1. Go as strong as possible in both cup matches
  2. Rest first-team players as much as possible in both cup matches
  3. Prioritise one game over the other
  4. Put a half-strength side out in both

The point I really want to stress is that none of those approaches are inherently correct or incorrect, especially when Reading have a fairly deep squad that allows for rotation. Selles was feasibly in a position to use any of those four strategies in the last week. Contrast that to, say, 2021/22, when Veljko Paunovic basically had to rotate heavily in the cup due to having a smaller, more injury-prone squad.

The most important thing was for Selles to have a clear plan for those two cup games, to know what he wanted to get out of them. Again, there’s no definitely right answer here, it’s more a matter of prioritising and broader strategy. Some key aims though would surely have been:

  • Avoiding the build-up of fatigue
  • Maintaining momentum from those back-to-back league wins
  • Developing the new(ish) 4-1-4-1 system

What Selles did and why

Selles seems to have deliberately settled on the fourth team-selection option: play a half-strength side in both games.

Reading vs Eastleigh (4-1-4-1): Pereira; Mbengue, Holmes, Mola, Carson; Craig; Azeez, Savage, Knibbs, Elliott; Ehibhatiomhan

Reading vs Charlton (4-1-4-1): Pereira; Mbengue, Bindon, Abbey, Mola; Hutchinson; Vickers, Wing, Elliott, Mukairu; Smith

I say ‘seems’ as it’s up for debate how much the Charlton XI was impacted by the Eastleigh result - only Selles will know either way. My hunch though is that they were chosen independently and in advance, with the specific intent of choosing two half-strength sides. The selections fit that theory, as I’ll go into more in the ‘avoiding fatigue’ section below.

So why did Selles go for that fourth option? In an attempt to tick off all those three key aims - avoiding the build-up of fatigue, maintaining momentum and developing the system - rather than focusing on one or two while deprioritising one or two.

Going as strong as possible in both matches would have been a really poor choice for avoiding fatigue. On the other hand, putting out a weaker side in one or both games would have made building momentum harder, given that every match has the potential to boost or undermine morale.

I’m certainly not saying Selles’ approach was absolutely perfect for achieving all three targets - clearly it wasn’t, otherwise Reading would have won both games and none of this discussion would have happened. But there was logic to what he did, which I think has been overlooked in post-match discussions this week.

Avoiding fatigue

Selles managed to extensively rotate his team in the last week, with only four players starting in both games: Joel Pereira, Amadou Mbengue, Clinton Mola and Ben Elliott.

The first three made the most sense to give more game time to. Pereira is Reading’s cup ‘keeper in the absence of Coniah Boyce-Clarke, while Andy Yiadom and Jeriel Dorsett not being at full fitness meant less ability to rotate, therefore a need for Mbengue and Mola. The latter started at centre-half against Eastleigh, but switched to left-back and then right-back against Charlton.

Elliott’s situation is a bit different. However, as an attacking option who hasn’t had starts recently but could well be needed in the league (Paul Mukairu is consistently inconsistent), I’d say it made sense to give him more game time.

Eastleigh v Reading - Emirates FA Cup Second Round Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Otherwise, the vast majority of Reading’s available outfield squad got one start from two games: Tom Holmes, Matty Carson, Charlie Savage, Michael Craig (suspended for the Charlton match), Harvey Knibbs, Femi Azeez, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, Tyler Bindon, Nelson Abbey, Lewis Wing, Sam Hutchinson, Caylan Vickers, Sam Smith and Paul Mukairu. Harlee Dean and Tivonge Rushesha started neither game but came off the bench at Eastleigh.

That looks an awful lot like a deliberate plan, drawn up in advance, of sharing game time around.

It’s hard to say any vital first-team player has been overworked, especially when there’s been no long-distance away travel to factor in. Wing and Smith look like the most obvious counters to that, given that both came off the bench at Eastleigh and started against Charlton three days before the Barnsley game, but they were taken off early in the latter match. Wing’s total minutes come to around 97, while Smith’s come to around 109. That’s not overly strenuous on two fully fit players in their prime.

Clearly the very best way to avoid fatigue is to rest all your key players completely, but then again, you’ve got another thing to factor in...

Maintaining momentum

I’ve seen a number of people say we should have gone stronger in the Eastleigh game before rotating against Charlton - basically option three in the list above. The danger is that there’s some hindsight at play here, in relation to Eastleigh at least: team selections look better when you win and worse when you lose.

For me though, the bottom line is that, against both Eastleigh and Charlton, Reading put out teams strong enough to win the game. On paper, this XI is good enough to see off Eastleigh:

Reading vs Eastleigh (4-1-4-1): Pereira; Mbengue, Holmes, Mola, Carson; Craig; Azeez, Savage, Knibbs, Elliott; Ehibhatiomhan

And this is good enough to get past Charlton:

Reading vs Charlton (4-1-4-1): Pereira; Mbengue, Bindon, Abbey, Mola; Hutchinson; Vickers, Wing, Elliott, Mukairu; Smith

The second one is clearly true - we did get past Charlton, even if it took substitutes and penalties to do so. We were also close to doing the same in the Eastleigh match despite a very poor display, so the team selection in that game for me wasn’t the issue. Certainly, Reading would have stood a better chance of beating Eastleigh if Smith, Wing and co had started, but the attacking quality to get the job done was still there. After all, that lineup included two in-form attackers and our top scorer across all competitions.

Eastleigh v Reading - Emirates FA Cup Second Round Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

To digress a bit, the actual problem was going 4-1-4-1 in a contest that had to primarily be about getting on the front foot and breaking Eastleigh down. The 4-2-2-2 has proven to be our best bet of doing that this season, particularly in cup competitions against sides that are - on paper - weaker individually.

For me, that formation choice was Selles’ actual big misstep in the last week. Going 4-2-2-2 against Eastleigh and 4-1-4-1 against Charlton would have also allowed for plenty of rotation while making a win in the FA Cup that bit likelier. But the fact that Selles didn’t do that points to another thing he wanted to get out of those two cup games:

Working on the 4-1-4-1

Reading have primarily been a 4-1-4-1 team (or 4-3-3 team, depending on how you look at it) since the 3-2 defeat to Portsmouth in late October. Getting up to speed on that formation has taken time, hasn’t been without its setbacks and has passed some squad members by - given that some haven’t had much of an opportunity to play in the 4-1-4-1.

A week with two cup games was an opportunity to rectify some of that, and it’s telling that Selles went 4-1-4-1 in the entirety of both games. He didn’t turn to 4-2-2-2 when Reading were in need of a goal against Eastleigh or Charlton, unlike the MK Dons FA Cup match when he switched formation at half-time. Clearly, the intent was to stick with the 4-1-4-1 and polish it.

Team selection was an important part of that. The benefit of specifically going half-strength in both games is that back-up players got the opportunity to practice alongside first-teamers, effectively replicating the kind of environment they’ll have in the league. Hutchinson plays next to Wing, Savage plays next to Azeez, Mola plays next to Abbey, and so on. That’s more useful than having entirely different XIs in the league and cup.

Some general thoughts on where Reading are right now

At the end of the day, all of this is secondary to what Reading now come up with in the league. Selles will get more flak for his recent team selections if Reading lose the next three games and no one will care about those XIs if we win the next three games. At this point though, there are some conclusions we can make, however tentatively.

It’s a safe bet to say Reading need a first-choice XI to get fluency and ruthlessness out of the 4-1-4-1, given that we’ve just seen two half-strength sides put in one limp attacking display and one patchy, profligate performance after two much higher-scoring games in the league.

Also, for the sake of momentum, the Charlton match was probably the better one to win (albeit on penalties), although of course two victories would have been ideal. In the short term, Reading go into the Barnsley game on the back of bouncing back from a defeat in the FA Cup by progressing in the Pizza Cup, not the other way around. In the longer run, we’ve also got a great chance of winning the whole tournament, but a cup run of any sort would still be great for morale down the line.

Team-selection experimentation has also yielded some interesting results. It turns out that Clinton Mola is actually a decent right-back, based on his second-half performance against Charlton, and that’ll do his chances no harm at all. Charlie Savage may also have found his spot in 4-1-4-1 - as a deep-lying playmaker, which Ross explored in a tactical video here. In addition, it seems Caylan Vickers and Ben Elliott are best deployed in the 4-1-4-1 out wide and centrally respectively - the opposite of how they’ve been used in this formation before.