Reading’s 3-1 win over Blackpool on Saturday felt like a significant, if not final, step in the right direction on a number of fronts. First and foremost, it was a vital three points in the search to ward off any threat of relegation (I reckon we now need another six), and it also relieved a significant amount of pressure on Paul Ince, which had intensified after the dire 1-0 defeat at Cardiff City.
Just as significant however was the manner in which victory was achieved.
It’s been seriously concerning all season just how incapable this side has looked when it comes to hurting opposition teams in open play. Reading’s goals overwhelmingly come from long shots, penalties or set pieces - not thought-out open-play moves, whether they’re a case of direct football, counter-attacking football, wing play or anything else. Before Saturday there was minimal evidence that Ince knew how to solve that problem, with the Royals even looking toothless against relegation-battling Rotherham United and Cardiff.
Saturday wasn’t perfect from an attacking point of view - Reading still only fashioned four shots from open play - but it’s hard to deny that it wasn’t significant improvement. Tom Ince scored twice from open play, a reenergised Yakou Meite ran riot down the right wing, and the two incisively combined to win the penalty converted by Andy Carroll.
It’s a level of attacking output Reading have been capable of all season but, with the odd exception, have fallen short of. While focusing on defensive solidity has its value (and has helped us rack up a significant number of points), it’s not mutually exclusive with building a coherent and substantial attacking threat. Reading need both if relegation is to be decisively beaten.
So, credit to Ince for this improvement. He’s finally come up with a serious answer for a tactical question to which he’d previously had no response. This is exactly what I and many others have wanted for ages: learning from his mistakes.
We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves just yet though; one swallow does not a summer make. Saturday represents one step in the right direction - it could well be the start of real long-term improvement, a one-off, or something in between the two.
One of the most significant aspects of the Blackpool win was the Royals’ move to a 4-1-4-1. It’s only the second time Reading have started a match in any competition with a back four this season, with the other coming in the 2-0 loss at Watford - also a 4-1-4-1. You can see that XI at Vicarage Road here...
...and the one deployed against Blackpool here.
Despite the identical formation, there’s a different player in every outfield spot (although a couple of players’ roles are changed). That actually rises to every single spot in the XI if you include Joe Lumley going off for Dean Bouzanis in the first half at Vicarage Road due to injury... but that’s not important for this article (sorry Dean).
What is important is the fact that Paul Ince went with this set-up at all. While he’s used some kind of a back four on various occasions thus far (for example 4-2-3-1 at Rotherham United and at home to Sunderland, 4-3-3 at home to Rotherham and 4-4-2 away to Stoke City), they’ve almost always (bar Watford away and now Blackpool at home) been in-game changes. Ince is a creature of habit, and in this case that habit is deploying a back three.
I’m less inclined to believe this change of heart was a response to the mounting pressure on him personally or the manner of the Cardiff defeat. Reading’s second-half improvement at home to Rotherham United, when moving to a 4-3-3 (described by Ince as a 4-2-3-1) prompted a turnaround, was surely on the gaffer’s mind for the team selection against Blackpool.
I’m also less inclined to think it was the 4-1-4-1 itself that earned Reading the win on Saturday. It didn’t help Reading create an especially high number of quality chances, control the game in general or shut out Blackpool defensively. The latter was a particular concern early on, when more clinical opposition would have surely exploited the openings they created.
Looking at the stats, Blackpool had more possession than Reading (57.8%) and outshot the Royals 14-8 (as you can see in the chart below, with the away side in blue), while a greater proportion of the match was played in Reading’s third (33%) than it was in Blackpool’s (23%).
Those stats shouldn’t take away from the fact that Reading were much improved on Saturday and deserved the win, but they do emphasise that the Royals have further to go. Remember: this was against a side battling to stay up, not even one of the stronger teams in the division.
To be fair, the problem was largely to do with personnel. Scott Dann and Naby Sarr made for a slow centre-back pairing, Tom McIntyre and Amadou Mbengue aren’t specialist or experienced full-backs, Jeff Hendrick struggled to get in the game as the anchorman in front of the back four (he’d probably be better higher up) and Andy Carroll looked functional as a target man but limited as an actual threat, due to a lack of crosses.
The encouraging thing is that numerous players who didn’t start on Saturday would solve a lot of these problems, to some extent at least. Tom Holmes would add some mobility at centre half, Andy Yiadom and Baba Rahman are specialist full-backs who’d relish the opportunity to link up with wingers, Mamadou Loum would add clout as a destroyer in front of the back four, and Lucas Joao would surely benefit from better service via Tom Ince and Cesare Casadei.
It’s the son (and Meite) what won it
The game-changing success wasn’t the overall effect of the 4-1-4-1, but what it got out of two attacking players: Yakou Meite and Tom Ince. The former was restored to his favoured position on the right wing (as opposed to the centre-forward role that’s given him mixed success this season) while the latter was again an attacking central midfielder in a trio.
As you can see from Ince’s touch map (in which Reading are shooting from left to right), most of his involvement was pretty deep, but he still had the freedom to drift out to the right and be on hand to convert two chances fashioned by Meite (those orange lines on the right denote his goals).
While the first of those opportunities was initially created by the aggressive pressing of right-back Mbengue, Meite’s there to capitalise on the turnover, create a bit of space and play in Ince. It looks simple, but would Reading have been able to score from this situation in a 3-5-2, with just one right-wing-back on hand rather than a full-back and right-winger? Probably not.
The latter of Ince’s goals on the other hand is all about Meite. From the moment he turns on the afterburners, Blackpool are on the back foot. It takes a hashed clearance for the ball to fall at Ince’s feet, but you force errors such as those when you get the opposition off balance and then give ‘em a hefty shove.
Side note: Reading ended up with four and five players in the box respectively by the time the ball hit the net for those goals. Besides Ince and Meite (who’s just outside the area for the opener after providing the assist), Carroll, Casadei and the left-winger (Junior Hoilett or Femi Azeez) are on hand. Getting bodies in the box is a simple but important thing if you want to score goals (duh) and my general sense from this season is that we haven’t been good enough at it.
As for Reading’s other goal, it could well have been scored by Meite as an open-play strike - or by fellow winger Femi Azeez - had Meite not been taken down for the penalty. Regardless, he makes a great run in behind which is unlocked by an incisive pass from Ince.
So often this season, Reading have lacked a clear plan of how to hurt the opposition in open play, but you can see one in all three goals on Saturday: let Meite do it. That might seem a tad basic, but when you’ve got standout, game-changing quality at this level, it doesn’t have to be any more elaborate. Reading just need to unlock it, and in Tom Ince, they’ve got someone capable of doing just that.
Ince and Meite combining for an open-play goal is actually becoming a bit of a theme in 2022/23. I make Ince’s brace against Blackpool the fourth and fifth times this season that the two have paired up either directly (such as with Ince’s first when Meite registered an official assist) or indirectly (such as Ince’s second when Meite caused the initial damage but didn’t get the assist). Previously, Ince played Meite in behind for his goal at home to Huddersfield Town, Meite fed Ince at Swansea City, and then did so again at Burnley.
Five such goals isn’t a lot, but it’s four more than any other combination has managed. Again, this Reading side is very bad at scoring goals from thought-out open-play moves, but if there’s an exception to that rule, it’s definitely the combination of Ince and Meite.
Where do Reading go from here?
Sorry, fans of the back four, Reading will probably return to a back three at the weekend. I can’t see Paul Ince being tempted by putting out a 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 - regardless of personnel - when the Royals head north to face a particularly in-form, promotion-hunting Middlesbrough (bar their defeat at the weekend).
That shouldn’t mean Meite and Ince can’t be properly utilised at the Riverside to give Reading real open-play threat though. Their first three combinations were after all as part of the 3-5-2; in fact, two came when they partnered each other up top in that system - one at Swansea City and one at Burnley. I could therefore see Paul Ince opting to replicate the Burnley set-up at Middlesbrough. That’d mean Ince pairing Meite up front in the 3-5-2, with Casadei essentially taking Ejaria’s role as the most advanced midfielder of the three.
The longer-term takeaway from Saturday should be less that Meite specifically has to play on the right wing and more that Reading have to get the most out of his strengths: running at defenders and getting in behind. That could well be as a right-winger in front of a full back, as an out-and-out centre forward, or as a wide forward in a 3-4-3. While he showed some promise in that latter role against Swansea City, fitting everyone into that system would probably mean him being shoved onto the left wing (not ideal) and leave Reading with just two central midfielders (also not ideal).
Sort out where you want to put Meite and it’s then pretty straightforward to fit Ince in. After all, his versatility and tenacity make him a viable option in the middle of the park, out wide or up top, even in tougher away games.
With regards to the 4-1-4-1, I’m keen to see Reading use it again for more winnable matches - particularly at home. Realistically it won’t be deployed every game and it certainly needs personnel tweaks and work on the training ground, but it’s an endeavour worth pursuing.