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Is Paul Ince Fit For The Long Term? Tactics And History Explained

Thomas Hill analyses the Reading gaffer in-depth.

FA Cup 1st Round: Macclesfield Town v Walsall Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Paul Ince seems to have steadied the ship at Reading for now, and will surely keep us up, but does he have the potential to do more? Let’s see what his tactics suggest.

Well, if people call Marcelo Bielsa’s overcommitting, attacking and high-pressing tactics ‘Murderball’, then what on earth do you call a system where everyone defends, time-wastes and might scrape a 0-0 away draw if you’re lucky? I think anti-football is, in this case, a bit of an understatement. Maybe it’s murderball in terms of frustrating and boring the spectators to death.

However, you can’t say it doesn’t work. Reading sit 12 points clear of relegation (before points deductions) and, according to recent projections, have a just 1% chance of going down.

Yes, survival was the primary objective, but so was “bridging the gap” between the club, players and fans, and I think what’s stopping this at the moment is not the lack of activity in the backroom staff or the lack of community programs - in fact, Ince has been successful in those departments - but simply the style of football we play.

Here, I’ll try to answer the questions of how Ince has managed in the past, whether his tactics work, will he change his tactics, and is there a bright future at Reading Football Club after Ince is invariably handed a four-year contract in the summer?

Understanding his tactics

In October 2022, after 16 Championship matches which left Reading eight, Total Football Analysis, cited Ince as countering against possession-based teams using a “low block and a very direct style that looks to harm rivals in big spaces and in the defensive transitions”. In the build-up phase, the centre-backs receive pressure from the opposition forwards while passing it round the back and then look for long balls into the attack.

Joe Lumley is instructed to always kick it long when he has the ball, and then the Royals look for flick-ons off target men into the more pacy, tricky players. This can work against high-quality opposition, such as Burnley away when Yakou Méïté released Tom Ince through on goal to score the opener.

Reading rely on set pieces and feed off scraps for many goals, with practically the whole team having a strong aerial presence, and have also won the most penalties out of any team in the Championship this season.

Defensively, Ince employs a narrow and pragmatic line, often lying deep against possession-based sides with aggressive pressing from the wing-backs to contain the wingers. There is also a fluid movement of positions with players such as Andy Carroll and Ince often joining the defence to provide support.

Do these tactics work?

To be honest, there aren’t many successful managers who play a low block and five at the back. But we can compare some similarities between systems.

Steve Cooper led Swansea City to successive play-off finishes using a 5-3-2 formation, but the differences lie in the great width that the Swans played with in possession, and out of possession playing a compact shape. Cooper also had his full-backs bombing up and down all game, contributing much more to the attack than would happen under Ince. Now in the Premier League, he plays a 4-3-3 with Forest, and is doing very well with them too.

You can’t mention deep, counter-attacking sides without mentioning Dyche’s Burnley, who famously played a 4-4-2. He used an attacking style mainly featuring long balls and vertical counter attacks, relying on an aerial presence from his strikers and knock-ons. Aside from the formation, these tactics aren’t too far from Ince’s, but Reading lack the same leadership, rigidity and organisation in defence that Dyche had.

It was in the Premier League, but while there Burnley were underfunded, but always used to find a route to survival. I think for a team looking to avoid relegation in the Championship, the same style of play can be used.

He’s done it before... can he do it again?

Ince’s first managerial role was at Macclesfield Town in late October 2006 when he joined the Silkmen as a player-manager. Ince joined a team rock-bottom of the Football League, without a win all season, seven points adrift of safety and seemingly destined for relegation.

Confidence began to build after FA Cup wins against Walsall and Hartlepool which set up a glamour tie away at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, which Ince would go on to lose 6-1. Tides began to turn in the league too, after a run of six wins and a draw in seven games around Christmas time.

Soccer - FA Cup photo-call - Macclesfield Photo by Martin Rickett - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

How on earth did he do this, with no transfer window and an impossible task? The answer lay in his players’ fitness. As still technically a player himself, Ince was used to the highest standard of training with some of Europe’s biggest clubs and the England national team. He was in essence doing Premier League training with League Two players and it worked wonders.

The Cheshire side survived on the last day of the season and Ince, having heard that relegation rivals Boston were 3-0 down and that Macclesfield were safe, brought himself off the bench for the final game of his football career. In classic Paul Ince style, he got booked for a late tackle, but the fans loved it, and incredibly, the Silkmen survived.

Ince played a 4-4-2 with two strong and tall centre backs, dependable full-backs and tough-tackling, combative centre midfielders. He then had technically able wingers to run at the opposition defenders and contribute goals, and always a big man up front, with someone else playing off them.

Macclesfield Town were a hard-working but technically gifted team and, with Ince instilling in them a true professionalism and core level of fitness, they went from relegation certainties to survivors. Paul Ince would leave for MK Dons at the end of the season but is remembered very fondly among Silkmen fans, and is a popular man at the Moss Rose to this day.

This sort of ‘do or die’ attitude employed at Macclesfield when faced with an impossible task could be very useful to try to survive a similar situation at Reading. With a points deduction imminent, Ince could be the man to use this as motivation to rally the players to push us over the line to hopefully stay in the Championship.

Ince’s experience of playing a more attacking formation despite a perilous situation and getting results could also be valuable to the Royals, and it’s easy to visualise Reading players in the roles that Ince used at Macclesfield. The formations deployed in recent weeks, such as against Blackpool, show that Ince is open to changing his systems, and against the right opponents they can reap high rewards.

Is the future bright?

Discounting Reading, Ince has never shown himself to be a stable manager in any level above League One. Once he ventured above that for the first time, in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, he was sacked after only six months with a 28% win percentage. After that, despite a promising start with Blackpool, Ince was sacked in the Championship after just 12 wins in 42.

So yes, he’s anything but proven, and I’m doubtful he can take us any further than the Championship, but as a steady manager to keep us up and maybe push for play-offs a few times, I think Ince would do a decent job.

At this point we kind of have to stick with him. At the end of the day, who else would want to come? But I’d stick with him for a little longer than that too, give him a chance and see where he takes us. Maybe going to be League One at this rate though. Good luck Incey.

I would like to give a massive thanks to @silkmenarmy on Twitter for all of the fantastic information on Paul Ince while he was at Macclesfield Town. That’s the stuff you can’t easily find on the internet!