On Saturday, Noel Hunt masterminded a 0-0 draw against one of football’s greatest young managerial talents, all while doing the seeming unthinkable of playing youngsters instead of Andy Carroll, having some passion and caring about the fans. Who would have thought that a young and hungry attack is sometimes better than a knackered, overworked and clumsy Carroll? Certainly not Paul “Better than Guardiola” Ince.
To be fair to Carroll, he had a great impact when he came on and wasn’t just used as a head on a stick as usual, and that’s just one of the fantastic changes that I think Hunt made for this game. Now, I’ll try to unpick the rest.
Formation and positioning
To call this a 4-4-2 would be, in my opinion, a massive oversight, as that’s not exactly how we played. One of the most refreshing things about watching Reading’s display against Burnley was how well the team adapted to the opponents and their own teammates, which is perfectly demonstrated by the average player positions.
We know that Nesta Guinness-Walker (18) has some defensive liabilities in him, so when put against Manuel Benson, who has one of the highest rates of goal-creating actions per 90 in the league at 0.50, it was a risk to leave him exposed in a back four. This is why Tyrese Fornah (19) is seen playing so deep to provide some cover, and the pair did extremely well in neutralising the Clarets’ constant threats down Reading’s left.
Andy Yiadom (17) down the other flank, who obviously has more Championship experience, was largely left without much help from Femi Azeez (15), which advantaged us massively going forward with the youngster’s pace and desire.
This left us playing much more like a 4-3-1-2, interestingly with Lucas Joao in behind in a similar role to how he played against Birmingham City. The Angolan thrives in this role, with the highest amount of shot-creating actions in the Royals’ team, and he was regularly seen bringing the ball down and playing through balls for Azeez or simply controlling it for the midfield.
The much more mobile front line with Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan pressed with energy but conservatively, allowing the ball-playing Burnley defence to pass it round with little attacking intent, limiting them to only one shot on target.
Azeez was by far the brightest spark going forward for Reading. He had lots of space to run into countless times, and exploited the Burnley defence with his pace and attacking intent, but the presence in the box wasn’t there to provide the finish, leading to the attack fizzling out.
In another situation it’s a case of a lack of positional knowledge from the front men to be on the same page as Azeez.
At other times the cross into the box was poor and failed to beat the first man, but it’s still great to see him playing with such freedom and skill.
This is the same as on another occasion but with Guinness-Walker, as seen here too.
Overall, the team just looked like they wanted to win. It was a massive breath of fresh air from the usual “set up to draw or lose” tactics of Ince. Even Jeff Hendrick passed it forward a few times! The introduction of Carroll and Mamadi Camara showed they are both very technically skilful with their feet when they want to be and are allowed to, leading to a less one-dimensional team in the closing stages.
The only slight disappointment for me was a lack of attacking involvement from Cesare Casadei, who won some fouls and tackles and had some clever passes but wasn’t given the chance to create as much. If I were Hunt, this would tempt me to switch to a diamond in midfield with the Italian as a 10, Hendrick at holding and the wingers either side, but that may prove a little too attacking for now.
We were simply outstanding. To limit Burnley to speculative long shots and set pieces for their chances was so good to see, especially with a four at the back. Joe Lumley had only one save to make, and it was brilliant. Yiadom had his best game in a while, with some great crunching tackles and footwork to retain the ball. Guinness-Walker and Fornah on the left seemed to win basically every tackle. Naby Sarr was commanding aerially and of course had that potentially game-saving sliding tackle. Tom Holmes played an important role well too and the midfield sheltered the defensive line perfectly.
I don’t have any screenshots to include for this part, because frankly there is no story to tell apart from that the Reading defence was a fortress on Saturday that would not be breached.
This isn’t really analysis, but I’ll say it anyway. When I think back to some points we’ve won this season - maybe Wigan Athletic away, Norwich City away - those points, like many other in the Paul Ince era, were won by individual brilliance from the players, those being Tom Ince and Guinness-Walker respectively.
On Saturday however, I fully believe that this point was won by Noel Hunt. His passion, commitment and love for the fans were there for all to see, and I have every confidence that he will revive this club. Moments by single players count towards that of course, but none of this happens without the lift that he’s given the club, and I sincerely hope that this continues.
His attitude and mentality were instilled in every player, even with players such as Joao, usually scalded for laziness, getting stuck into tackles and showing his will to win.
This Reading team will stay up.