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Analysis: Reading’s Imbalanced 4-4-2 Misfires Against Birmingham City

The Royals started with a 4-4-2 for the first time this season, so how well did it work? Tom takes a look.

Reading v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

Another lacklustre draw came Reading’s way on Friday as Paul Ince’s promised new and improved attacking football fell flat and, after 10 minutes, the Royals reverted back to their old defensive ways. Here, I’ll try to dissect and analyse our performance, and hopefully give us something to build on ready for the vital game against Preston North End.


On Friday, Ince opted to play three strikers in a two-striker formation, pushing an unfit Yakou Meite to right midfield and playing Tyrese Fornah out of position on the left. However, this is not exactly how the game played out. Here is a map of the average player positions (Fornah 19, Joao 9, Carroll 2, Meite 11).

As you can see it was a very imbalanced 4-4-2, with Meite essentially playing as a right winger and Fornah joining the midfield, with Lucas Joao playing almost as an inside forward and Andy Carroll staying up all the time.

The most puzzling thing about this however is that more than double the action that Reading had happened down the left wing, despite the lack of advancement on that side, with 17% of our threat on Fornah’s side and just 8% down the right. And then, obviously, the vast majority of attacks going down the middle at 75%.

Playing how we did, using a formation renowned for its one-dimensional nature, combined with Ince’s tactics and our attack’s strengths, was only ever going to end one way, and against Birmingham we definitely succumbed to that playing style.

In possession - which I must say seems very rare when watching the game - we keep the shape of the 4-4-2. Although it gives some good width, it often leaves the centre-backs with little option other than to back to Joe Lumley to hoof it.

For me, Tom Holmes looked shaky on the ball a lot of the time, often electing to first-touch-pass straight to who he received it, as he did here, when Naby Sarr then went back to the goalkeeper.

If we want to have any chance of keeping the ball to build into the midfield, the defence needs more support and movement from the double pivot of Jeff Hendrick and Cesare Casadei, which will hopefully be helped by Mamadou Loum returning to play that holding role. Someone needs to be filling the dead spaces in between the centre backs and midfield.

It also speaks volumes that this was the first instance of Reading having some proper possession in the match after 10 minutes of scrappy football.

Reading’s defence

Birmingham City were far less one-dimensional and far more balanced in their attacks, with a 20% threat on each wing and 60% through the middle. Reda Khadra absolutely tore the Reading defence apart down his left wing, as shown just around three minutes into the game here when we overloaded the right-hand side with Amadou Mbengue out of position, leaving Holmes to clear up, but showing early our weaknesses defending counter attacks.

Mbengue was caught out of position yet again a few minutes later as he and Hendrick doubled up on Lukas Jutkiewicz, but a simple piece of skill and a through ball would again easily release City winger Khadra down their left. He actually decided for a lofted pass to the right, but this still shows our liabilities.

I suppose the natural conclusion to this would be using Mbengue as a wing-back in a defensive five for cover, but sacrificing an attacking player for another centre-back doesn’t seem like a very attractive solution.

Out of any match to play five at the back, it probably should have been this one. Here are Birmingham’s average player positions (Colin 2, Chong 18, Hall 35, Jutkiewicz 10, Khadra 17, Trusty 5).

This demonstrates how easy it is to pin the Reading team back, probably preventing us from playing out from the back whether we wanted to or not, and giving the Blues so many options in attack. We allowed George Hall, their attacking midfielder, to push up into attack and their full-backs on the overlap on both sides, leaving them with a five-man attack at most times, while still being able to leave a solid defence behind them.

Lack of communication and plan

On the two kick-offs that Reading had, it was clear that no-one really knew what they were doing. For the first, Holmes was passed the ball and played a one-two with Sarr, while giving the Birmingham defence time to organise themselves, before launching an overhit ball out for a goal kick.

To kick off the second half, the attack seemed to unconventionally split onto either side of the pitch before Holmes again launched it, but Carroll was nowhere to be seen, and the ball instead headed in the direction of Meite. These may seem like small issues, but to me they show a bit of a lack of professionalism, game plan and team spirit, especially considering they’re supposed to have just had a 15-minute team talk for the second half.

The positives

In terms of set-pieces, you can always rely on the long throws of Mbengue or Nesta Guinness-Walker to at least cause some chaos in the box, if not create an opportunity, which we often use. However, I can’t quite help doing a silent sigh and shaking of the head when I see them charging up the pitch ready to absolutely launch the ball towards AC’s head. Is this really the football we have come to rely on? Are we just a reincarnation of prime Stoke City, except Carroll is worse than Peter Crouch and we can’t win any games?

I think we also defended well. We didn’t leave Lumley with too many saves to make, and generally defended bravely, but often had no options after winning the ball back, leading to more Birmingham attacks. Sarr was probably the standout but he was also caught fast asleep for their goal and practically handed the Brummie number 10 a free header. The rest were ok, but again I feel the game passes most of our players by and leaves not much for the highlights reel.

In my opinion, this team shows every sign that we as a club are royally f*cked (excuse the pun). The players look devoid of ideas, drained and defeated. All I’m saying is, if I don’t see a faith healer, four-leaf clover and Pep Guardiola heading into the away changing room to save us at Deepdale on Monday, we’re as good as relegated. Probably.