A young Royals side once again emphatically demonstrated their skill, hunger and immense maturity after a comprehensive yet tense 1-0 victory over the Robins, in which we saw Ruben Selles’ free-flowing counter-attacks and pressing at their best. The energy throughout the match, which lasted over 103 minutes, was maintained by the endless hard work of the starters. That, coupled with a reintroduction of the senior pros, ground out a well earned victory for Reading.
The team on Tuesday appeared much more like a 4-3-3, with Harvey Knibbs (7) pushed up a lot further again and Mamadi Camara (28) joining the midfield. This is exactly opposite to how Selles installed them against Millwall, when Knibbs was the one hanging back and Camara was pushed up with Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan (15) and Caylan Vickers (42).
It’s a difficult one as to which way is best, as I love Knibbs’ tenacity and desire when leading the press from the front. However, his height is useful in an otherwise less physically imposing midfield. Camara also gets about a hell of a lot though, and has seemingly endless energy to get up and down the field.
Also considering how high Matty Carson (47) played, he did incredibly well dealing with Oliver Hammond and Liam Smith down Cheltenham’s right, which is where 53% of their attacks were launched down. He also contributed to Reading’s attacks down the wing brilliantly and showed his class with crosses and link-up. His remarkable debut has certainly convinced me to be part of the Matty Carson fan club.
A few early Cheltenham free-kicks and corners momentarily set the game off on a nervous tone for Reading, with the young defenders appearing confident playing out, but tentative when dealing with balls into the box. If there’s one defensive change we need, in my opinion, it’s to involve Harlee Dean more. He would use his leadership and aerial commandment to provide an example for some more ‘no nonsense’ defending from Reading.
With regards to defensive shape, we again saw the right sided-defensive midfielder, this time Lewis Wing, dropping into the right-back spot as Amadou Mbengue pressed, and therefore Camara filling in in the midfield. This is shown here.
This happened previously with Sam Hutchinson at Port Vale. However, I think his age and limited athleticism make him weaker playing that role, especially when compared with the vision and through-balls of Wing.
What I also found in this game, rather than the traditional pressing you might see in the Premier League against more ball-playing sides, is the team’s pressure on second balls to create a scrappy midfield battle - that the Royals mostly won.
A great example of this is in the build-up to Reading’s goal, when a long Luke Southwood goal-kick fell to the Cheltenham player against Vickers, and it was easily won by the Cheltenham man. However, it’s the overcrowded, compact midfield shape that forces the opposition into a mistake, and Reading come away with the ball.
This is all while maintaining a good defensive shape and not leaving any Cheltenham players in too much space, despite having the numerical advantage. Selles’ seeming combination of silky Spanish passing and playing out, combined with the tenacity, aggression and brutalness in winning the ball back that a relegation-fighting Sam Allardyce team would have been proud of, is a winning formula with these lads.
What felt like a massive turning point in the game to me was here, when Ehibhatiomhan was released by Wing creating a two-v-one situation, and surely a golden opportunity to score. Ehibhatiomhan’s ball to Vickers was poor, yes, but for me, Vickers taking on the shot when he could have squared it for basically an open goal was a poor choice.
It is possibly the mature and experienced edge that is difficult to gain for the 18-year-old, but his performances speak for themselves. Overall “Cheeks” had a thrilling full league debut and this moment would have been the cherry on the cake.
Still though, this gave me major flashbacks to Andy Carroll vs Luton Town at home last year, and even on Tuesday it was hard for me to not see the game slipping away from that point onwards, but we held on.
On Saturday, Reading will aim to end Stevenage’s perfect start to life in League One as we face them at the SCL, and again the big debate lies in youth vs experience. I agree with Selles’ points about resting the young lads, as the transition from under-21s to men’s football is bound to take a massive toll on them, so I think a mix will be our best option.
I’d give Tom McIntyre a start, because for me he was one of the standout performers against Port Vale, and then possibly reintroduce Carroll back onto the bench, even though I can see him offering absolutely nothing yet again. But c’mon, it’s Carroll in League One! It’s very hard to leave him out. I’d stick with Camara and Knibbs though, Femi Azeez hasn’t been good enough so far this season to be honest.
It’ll be a great test to see how the young players perform against a better side in fantastic form, and some desperately needed league points on a Saturday.
Until next time, up the Spanish Royals!