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Reading 2-0 Stevenage: Tactical Analysis

Tom looks into what we learned from Saturday’s comfortable home win.

Reading v Stevenage - Sky Bet League One - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

Reading blazed to a second league victory as they defeated Stevenage in very impressive fashion, with a Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan brace winning the points. Borough, who had gone three wins from three prior to Saturday, surrendered their run after going down to 10 men and collapsing from that point onwards, struggling for possession and chances, while the Royals capitalised, putting two past them.

Let’s analyse yet another brilliant young Royals performance.

Build-up play

One great advantage of playing Nelson Abbey and Tyler Bindon over Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre is that seemingly the young guns almost have no limits and are up to any style of play and playing any role. The latter pair however seem to subconsciously limit themselves to traditional low-block defending, whether that’s down to confidence or form, I’m not sure, but after so many years in professional football you’d think they both have the technical ability to do so.

I feel like it’s inevitable that, with Abbey and Bindon’s limited professional experience, their abilities could be stretched too far potentially, and mistakes could be made, especially with Ruben Selles’ high-risk, high-reward playing system. Still, far superior to Ince Ball.

In this picture, Abbey has just received the ball off David Button, and he opts to drive up the field, where he is only pressed around the halfway line.

He then fizzes a ball into Caylan Vickers, which is flicked onto Harvey Knibbs. Nathan Thompson drags him down, earning him a second yellow and an early shower. But the point of all this is that, even when they had 11 players, Stevenage were hesitant to press at risk of being undone, so barely did, and when Reading created, they gave away cheap fouls.

This screenshot is just when the second yellow card is awarded. It’s great to see Vickers dropping into more of a 10 role to receive the ball, something which is not offered by Andy Carroll, and showing great awareness to time the flick-on with the run of Knibbs.

Selles has modulated into the 4-2-3-1 formation often throughout previous games, especially in transitions and when the opponent is in possession and high up the pitch. This allows an out-and-out striker in Ehibhatiomhan to stay up for any counters while Vickers can join the midfield press.

Selles’ substitutions

In Reading’s opening game of the 2022/23 season, against Blackpool, Paul Ince made only one substitution: an unfit Shane Long in the 83rd minute. Notable unused subs included Kelvin Abrefa, John Clarke and Ehibhatiomhan. Across the season as a whole, substitutions were generally uninspired and awfully defensive and negative, no matter the situation.

On Saturday, Selles had made all five subs before the 73rd minute, leaving plenty of time to make an impact, but it’s the personnel substituted that I’d like to talk about.

Despite only being introduced in the 39th minute, Femi Azeez had the second-highest xG of any player at 0.75, behind Ehibhatiomhan, and overall in Reading’s league campaign so far he has the third-highest xG. He also had a pass-success rate of only 56%, the lowest in the team, and throughout the match he just constantly frustrated me with his poor finishing, passing and decision-making.

For me, I can’t understand why he hasn’t been put into the same category as Holmes, McIntyre and Carroll by fans. They’ve had their time, but are now perennially ineffective and have had more than a chance at cementing their place in the first team, but now there are simply better players.

I’ve seen plenty of support for Azeez on social media recently, but a couple of good games two years ago is barely enough to justify a League Two loan, let alone starting week in week out for Selles. I’m not sure what he needs in order to perform, whether it’s a lack of confidence or something else.

With regards to the other subs, I think Paul Mukairu had a great debut. He showed his maturity, spatial awareness and experience through clever skills to work himself out of tight situations, and he has a bloody good touch too.

Selles also utilised him barely in a left-winger role, and was often in a 10 position behind Ehibhatiomhan and Vickers. This allowed for some great link-up with Sam Hutchinson and Amadou Mbengue on the right, while Azeez pushed upfield to make a front three. His unexpected but effective positioning led to some fantastic creation in the second half.


Again, it’s the full-backs providing the width in Selles’ system. It’s great having such numbers in the centre of the park. However, as seen, this does leave a very large defensive-midfielder-shaped hole in front of the centre backs, which I fear could be exploited by more attacking, ball-playing teams who can thread passes around the press.

The double pivot of Charlie Savage and Hutchinson was absolutely brilliant though, with unrelenting aggression and creativity. The League one Luka Modric and Casemiro.

Also, this shape demonstrates our positioning when playing out so well because, for most of the match, that’s exactly what we were doing, as Stevenage couldn’t get near us.

This game capped off a great week for the Royals, but wins against a very poor Cheltenham Town through an own goal and beating 10-man Stevenage is hardly anything to write home about. I guess we have to recognise that this is our level now though, sad as it is, and we can barely compete here even so. However, improvement is coming thick and fast.

It’s safe to say Selles is cooking with these boys. The promotion push is on!

Onto Exeter next week.