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Exeter City 0-9 Reading: Tactical Analysis

Tom has a closer look at what we learned from Tuesday’s game.

Cambridge United v Reading - Sky Bet League One - Abbey Stadium Photo by Simon Marper/PA Images via Getty Images

Just over six months ago, Reading travelled to Blackburn Rovers in the Championship, losing 2-1 after a late winner from Rovers - coupled with a Mamadou Loum sending-off - condemned Reading to another away loss, despite the hope that Cesare Casadei gave. The away attendance that night was just 284.

On Tuesday, a Royals team with an average age of around 22 went to Exeter City and won 9-0 against a rotated yet strong Grecian team. Reading ran riot in front of an away crowd like that at Blackburn - oh, and it was the EFL trophy, a competition famed for, well, not very much.

If that doesn’t show a quite simply astonishing turnaround in culture, mentality and morale all around the club, I don’t know what will, even with Dai Yongge at the wheel and following relegation.

Let’s unpick the game with possibly the most surprising scoreline I’ve ever seen.

Duels and individual battles

Exeter attempted a massive 66 long balls and, watching the game, you’d think that from Reading’s dominance and ease at getting and keeping the ball, that we had won practically every duel. However, it was quite even, at 52 won to Exeter’s 47. The thing that really separated these battles was each defence’s touch and calmness when controlling it.

Below is a screenshot of some Exeter possession, where the ball is forced back to their keeper, Gary Woods. Just before this pass is played, the two strikers anticipate it and Michael Craig rushes up to fill in the space, while Tivonge Rushesha fills in in a more central position.

The Exeter tactic for playing the ball seemed to be: punt it upfield whether you’re under pressure or not. When not under such intense pressure, as is the situation here, poor touches from the defence and goalie force them to kick long, since they struggled throughout the game to get the ball out their feet and play.

Directness in attack and positional fluidity

Ruben Selles’ style reminds me a little like that of Fernando Diniz, the current Brazil national team manager, who is famed for his “appositional” approach, pressing frenzy and anti-European football, which allows his players to show flair and skill through intricate passes and dribbling. This is essentially opposed to Guardiola-ball, where maverick players such as Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez are condemned to a system of turning and passing back all the time, successful as it is.

Reading barely spent any minutes passing sideways and back on Tuesday, instead showing bags of intent in buildup, as shown in the screenshot below.

Here, Tom McIntyre quickly dribbles up to halfway after a Coniah Boyce-Clarke goal-kick before fizzing it into Ben Elliott, and then to Caylan Vickers. This rapid ball progression virtually creates a counterattack from our own possession, and the passing seen now is a fantastic demonstration of this team’s seeming new-found technical ability.

Like Diniz again, the attackers are free to move around to receive the ball. In this screenshot, Paul Mukairu (bottom of picture) drops in to play a one-two with Craig before moving into a right-back position, while Craig is deeper and Amadou Mbengue pushes up. Elliott is also seen here as a central attacking midfielder. All this movement in possession confuses the Exeter players and forces their pressing structure to falter too.

Exeter’s defence

Look away any Grecians fans now, because behold this screenshot, where your defence allowed four Reading players through on goal. There’s not too much analysis to do on this one, except: allowing Reading to intercept the ball so easily is frankly disgraceful, and a far cry from League One standard football.

After conceding five by this point already, it’s understandable that their heads have dropped a little, as any Sunday league defender who’s been faced by this scoreline will know, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Exeter City players have been playing at that level too.

We’re still waiting for the elusive league away win. However, you couldn’t ask for a much better match to galvanise the players leading up to Blackpool away.

Selles’ relentless attitude and the emphatic post-match interviews from the players are also fantastic signs of the renewed team that is being built behind the scenes. We finally have some player depth which, in my opinion, puts us among the most skilled teams in the division.

To end, can anyone else still not believe we scored nine? Nine! Nein, me neither.

Next, up to the seaside and onto Blackpool.