When Leicester City famously ran out 9-0 winners against Southampton back in 2019, they went onto a nine-game unbeaten streak, only ending at the hands of Manchester City. Coincidentally, that streak started with an EFL Cup victory over Burton Albion, our opponents this Saturday.
When Manchester United did the same in 2021, they went 12 unbeaten following that game.
So, up go nearly 700 of the Reading faithful to Blackpool, presumably expecting a similar fate (at least a one-game unbeaten run you’d think). In steps Jordan Rhodes, a man who previously failed to score for Oxford United in the Conference Premier (lol), a man who’s struck only eight in 55 games for Huddersfield Town previously, and the man to whom Reading courteously award a first hat-trick in four years.
If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Let’s see what went wrong for Reading on Saturday.
Playing out and defence
One of the things I think we did exceptionally well against Exeter City was creating a midfield overload with one of the wide players, usually Ben Elliott, dropping in more centrally to receive the ball, and progress it onwards to the strikers or wingers. This led to a number of chances where we were through on goal.
However, on Saturday this happened much less, meaning we essentially had a two-man midfield against Blackpool’s three at most points, even reducing to a one-man midfield when Sam Hutchinson dropped into the backline, as he often did.
This restricted Reading to long balls up to the strikers, which were rarely won, and thus created a large number of counter-attacking opportunities for Blackpool.
Watching Reading back now, it almost reminds me of the Exeter team we faced on Tuesday. There were calamitous touches, a lack of concentration and players being literally outmuscled and outfought in every department: a sure combination for defensive disaster.
This screenshot below wouldn’t immediately strike you as a goalscoring opportunity for the Seasiders, would it?
When a long ball comes in from the ‘Pool right-back, Kylian Kouassi - who seemed to be playing like another famous footballing Kylian - won the header easily. In fact, he and Rhodes had all the ball in the air on Saturday, winning 60% and 71% of their aerial duels respectively, bullying the comparatively slightly built and younger Nelson Abbey and Tyler Bindon all afternoon.
However, Kouassi’s header is misdirected and brought down by Hutchinson, who, presumably, is too busy preparing his post-match speech in his head to concentrate on keeping the ball, and it’s an easy goal for Rhodes’ third.
In fact, I think it’s just the sort of goal that we would wish to score under Ruben Selles; pressing high onto second balls, a well threaded through-ball and a tidy finish.
And just for comparison purposes, our two strikers each won none of their four aerial duels. We will struggle against physical teams such as Blackpool away from home if something doesn’t change here. I think the introduction of Harlee Dean and Sam Smith, when he returns, will hopefully do a world of good towards this.
We had five kick-offs on Saturday, so you’d think by the last we’d have assembled some sort of plan on what to do. Most League One teams I’ve seen so far opt for a pass back, then a punt up to the four or so players making a run down a wing to try to catch the opponent off guard. Some Premier League teams like to keep the ball and pass it round the back until an opportunity arises.
We seemed to go for somewhere in the middle, with a pass back, triggering a couple of runners, while some players stood there like gnomes, pass it a couple of times, which removes the counter-attacking, surprising element of it, and then go for a long ball, which is of course lost by our strikers.
We can’t be having wasted opportunities caused by players wandering around when they don’t know what they’re meant to do at kick-off like here.
Substitutions and second-half shape
This is where I’m starting to ask question of Selles. For me the only decent first-half performance in there was from Elliott, who was hauled off at half-time. Subbing on Amadou Mbengue was risky though as, through no fault of his own I must add, he always seems to struggle with injury late into games, and the last thing you want to be doing is subbing him off again late on.
Introducing Tom McIntyre was a good swap though. He impressed me a lot with his ball-carrying, commanding play and winning 100% of his duels, giving some much-needed second-half stability. Surely that’s enough to get him a start against Burton.
Then there were fairly anonymous performances from Caylan Vickers and Paul Mukairu. The latter I imagine struggled playing at right-wing-back.
This change of shape massively confused me. Bindon and Abbey have never really played in a back three, and Mbengue at left-wing-back was certainly unexpected.
The strange shape is shown in the screenshot below. Despite the increase in personnel at the back, we still seemed to have no-one to play out to, with Hutch dropping in deep again while Charlie Savage, Lewis Wing and the two strikers were in the attack.
Surely go for a 4-5-1 shape at this point? Mukairu in defence gave me slight memories of Junior Hoilett being employed in the game position under Paul Ince. Don’t get me wrong, he always did a job there, but he definitely did not have his best performances in a Reading shirt playing in that role.
Now, a week-long break before Burton for the boys to try to regroup and regain some of the upward momentum that they had before the Blackpool game. The fact that it’s at home gives me more hope, but truthfully, this Blackpool match was one of the first in a while that I walked into the stadium wholly believing that we would win. I think we need to lower our expectations. This football club never fails to surprise me.
Now, I’d take losing every week if it meant keeping the club alive.
Onto Burton. Dai Yongge out.