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Cambridge United 1-0 Reading: Tactical Analysis

A closer look at what went wrong for Reading in Cambridge in the final match before the international break.

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

A late goal for Cambridge United sealed the win as Reading fell to a 1-0 defeat on Monday night, condemning us to 18th place in League One heading into the international break. This was for me the most depressing game to watch since the turbulent reign of Paul Ince, as, in prime Ince style v Cardiff City away, we let a side there for the taking bully us, nick a goal and send the travelling fans home with nothing.

Unlike the Cardiff game though, we did actually get a few shots on target, which on another day could have ended up in the back of the net. But on Monday they only really went straight into the keeper’s arms, while at the other end Cambridge capitalised on a disorganised Reading defence and won it with a simple goal on the counter.

Let’s unpick this match, which I’m sure left the Sky Sports higher-ups begging for more League One football to feature on our screens.

An amplified aerial threat

In the Stevenage game, particularly before the sending-off, the ease at which Boro seemed to win every header worried me, with the centre-back pairing of Tyler Bindon and Nelson Abbey possibly not used to playing against that kind of football. It showed, because in that game they managed two headed clearances between them, but on Monday Harlee Dean alone had four.

This is especially comparable since both opposition teams have similar fast and direct build-up styles.

I know we scored from a header against Stevenage, but for me, winning headers from corners in the inconsistent style as we did in that game shows more of the opponent’s liabilities than a real strength for Reading, as Dean demonstrated on Monday.

He had the most aerial duals, as well as unfortunately registering the joint most shots (three) of any Reading player - a concerning statistic for the attackers.

Pressing and shape

When compared to what we’d previously seen under Ruben Selles, with usually measured, structured pressing and coordination of who to go when, against Cambridge it was erratic and often unnecessary.

In this screenshot, a U’s throw-in broke into the centre, and Ben Elliott dived into a duel which was always going to be difficult to win. Michael “Morrodona” Morrison picked it up, drove upfield and Cambridge won another throw high up the pitch.

I’m not trying to single out Elliott here, for he had a decent game. But it was the whole attack really, especially Harvey Knibbs - who I thought was excessively aggressive, could never get a foothold in the game, and was pocketed by a 21-year-old Liam Bennett.

We were so, so easy to break down. That’s if you can even call it breaking Reading down when they progressed the ball with simple passes, easy dribbles and long balls where their resulting headers were lost by our full-backs.

In the build-up to the goal too, our positioning seemed bizarre. Here, a freshly substituted Tivonge Rushesha is asked to cover George Thomas (who was playing as a left-sided defensive midfielder). This would make sense until you realise Rushesha was playing in place of Femi Azeez on the right wing.

So, obviously then, Cambridge easily switched the play to the left and progressed the ball with a few simple passes back to the right wing, where James Brophy (who’d started the match) beat debutant Clinton Mola (who’d played three minutes at this point) for pace, agility and awareness before delivering an easy ball into the middle.

The positioning in the box was absolutely disgraceful. How we can allow three players to practically be lining up shots free from pressure and expect to get away with it is beyond me. Michael Craig should be busting a gut to cover the angles here, yet was gingerly jogging back, and, with the back line ball-watching, Fejiri Okenabirhie had the space to slot it in with ease.

Although this was schoolboy defending, I think this time I’ll have to let the Reading team off seeing as half of them are barely anymore than schoolboys at their ages. I can’t say I was as diplomatic with the standard shown when the ball went in live though.

A stoppage-time attempt from Knibbs to equalise struck the crossbar, and alas, the fact that Reading had fallen to defeat in League One sank into the hearts of Royals fans and uninterested Sky viewers once again.

This very unenjoyable game was for me capped off by having to listen to some interesting renditions of Sweet Caroline at my locals’ karaoke night, just as the Cambridge players applauded the fans at the death - a suitably juxtaposing ending to some dismal viewing.

There are plenty of problems to be fixed by Selles and the team over the international break, possibly not helped by six first-teamers receiving call-ups, but time on the training ground is what this team needs, and Bolton Wanderers at home will be a very difficult test to evaluate our progress.

Lots of work to be done. Up the Royals.