October 28 2023 was a big day for Reading Football Club, one which will go down in Royals folklore. Thousands of passionate fans turned out in town to march to the stadium in an epic spectacle, which further propelled the Sell Before We Dai campaign into the eyes of the national media and brought about a feeling of huge pride within the fanbase.
However, it was also the day Ruben Selles debuted the 4-1-4-1 formation in League One in our 3-2 loss to Portsmouth, a disappointing match in the end, but one which showed a huge amount of promise. It’s important to consider the state of us at that point though: we were eight points from safety at the bottom of the league, while Pompey were six points clear at the top.
This match seemed to spell the end of the 4-2-2-2, a strangely sudden change after such fixation on it in the past. But Selles certainly made the right call, as we now sit just three points inside the relegation zone with a game in hand, having temporarily been out of the bottom four for a few days over the turn of 2024 too.
Here I’ll be looking at what’s changed for Reading over the past few months compared to our start of the season. Just on-pitch matters though, thankfully.
The league table shows Selles’ influence, but what does a more game-by-game evaluation look like? The manager can’t teach forwards how to put the ball into the net, but can give the team a route to get to a goalscoring situation, so I’ve looked at expected goals (xG) in the graph below, where each point is an average of the xG for and against for the three previous game weeks, in order to give a more overall outlook of performance at each point in our season.
The Portsmouth match was the 14th gameweek, the peak of that ‘xG against’ line, and since then it’s decreased considerably, a testament to the defensive solidity that the 4-1-4-1 brings, while not really compromising on the ‘xG for’.
It’s not just the manager that’s found his way of playing though, as many players have finally come into form in recent times too, none more than Femi Azeez. Prior to that Pompey match he’d registered just two assists from 14 games, but since then has four goals and four assists in just 11 matches. Part of that will be through a gain in confidence of course, but also because of his move from a right-sided attacking midfielder into a proper right-winger in the 4-1-4-1.
An example of his excessively narrow positions is shown in this positional report from when we played Exeter City away (the 2-1 loss, not the 9-0 win) and it’s clear to see how exposed Amadou Mbengue and Matty Carson were at full-back without any real cover from the wings.
Azeez’ pass map from when he played in the 4-2-2-2 is shown below.
Although there is a slightly higher concentration down the right wing, his passes are largely spread fairly evenly across the pitch. It’s also worth noting the lack of deliveries into the box, as well as a high proportion of unsuccessful (red) passes.
Now, here is a map of all his passes since we switched him to the right wing in the 4-1-4-1, and the difference is clear to see.
This shows how heavily he is featured in our build-up down the right, which is where we usually use as the more technical players such as Tyler Bindon, Mbengue, Andy Yiadom and Lewis Wing often feature down that side, and for Azeez it’s great to see him nailing down that flank as his own and staying put in that position.
Of course, there are a fair number of unsuccessful passes here too, but largely, those are long balls from deep, serving as clearances, speculative hits or cutbacks, so it’s hardly surprising when those don’t reach their target if he’s passing into a crowded box.
With regards to Azeez’ goalscoring, 56 shots and four goals over the season so far doesn’t sound like the most flattering statistic, but when you consider where his shots have been taken from (shown below), it’s definitely not the worst record, bearing in mind that his shots are mostly from outside the box and around the edge of the box, Azeez doesn’t get many tap-ins.
Now onto what else has changed for the Royals, namely the introduction of Wing and return of Sam Smith to the side. They made their comebacks from injury on September 23 and October 21 respectively and since have featured in every match, making 14 goal contributions between them.
Let’s start with Wing. He contributes 1.16 assists and 3.62 accurate long balls per 90, as well as registering in the 96th percentile for shots on target for League One midfielders. These numbers would simply not be viable in a sitting midfielder position in a 4-2-2-2, as that role exposes far too much of the back line if he goes forward.
Craig sitting in as a six helps massively, as well as Harvey Knibbs playing further forward to provide more options over the top for Wing to find. For example, against Oxford United at home, our number 29 pings it over the top to Smith from here:
And while Smith runs onto the ball to eventually tuck it away, Knibbs makes a dummy run away to the right, which forces Oxford’s Elliott Moore to check back over his shoulder, allowing more time for our frontman to get away and score.
Smith on the other hand is the perfect League One-proven forward for Selles’ team. Playing as a lone striker, he was always going to need to be good at holding up the ball and winning headers up and down the pitch, something that Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan doesn’t really offer.
Smith has won 50 headers over the course of the whole season, compared to Ehibhatiomhan on just 19 - and they have both played around 1,200 minutes in the league. That’s a somewhat surprising statistic when considering that the latter is considerably taller, yet I think Smith is better at both receiving it into his feet and keeping hold of the ball, and winning aerial duels.
The change in formation has been very beneficial so far for Reading, and although some have been calling for a return to the 4-2-2-2, particularly in cup matches where we may be facing a slightly weaker opponent, for me it’s hard to see a return. It’s less about ensuring as few goals are conceded as physically possible and more about enabling the correct creative players to get forward and get goals while maintaining a level of defensive stability.
Hopefully the 4-1-4-1 carries well into our next game away at Wigan Athletic, where we face a side who’d be in 10th place on 36 points if not for their pre-season points deduction, but instead the Latics are in a relegation battle, five points clear from us in 21st.
It’s been a while since our last point on a northern away day, probably Hull City over a year ago. And no, Lincoln is not northern for all you Watford Gap-pers.
Let’s hope we can pick up three more on Saturday.