Reading dug in deep to hold onto a 1-0 win over play-off contenders Derby County at the SCL on Tuesday night. It was a very impressive result considering the calibre of opposition we faced, and an even more impressive performance, limiting the visitors to zero shots on target, with the Royals looking as sharp as ever in and out of possession.
With the Wigan Athletic game a few days previously being the first league game since New Year’s Day, it’s understandable for the players to seem a little less on-the-ball than you might expect, but if that match in the northwest was even just there to serve as a springboard to get us ready for this Derby encounter, then it certainly sufficed well.
Although the Rams gave us few issues at the back, keeping a clean sheet against the best away side in the league cannot be underestimated. Neither can the impact of those three points, which leave us four points from safety but just five points from 14th-placed Cambridge United.
Let’s see what went right on Tuesday night.
Paul Mukairu probably had his best league game in a Reading shirt so far against Derby, obviously because of his goal, but he also contributed considerably to attacks throughout the match, particularly after he made the score 1-0. The winger completed 60% of his dribbles, as well as completing 100% of his lateral passes and 86% of his forward passes, an example of which is shown below.
This is in the build-up to the goal, where Mukairu receives the ball from a throw-in, turns to shake off Tom Barkhuizen and plays a crossfield ball to Femi Azeez.
It’s been a common theme for both of our wingers this season to receive the ball wide and drive inside, looking for a ball into the feet of their opposite-sided wide men or into Sam Smith up top, a topic further explored in the TTE Tactical Rundown podcast released earlier in the week.
Mukairu managed this many times on Tuesday, as shown in the passing map below, where various successful crossfield balls can be seen in the pink lines throughout the pitch.
The Nigerian was key to our build-up game, making 24 passes, the most of any midfielder or attacker, making particularly strong combinations with Jeriel Dorsett and Azeez, with nine and four passes between them respectively.
Another key aspect of the game was our change in attacking intent throughout different periods of the match. The spell from half-time up until around the 60th minute was the only time in which Reading managed to hold a higher line than Derby, and therefore be the more attacking side - and that half-time switch to a slightly more positive outlook certainly paid off for Reading with the goal.
I think this timespan is almost the sweet spot for us to really take the game to our opponents, as it’s before subs are likely made, but late in enough to give fatigue a chance to kick in for our adversaries.
Our intensity has been consistently higher than practically everyone we’ve faced in League One so far, as we sit second-best in terms of PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action, which measures pressing intensity - the lower the number the better) at 11.2.
Against Derby it was a very high-pressing game, with a mean across both teams of just 7.7 PPDA, essentially meaning each side allowed opponents very little time on the ball to pass out from the back compared to the defensive measures they were taking to win it high.
Did we sit back a little bit after we scored? Of course, to a certain extent, which is partly demonstrated by the switch to five at the back in the 88th minute following Tom McIntyre’s reintroduction into the team, but we’ve seen this story many times before when leading late on just to throw it away, so bringing on some experience to see the game out is hardly a bad thing at that point.
With regards to the rest of the defensive performance, despite gaining that clean sheet, personally I think Reading’s defending was slightly overhyped. Sure, Derby are the third-highest scorers in the division, but they simply didn’t turn up on Tuesday, with usual best-performers such as Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and James Collins ghosting for much of the game.
Some frailties at the back were exposed for Reading though, as shown in the screenshot below.
Derby left-back Callum Elder receives the ball deep and drives up, before playing a bounce pass with Corey Blackett-Taylor on the wing, who continues his run and receives it back. He has acres of space to run in behind Amadou Mbengue, who is caught two-on-one on the right and is easily bypassed.
Blackett-Taylor is caught up with, cuts back and flashes a shot across the far post, but it shows our frailties when we leave a fullback isolated and pacy wingers can get a lot of space through on goal.
A clean sheet is a clean sheet though, and it’s our first against a top-half team since Stevenage at home in August.
Next up is Leyton Orient at home. In the reverse leg the most drama was potentially off the pitch rather than on it, and the Os will present a very tough challenge, as they’re unbeaten in five with four of those games being wins.
Adversely, Ruben Selles’ Royals aren’t doing half bad either. Especially on home turf, I fancy our chances to get another three points on Saturday.