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Reading 3-2 Exeter City: Tactical Analysis

The centre-backs come under Tom’s microscope in his analysis of Monday’s important win.

Well, we’ve only gone and done it, haven’t we? It feels good to say the Royals are finally out of the League One relegation zone, albeit on goal difference and with a game out of hand, but it’s still a credible achievement under the circumstances.

Let’s forget that last season we spent New Year’s 10th in the Championship, level on points with the playoffs and now Premier League Luton Town, but that’s football, and more specifically, that’s Reading Football Club under Dai Yongge’s ownership.

It was a vital win, but the performance was nothing to write home about, conceding two goals to the joint-worst scorers in the league, as well as getting let off the hook with a series of good chances for the visitors being squandered, as well as an own goal clinching the three points for Reading.

Let’s see what propelled the Royals into the dizzy heights of 20th place on Monday.

The centre-back pairing of Nelson Abbey and Tyler Bindon/Tom Holmes has been highly lauded recently, particularly when you consider their age, but Reading have kept only four clean sheets and conceded 41 goals this season. However, it’s going forward and in possession where the pair excel.

Bindon is regularly utilised as the ball player, spraying diagonal passes to the wings, and is in the 74th percentile for chances created among League One defenders. Against Exeter City he made the second most accurate passes of any player, at 71, an impressive feat given he generally tries to pull off more difficult passes, as well as making the most passes into the final third and most accurate long balls of any Reading player, an example of which is shown below.

Bindon receives the ball under pressure and spots Femi Azeez’ run down the right. The Exeter press is high, with all midfield and defensive passing options being marked by a Grecian player.

The pass is perfectly placed to fall into Azeez’ stride to beat the Exeter left-sided centre-half in Zak Jules. This happened a few times throughout the match, and it definitely helped that the visitors played a back three, affording them less width, especially when the wing-backs played very high up as they did here.

The only problem we ran into playing long balls was a lack of options in the box in counter-attacking opportunities since we moved into only playing one striker.

Bindon had the biggest progressive-passing distance out of any Reading player on New Year’s Day, and I believe he showed his defensive strengths well too, pushing me towards thinking he’s (for now) the better option over Holmes, but with Tom McIntyre returning from injury and Harlee Dean back in the matchday squad, our centre-back options look strong.

Then we look to the other side in Abbey, who’s featured in 22 of our 25 League One games this season, and been a stalwart at the heart of Reading’s team this year. He offers a very different profile to Bindon, as he is best at driving forward and carrying the ball, as opposed to picking a pass.

This driving forward with the ball is best instigated when the opposition aren’t too keen to press, and is done in order to break down their lines of defence. Here, Abbey picks up the ball from Clinton Mola around 40 yards out and drives up into the opposition half, where the Exeter winger Dion Rankine can only retreat, allowing him to progress.

Across the league season so far, Abbey makes on average 20 carries per 90, the fourth-best out of any player in the league, which are not necessarily chance-creating. That department is best led by Azeez, who’s fantastic at that, but Abbey’s intent when in possession is unlike any defender we have.

It’s not just that he does it a lot, he’s very successful a lot too, being dispossessed an average of just 0.09 times per 90, and regularly being the player with the most touches on the pitch, as he was against Exeter, where Abbey had 105.

Selles really plays to our two centre-backs’ strengths well with these different roles, and they are shown on the pass map too, with a higher threat (darker) line between Bindon and Azeez, as well as a higher volume of passes (thicker lines) between Abbey at left-centre-back and Jeriel Dorsett, Michael Craig and Lewis Wing after he steps up and then lays it off for more forward-thinking players.

Mola, who was employed at right-back on Monday, occupied a variety of rather unorthodox positions and seemed to be everywhere apart from deep on the right flank at times. The positional graphic above doesn’t necessarily represent that fluidity as much, but he is seen to be quite narrow.

The reason he could do this was Wing filling in at right-back. He usually looked for long balls into the chest or feet of Sam Smith or Harvey Knibbs, which is what happened here.

Mola’s advanced position is now shown here, where he receives the knockdown from Knibbs, and he’s even more advanced than Azeez at this point. Wing also runs up back into midfield to join the attack, but the most encouraging thing about this move is the movement off the ball from Knibbs, which is shown below.

Even though these attacking moves should be expected of players at this level, after games of frustration such as at Cheltenham Town where we consistently had no-one to pass to, it’s very refreshing to see, especially when it ends in a goal!

It’s a fair wait until our next game, Brighton & Hove Albion under-21s away, which for me is a free hit. Squad rotation and giving a chance to fringe players is important, and to give the first-team starters a rest. Towards the end of this Exeter match it’s fair to say many players looked jaded, understandably at the back end of a run of great form, but this break is much needed.

Let’s hope 2024 is a year of positive change for Reading, because us fans really deserve it.