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Stevenage 0-1 Reading: Tactics Analysis

Tom looks under the bonnet of a clean-sheet win at the Lamex on Tuesday.

Reading pulled off their second league away win this season with a cagey 1-0 win against play-off contenders Stevenage on Tuesday. The hosts showed early in the match why they are so higher the table, outclassing the Royals for much of the opening period, but a rather fortunate scrappy goal put us ahead and we never looked back.

Smash-and-grab doesn’t even do it justice - possibly more of a strike and seize - yet these are the sorts of games you simply have to get something from to survive in League One, and Ruben Selles did just that.

Let’s see how Reading clawed their way out of the relegation zone on Tuesday night.

Well, who had Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan playing as a left-winger on their 2024 bingo card? Being right-footed, tall and neither the fastest nor most agile, on paper he doesn’t seem like the obvious choice there, especially considering in the past Selles has opted for more slightly built, shorter, more traditional wingers such as Paul Mukairu, Dom Ballard and Mamadi Camara. Ehibhatiomhan is most certainly doing a job there though, and a very good one at that.

He is being played slightly differently to those three though, and on Tuesday was often found partnering Sam Smith up front, with Harvey Knibbs moving left to make up for the spare man.

An example of this is shown here, where despite the defence and midfield being deeper, intending to play out from a goal-kick, David Button goes long, where he has four in the attacking line to aim for.

Knibbs supports him on the wing, and on the opposite flank Smith and Femi Azeez are there to give another option for long balls. Of course, having four players up like this leaves us vulnerable in other areas of the pitch, but when we go man for man it gives us a huge amount of control over the position of the opposition’s defence.

This forces Stevenage’s high line to split, leaving a huge space in the centre of the pitch, so when Ehibhatiomhan runs through on goal, both centre-backs in Carl Piergianni and Dan Sweeney hesitate and put virtually no pressure on him.

After so long watching Reading teams of the past pumping the ball up to, say, Andy Carroll, only for him to knock it down to no-one, it’s refreshing seeing us actually commit to a long-ball system when we need to, with some properly organised positioning.

In terms of chance creation, Ehibhatiomhan didn’t do too much, registering just nine accurate passes and one key pass. However, he seems a very intelligent footballer. Against Stevenage he received 11 progressive passes, the most of any Reading player, which is especially impressive considering that just two of Button’s 29 passes were directed to his side of the pitch.

The 20-year-old consistently found himself in good positions to receive the ball on Tuesday night, staying reasonably central, without hugging the touchline or overloading the middle of the pitch, and an example of which is shown below.

Clinton Mola plays it down the line to Ehibhatiomhan and he lets the ball run though his legs, discombobulating his marker and managing to continue his run to the byline, where he cuts inside and plays a misplaced ball into Knibbs, losing possession, but doing incredibly well to create an attack from nothing.

Both wingers played a little bit more central on Tuesday night, as seen below, which won’t work against all teams, but facing Stevenage who play a narrow diamond in midfield with no real wide men, it was a smart move from Selles to concentrate a couple more players in the middle of the park.

And of course, we have to mention the defensive performance. The defending at set-pieces was especially good: Stevenage had eight attacking-half free-kicks, nine corners and 14 final-third throw-ins, and in all three of those stats the hosts considerably beat Reading.

In this early free-kick, we put all 10 outfielders on defensive duties, something that we’ve never really done in the past. Even if we do opt to leave, say, Azeez up top, it’s unlikely the ball falls to him, and even if it does, it’s even less likely he’s able to retain possession under pressure and make something of the chance.

The only thing that slightly worries me here is that we’re man-to-man at the back post, which is where the ball goes, while closer to the front we have at least two spare men marking Stevenage players in a position that would be very hard to direct this free-kick into.

It wasn’t pretty, but we held onto our first clean sheet away from home since Wigan Athletic in September 2022, when that win put us third in the Championship. It really is incredible how far we’ve fallen, but one must look for the positives, and I could not be happier to have finally escaped the League One relegation zone... for now.