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Tactics vs Millwall (A)

The Den. Two in form teams. A tactically astute (read: well drilled) Millwall team get the better of a lacklustre Royals side.

Millwall's Press
Critically, in the first half, Millwall stopped Reading from playing out from the back. They were happy to let the central defenders have the ball, as long as they played sideways, but when Blackett or Gunter picked up the ball they would be immediately closed down. Pelé had to drop deep to pick the ball up, and again the moment he looked to go forward Bradshaw initiated The Press, forcing him sideways. The 4-4-2 was an incredibly effective counter against our 4-2-3-1, as the home side were happy to let Charlie Adam drift around the pitch safe in the knowledge that he didn't really have the energy to hurt them.

Gunter has no option but to hit a hopeful long ball.

Jed Wallace and Mahlon Romeo down their right had no difficulty in containing Reading's creative outlets on that side. Wallace would make it difficult for Blackett to pick up the ball - often only having possession when Rafael looked to counter quickly - and Romeo marshalled Ejaria better than anybody else in the league. The moment Ejaria got the ball with his back to goal he wouldn't be allowed to turn, and would be forced to go backwards. 15 attempted dribbles against Forest fell away to just two in this game, and both unsuccessful. (I'm actually rather sceptical of some of the stat keeping from this game so take them with a pinch of salt)

Again Adam's lack of movement created problems for the team. It meant Pelé failed to have any out ball when looking forward, until our first tactical switch brought Swift deeper when we transitioned - again - to a 4-1-4-1. Either CM could drop deeper to start attacks, but it was often Swift's involvement that brought most joy. In the second half we decided to go back to a 4-2-3-1 with Adam firmly in the CAM position. Swift moved yet deeper again to give us more mobility, and meant we actually had an escape, rather than clearing the ball downfield for Baldock. That meant that Swift got on the ball more (always positive), and his vision, along with stamina, helped drive the team forward.

It was no surprise, therefore, that Adam was the first sub, and bringing on Obita on to give us width (and the ability to cross) on the left hand side makes sense while Meite continues to drift inside to attempt to be a target man in possession. Baldock too was replaced by the more combative Puscas. It's tough for Baldock - he's never been a lone striker, and he was always far too isolated. Meite needs time to transition forward, and the defence have to be better at keeping the ball until he's a legitimate target if they're planning on playing long. And when Meite did get the ball in forward areas he was inevitably swarmed by Blue shirts. Ferguson, Molumby, and (Murray) Wallace would all collapse on him to win the ball back. I think that people who said Meite played badly are missing the fact that Millwall had a clear plan, which worked well.

Romeo has too much space inside Pelé

So, after the double change we went back to a 4-1-4-1 with Swift and Ejaria, and, somewhat frustratingly given how quickly we then conceded, we did look better going forward after those changes. We started getting some crosses of our own into the box after nice build up play - and Swift probably should have done better after he got on the end of one. The problem is that the system both giveth, and it taketh away. Reading lost the ball in the opposition third with Swift, Ejaria, and Blackett all high in the left corner, which gave Millwall an opportunity to counter they'd rarely had while we sat back. Pelé opted to track the run of Wallace, and Romeo cut inside him before being taken out by Ejaria. Nothing really wrong with that - we've been lacking a tactical foul in the last few years - but I use it to illustrate how open we now were.

And in fact, it's from that free-kick that Millwall got their first goal. As an aside can we just say that Cooper did not get an assist; being tackled is not assisting a goal. Anyway, the initial ball in is well dealt with as Blackett headed clear. Then Reading let Mahoney run across the face of the box, and out for Wallace to cross. The ball loops over everyone for Cooper to control on the floor, with his feet, before Meite's tackle rolls right into the path of Smith. It's a fine finish, but a hilariously bad goal to concede. There was apparently a handball, and the ref gets in the way of Ejaria making a tackle, but it's not good enough.

Jed Wallace has far too much space after Puscas loses the ball

Puscas may be getting grief for losing the ball for the second goal, but a forward is going to lose the ball in the final third sometimes. Yes, it was probably the wrong pass, but these things happen. The real issue is that Swift was level, and Ejaria in front of him, giving us absolutely no midfield to stop the counter (again). That was exacerbated as we'd taken off Pelé for McCleary and switched to a 4-4-2. It's pretty much the exact issue that we had under Gomes when going a goal down - throwing the kitchen sink will inevitably backfire, and a midfield solely of SwEjaria doesn't work. You can put it down to being unlucky, and just something that happens when searching for a goal, but it was still only 1-0 with ten minutes left. I'm not sure we should have been in full gung ho at quite that point, but others may disagree. (And others may argue that 4-4-2 is hardly gung ho, but with the personnel on the pitch I'd argue that we couldn't have pushed much more).

On Puscas I've heard it argued that he needs to play in the box - and he shouldn't be losing the ball deep, because he shouldn't be there to begin with. On the other hand people miss Joao because of how well he links with those behind him. You have to pick one. Meite was the most advanced player so he could attempt to win headers if crosses are put in, so really I think Puscas has to then play a linking role. He can still get himself into the box to score.

After that the game was done, and Millwall were perfectly content to play out time. And our midfield was too badly overrun to stop them from going forward at will.

We need not be too reactionary about one result, but I do think there are areas for concern in defence - chiefly how deep we sometimes drop. That let Millwall just play the ball around in front of us, before picking out Smith with a cross. We made 40+ clearances against Preston and Fulham and that doesn't feel sustainable. I would have liked to see us play with a higher line, although that may have brought Bradshaw's pace into the equation. More worryingly was how easily the defence lost Bradshaw anyway. The guy's 5'8", but was winning headers by virtue of finding space in the box. (I understand it's difficult to argue that we both dropped too deep, and that they were finding space in the box at the same time, but somehow we managed it. When Matt Smith scores the first goal Reading have nine players in their 18-yard-area.) Millwall, to be fair, have a very strong big/little partnership, with Matt Smith also bullying Morrison. We're pretty lucky to have only conceded twice, and come out of the game without Millwall being awarded a penalty or two.

I maintain that we have plenty of strikers, even if we haven't found the system that fits them yet. More than anything Puscas looks nervous, his touch is poor, and I think his confidence has taken a knock. The Baldock experiment needs to stop, or we need to start playing to his strengths. Give him a proper partner, or put balls in behind for him to run onto.

Finally, while a bad result I think it's ridiculous to truly change your mind on Reading's play-off chances off the basis of a game away at one of the best home sides in the division - and one who are on such a good run. The game midweek is far more important, in that it's our game in hand and could move as high as 12th if we get a result. Forest haven't been as good at home, although they have won three on the bounce, and we've already shown that we can match them.

I closed the last piece by saying that I thought Bowen's tactical changes were positive - that he wasn't stubborn enough to stick with tactics that weren't working, but in this match he decided that he would go back to exactly the same tactic which didn't work against Forest, and it hasn't worked here either. That's slightly worrying. I wouldn't be surprised to see a change in the midfield three away at Forest, but is Bowen brave enough to drop any of them?


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