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A Potted History of Veljko Paunović

Veljko Paunović is Reading manager. The Serbian is a relative unknown here, but after leading his home nation to the U20 World Cup he put his name on the proverbial map. That lead to taking over at MLS side Chicago Fire in 2015, where he stayed for four years before being fired with one of the worst ever MLS records. For the past year, he's been unemployed.

Serbia's victory at the U20 World Cup in New Zealand was a surprise. 2015 remains the only tournament that Serbia has qualified for since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The tournament opened with a loss to Uruguay, a game in which they played a 3-6-1. For the subsequent group games they switched to a 4-2-3-1 or alternated to a 4-1-4-1; both Mali and Mexico were dispatched 2-0.

They kept the same set-up for the knock-out phase, but were never as convincing, needing extra time in every round. An injury-time equaliser against Hungary combined with an own goal in the round of 16, penalties were required to see off The USA in the quarter-finals, and it was another extra-time winner to see them through to the final. 

Serbia obviously won that game against Brazil, and the title, in extra time too. A success by any measure, and yet it has to be said they rode their luck and struggled to score from open play. A couple of direct free-kicks, a couple of corners, a long throw, an own goal, and just four goals from open play in seven matches - although both goals in the final. That isn't entirely the manager's fault, as the side did spurn some glorious chances that they, thankfully, didn't come to rue.

At Chicago Paunović became known for tinkering with the team, and that was evident even from this early tournament. Obviously, with matches coming so quickly it's a requirement to rotate the team, and especially when some members of the squad pick up suspensions. Changing formations so regularly had the potential to backfire, but they were well drilled and relatively minor tweaks.  

There are clearly certain ideas underpinning his style. He wants the side to play out from the back, so much so that his YouTube channel has a video how. To help with that the defensive midfielder who picks up the ball from the defence must be technically proficient, and able to pick passes. The wingers start wide but often cut inside with full-backs overlapping. The offence relies on players with strong, direct dribbling ability. It also helps to have a strong forward that can be played into if the need arises. Serbia often had Saponjic leading the line, but at times went with the smaller, faster Mandic; though they usually still had Milinkovic-Savic to provide that aerial presence.

Defensively it's much more about being in shape, and being hard to play through. The team is generally set up in a mid-block, and won't pressure much, if at all, into the opposition half. Players still track runs, but not to the same extent as in a Bowen formation where the man-marking distorts the overall shape of the team.

The defensive midfielder slots between the CBs to pick up the ball.

There are contradictions to his play, however. As much as he seems to want to be a possession side, Serbia spent a lot of time without the ball. If they're not allowed to reset, either from a deep set-piece, or the keeper in possession then they tend to launch the ball forward, not always successfully. It's no real surprise that their tournament ended on the break after trying to contain Brazil rather than a flowing passing move.

Just months after his World Cup success Chicago Fire, a team who have been traditional underachievers over the past decade, managed to lure Paunović to America as their first-choice candidate for the vacant head coach role. The new team General Manager, Nelson Rodriguez, had been keeping tabs since his playing days and had already engineered a move for 'Pauno' to Philadelphia while the Serbian was still (nominally, given he'd been without a club for three years at the time) a player. In the minds of Fire supporters, the two are intertwined. Both arriving at the club within months of each other, and neither going on to substantially improve the fortunes of the team. 

When Pauno arrived he preached effectively the same 4-2-3-1 that had seen success previously.

We want to start with 4-2-3-1... And to surprise I think we have to work on alternative systems too. But it’s not the system, it’s all about ... continuous learning and teaching and improve every aspect of the game on the group side but also on the individual side.

His first season didn't go to plan, as the side picked up their second successive wooden spoon. As would become a consistent theme, their away form was dreadful. In seventeen matches away from SeatGeek Stadium, the team picked up five points.

Things rapidly improved in his second season, as they reached third. Off-season arrivals of 2015 all-star Dax McCarty and soon-to-be golden boot winner Nemanja Nikolic were followed up by Bastian Schweinsteiger. That's not a bad spine to have. Add in David Accam cutting in from the left and all the pieces were there. If it weren't for six losses in seven toward the end of July, they could have been challenging for the regular-season crown. All of that was deemed irrelevant by a 4-0 defeat to New York Red Bulls in the first round of the playoffs (because they do things funny over the pond) in a match worryingly reminiscent of Reading implosions.

Paunović was always going to get a third season after guiding the team to their first play-offs in five years, but even then there were signs of discontent among fans. The thrashing in the final game of the season raised questions, but so did decisions made throughout the year.

Sometimes he makes very questionable decisions with his lineups and substitutions, and, well, he’s going to have to stop doing that because it cost Chicago points this season.

His obsession with forcing round pegs into square holes didn't improve, and the next two seasons reverted back to the mean. Another 20th placed finish in 2018 - this time avoiding the wooden spoon due to the expansion to 23 teams, before he was finally dismissed after missing out on the playoffs for the third time in four years. Chicago invested heavily in his squad, and they didn't get the returns. It was only a change of ownership that truly spelt the end - and even then reluctantly.

If there's one thing that will be Paunović's legacy in the windy city it will be his abrasiveness with the squad. His four-year tenure is littered with disputes and fall outs with key players. His 'doghouse' is infamous, and experienced players and youth alike are spurned for seemingly frivolous reasons. And he hasn't seemed to be able to transfer his youth development, where you would think he would excel,  into professional management.

Paunovic has proven that he is unable to help improve young talent, instead ruining them before eventually forcing them out of the club.

Fire defend in a 4-4-2

His Chicago stint seems to have been characterised by much the same tactics. Trying to build from the back was so crucial that it lead to the departure of first-choice goalkeeper, Sean Johnson.  Bastian Schweinsteiger, when not at centre-back, or Dax McCarty could both play that progressive midfield passer. David Accam or, later on, Aleksandar Katai embody the same quick dribbler that Zinkovic did. They still mainly focused on shape defensively.

Again the conflict in Paunović's style is present. 2017, his only successful season, they averaged 52% in possession and had the third-best passing percentage in the league. In every other year, Chicago spent more than 50% of the match without the ball - in his first year they had less of the ball than any other team (45.8%), and 2018 saw them in the bottom five - and were in the bottom half for passing percentage.

In 2017's team containing MLS' golden boot winner, Chicago scored more open play goals than any team bar one. Look at the other years, though, and they consistently managed fewer than a goal-a-game from open play. The set pieces that characterised his Serbia side eventually wound their way to MLS - Fire scored more than a fifth of their goals from dead-ball situations in his last two years as head coach.

Paunović's front three always look to stretch the play

So how does all this translate to Reading? My initial reaction was why hire a guy who, overall, plays pretty similarly to Bowen with absolutely no record of success in professional management - in fact, the exact opposite. Marauding full-backs - tick. Deepest CM progressing the ball while occasionally dropping between the CBs to find space - tick. Launching the ball to nobody in particular half the time - tick.

The difference seems to be that Paunović's preferred 4-2-3-1 allows slightly more bodies in attack, slightly more of the time. Which I suppose is a positive, but he will run into exactly the same issues that Bowen had with width if the squad isn't added to. Bowen had come up with a system to counteract that flaw, but that, I presume, is out the window. As mentioned earlier, Paunović did actually play a 3-6-1 in his first group game at the U20 World Cup, but since then it's been shelved.

Given how comfortable he wants his centre-backs to be on the ball I can't help but feel Morrison will be quickly phased out, and he has basically no choice on who to play at fullback - though thankfully both players do suit his style. Swift slots in fairly well as a McCarty substitute, and although Laurent doesn't have the same range of passing, his movement replicates Schweinsteiger's bursts forward when looking to inject urgency.

You have to assume that Joao is first-choice striker, but attacking midfield is all a bit up in the air. Ejaria and Olise could both hypothetically be the focal point of the attacks wide, but Ovie isn't direct enough and Michael is still finding his feet in the division.

In MLS his tactic seemed to heavily rely on David Accam to run in behind, a man who he drove out of Chicago. That dip in form in 2017 just happened to coincide with benching Accam, then moving him over to the other side. The closest analogue in the side is probably Meite, but you have to be willing to sacrifice some dribbling ability. Previous managers have found it very hard to leave him out regardless of that.

The final question mark is over Paunović's handling of transfers. Obviously not an issue in a national side, and mainly overseen by the GM in MLS. The presumption is that it will be in tandem with Bowen. The partnership of two men with broadly similar football ideologies in important positions at the club is the kind of stability this club has been calling out for for a while now.

Overall, I've got to say I'm more than a little mystified that Paunovic can be considered a viable candidate given his frankly disastrous spell in MLS, but we have to hope that his year of reflection will allow him to be a better manager. The one straw I'm still clutching is his introspection was always sold as one of the qualities the Chicago Fire hierarchy liked. Rodriguez said of him,

I’m very satisfied with his approach. I’m very satisfied with his willingness to self reflect. I’m very satisfied with his willingness to seek and accept criticism. I’m satisfied with his ability to change as he believes he needs to and the team needs to.


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