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Cardiff City 0-2 Reading

Three wins out of three. You literally cannot ask for more in terms of results.

Reading's passing combinations are largely down the left hand side

Early on it was clear that Reading were looking to play through the full-backs again. They start high and are the first choice for Rafael or the centre backs. That works down the left side, where Richards is unbelievably good at wriggling between players and is backed up by Ejaria and Olise, but on the right things tend to be more difficult. Meite is more disconnected from the FB to begin with, and Araruna can't beat a player in the same way.

Cardiff shut off passes into midfield, instead Morrison goes long to Meite - a tactic employed a fair amount over the afternoon. Meite's natural game is to try runs in behind the LB.

As a whole Reading did struggle to play out from the back, as against Barnsley. Six goals so far this season - four from set-pieces, one from a long ball over the defensive line, and one catching the opposition in midfield. So far the fabled Paunoball hasn't yet materialised. Yes, Joao's pulled off a flick for the first goal of the year, and there was a bit of nice interplay on the most recent, but they've hardly scored after a flowing back-to-front move.

But to counter that issue, Reading were happy to go longer. 20% of the centre back's passes were classed as 'long balls' by WhoScored, the highest so far this season. Meite was an important part of that strategy, being a second body able to hold the ball up, and more inclined to make runs down the wing, or in behind when Joao dropped deeper. One such run was found by a nice ball over the top by Liam Moore, and Meite managed to direct a header on target before getting a whack.

This appears to be Reading's default FK routine. One player fakes, and at the same time one of the DMs makes a run to attempt to push back the defensive line. Then the CBs make runs near/far post. Joao in the middle is just occupying the Cardiff man who eventually attempts to head clear just enough that he's late to the ball.

Reading's open play woes can be half explained with one statistic - Reading are the most fouled team in the league. That's the benefit of having silky, skilful players. Joao, Olise, Ejaria and Richards have all been fouled on average 2+ times per 90. And the latter two are in the top 10 for players fouled over the opening three games (unsurprisingly all but Olise are in the top 11 in terms of dribbles too). That means fewer chances from open play, but more chances from dead-ball situations.

And Reading's set-pieces again proved crucial here. It's effectively the exact same routine discussed in the Derby match report that caused the breakthrough on Saturday. It was slightly wider, meaning Morrison's run was near post rather than penalty spot, Laurent made the initial run over Rinomhota, and in the absence of Swift, Olise was on taking duties. But other than that, the exact same. Richards faked to take (with his right foot) as Laurent's run looked to push the defensive line back. Morrison held his run and timed it for Olise's actual cross, and scored with a beautiful glance into the far corner. We saw them run the same thing, but with the CBs swapped in the first half.

Everything about this goal seemed to happen in slow motion. Cardiff didn't seem to be quick enough getting back, Ejaria was slow to play Laurent, but all's well that ends well.

Reading's next shot ended in a goal too. Stealing the ball in midfield meant that there was space to attack into, and Cardiff's right-back was caught upfield to give space for Laurent. Ejaria dawdled on the ball initially but found the new signing. He attacked the box and squared to Joao after drawing two men. The target man held off one before dragging the ball onto his left and finishing past Smithies. The value of a high press clearly demonstrated.

Whether Reading's current offence is a sustainable way of playing, or if opposition teams will eventually get wise, is debatable. What's clear is that eventually we will be forced to create from open play - so far we're next-to-bottom for shots per game despite our lofty position in the table. Ejaria, in that aspect, has been a tad disappointing so far this season. In a match where he started centrally, he registered zero shots and zero key passes, although obviously was involved in the second goal.

Meanwhile, Olise continues to impress. A couple of times his direct running was really promising, but he needs to improve his strength a little as he's brushed off the ball too easily. As a player who came into this season needing to start improving his end product, three goal involvements in three games is a good way to start. If we were being ultra-critical we could say that he's still yet to make his mark outside of set pieces too.

The two screening the back four are rightfully gaining a lot of plaudits. It makes it tough for opposition teams to play through the middle, and they're athletic enough to be able to cover gaps out wide when required. They tend toward the ball. 42% of Cardiff's attacks came down their left, so Rino and Laurent shade that side in the average positioning. And while they usually hold their positions going forward, they cover for each other well defensively.

The main downside is obviously the number of injuries Reading picked up. Swift before the game, and Araruna, Meite, and Joao all went off during. Meite is hopefully just cramp, he hasn't had much game time at all since his sending off at the end of last season. Joao appears to have dislocated his shoulder - an injury that Moore has come back from quickly. Maybe he misses this weekend as a precaution but could be back post-international break.

Tom Holmes has a lot of space, but hangs back. Not helped by the fact Meite has gone off at this point, and potentially due to Richards pushing on on the opposite side when defending a lead.

Araruna being out for two months is more problematic. Tom Holmes played alright, but I'm not convinced he has a long term future in that position. His positioning was often tentative when going forward, but we were protecting a lead so it's hard to fully gauge his potential. Paunovic has a bit of history converting players into full-backs, so I'm not sure we should be rushing out to purchase injury cover given our financial predicament.

More pressing, in my eyes, is the fact Tom McIntyre ended up as a holding midfielder. In many ways, fine if we're looking to see out the game, but he's not going to change games if the need arises. And we've already seen the need to have more creativity in that deeper role when Olise dropped into it against Barnsley. But without Swift that will leave the three behind the striker light unless Aluko can be relied on to play serious minutes this year.

Initially, I would have wanted a more static CDM, one to break up play and recycle the ball, but I'm not sure that's how Paunovic wants to play. Looking at his Chicago side, it was Dax McCarty who played the deepest in a 4-3-3. In many ways, the ability to play through that anchorman is as important as the ability to put a tackle in. I think Holmes and McIntyre are probably good enough there when sitting deep and looking to defend a lead, so we should actually be looking for a more expansive player.

Overall I think there are still questions. In some ways, it feels like we're experiencing the same disconnect between Paunovic's ideals and his implemented playstyle that has been seen before. Reading may pass the ball, but I wouldn't call them a possession team. But they're getting results, and answering can be deferred until a downturn of form. Watford up next will be a much better way of understanding the true ability of this team.


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