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Reading 0-3 Stoke City

Reading clung onto top spot going into the international break despite a third consecutive defeat. A side praised for their resolute defence have now conceded thirteen goals in their last four outings. The biggest kick in the teeth was that Stoke beat the home side at their own game; soaking up pressure before being clinical in front of the opposition goal.

Paunovic altered the system, playing, at least on paper, a 5-3-2. Yiadom, Morrison, and Gibson were flanked by Esteves and Richards. Rinomhota, Laurent, and Semedo played their usual roles, and up top Puscas partnered Joao for the first time in aeons.

Creating a back four allowed more passing lanes for the man on the ball

With the ball at the back, though, Reading set-up quite differently, effectively becoming a back four. Esteves and Richards pushed up, Yiadom moved into the RB spot, and Laurent became the LB. In the second half, there was a variation on the theme, with Rinomhota dropping into the centre, and Gibson going wider.

The effective shape in possession.

When the ball made its way into the opposition half, the back three came back together and Laurent returned to the screen. Effectively in possession, until the second half substitutions, it was as you would expect, a 3-4-1-2.

Reading have only changed formation once so far this season, and that was to counter Blackburn, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same thought process here. Stoke had been playing a 3-4-3, or 3-5-2 and a back five counters the two up top. But also Paunovic's seeming dissatisfaction with Olise's performances must be a contributing factor. 

Olise should put a ball in, where Reading have men over. He dekes around an onrushing defender but then decides to shoot, badly.

The Frenchman was hooked in the two previous games and didn't start here. His drifting around the pitch may be seen as hindering the shape that Veljko is looking for. Part of the solution would be to play him behind Joao, but there's a clear reluctance to go that direction. His introduction against Stoke saw him clearly trying to up the tempo. His direct running and committing of defenders saw him win multiple free-kicks, but his end product wasn't up to standard.

After the replacements, the formation became a little bit jumbled. A flat back four was clear enough, with Rinomhota at right-back and Laurent stayed in front of the defence. Semedo played alongside him out of possession but pushed toward the LW when we had the ball. Meanwhile, Aluko stayed high on the other flank, and Olise had an almost entirely free role. As did Baldock for a time, popping up in the right channel on more than one occasion before solidifying as a second striker.

A brief mention for Yiadom, coming back into the side and playing a new role on the right side of the back three. He was one of the better performers in the first half, before his fitness caught up with him. Crossing from deep on a couple of occasions, with Semedo failing to capitalise on a free header eight yards out. We saw his characteristic mazey runs, and it's encouraging to have two players with that ability at right-back - and more encouraging to be able to fit them into the same side.

Richards goes to cut off the ball into the channel, allowing the man on the ball a cross under no pressure.

The goals were the away side capitalising on gifts. Esteves made a hash of a clearance at the back post after a deep cross, and it fell to the last person you want in that situation - Tyrese Campbell is an exceptional finisher. While it's the Portuguese U21 that received the brunt of the criticism, nobody put pressure on Tom Smith's ball in. Richards seemed to be caught whether to press or cover Powell's run. The same that Semedo was half-tracking, taking two players effectively out of the game, and then Puscas wasn't quick enough into the channel - but it's unusual for him to defend that deep anyway.

Morrison rushes up to try to play offside, leaving Fletcher wide open. He could have covered off the striker instead.

The irony of Stoke's second was that it actually stemmed from Rafael playing long to begin with. A goal kick into midfield was cleared back into our defensive third, with Morrison then going back to the 'keeper to try again. From there, things started to fall apart. Rafael's pass out to Richards, albeit under pressure, was really poor. Morrison tries to play Stephen Fletcher offside, and in doing so gives himself no chance of covering off the danger if he's not. Then Stoke get a little lucky when Campbell completely misses his header and it falls straight into the Scotsman's path.

Reading actually played out from the back well, on the whole, and to suggest that it was a flawed strategy based on this incident lacks nuance. Particularly given that Reading are a team that thrive in transition, and can artificially create a similar situation using a less direct strategy in the early phases of possession. Reading want to create space further up the field, by having Stoke press them in the defensive third.

Then Lewis Gibson fails to connect properly with a back pass with seconds left, and Jacob Brown rounded the keeper to score. The Everton loanee took quite the whack trying to recover, which hopefully hasn't done too much damage. I think all involved will be willing to write it off - a mistake, but not one that had any bearing on the game.

It doesn't take in-depth analysis to tell you that over the past three matches, The Royals have put themselves in difficult positions far more than the opening run without compensating going the other way. You can't win matches giving away goals at the rate we're doing currently, and Reading's win condition is already dependent on keeping clean sheets.

Not only does Semedo not complete passes that would create scoring opportunities - he doesn't attempt them.

Ideally, we'd widen that condition to also be able to outscore opponents on the occasions we're not a wall. That's where the case of Alfa Semedo becomes quite interesting. In the opening few minutes, he showed what he offers, still giving us a more presence in the final third without Meite. He got on the end of a couple of crosses, forcing saves but one he really should have converted.

Before Stoke scored, he attempted four dribbles and used his body well to open up space in between the lines. After Campbell's opener that stopped. He failed to register a key pass all afternoon. The two assists he's credited with both come from stealing the ball back, and that's only going to be useful when Reading are allowing the opposition the ball. In an ideal world, he's not your #10, and when defences shut up shop that fact is even clearer.

Reading's strikers only touched the ball in the box on three occasions

And that lack of incisiveness meant it didn't really matter whether we played one or two strikers, Reading were restricted to the kind of chances other teams have been used to seeing when they come up against The Royals. Almost half of the fifteen shots on Angus Gunn's goal came from outside the box. Credit has to be given to Batth who was aerially dominant in his own box, and Stoke's tight defensive formation which gave no space to play through (as can be seen in the screenshot of Olise further up the page).

Joao hoping for a bigger cutback - and was the man in space given the direction of the Stoke players

There were chances when the full-backs created space. Esteves picked the wrong option on the cutback, a run found in the first place by a brilliant ball from Gibson, and Puscas - again - failed to gamble on a ball across the box from Richards.  Then there was Semedo's header from Yiadom, and Baldock's shot wide on the turn toward the end. Reading are finding that those chances aren't enough to consistently win games.

So Reading are in desperate need of their creative midfielders to come back from injury, but more importantly is discovering a defence that can find the same level as the first seven games.

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