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"We’ve never been so flat"

There have been some abysmal Reading performances this season, I don't really need to list them out. But in that dirge, there are two performances that I haven't fully come to terms with my feelings on. The visits of Sheffield United and Luton to The SCL are a clash between feeling like the concept behind the tactics was reasonable and the implementation clearly not working. But there's one issue with my reading of the game; Veljko himself wasn't happy with either performance. In fact, he used the exact same word to label both - 'flat'.

Reading's three in midfield meant they could cover SU attacking midfielders and wing backs

And yet, the set-ups for both seem to perfectly explain why the team may be flat. Against The Blades they switched to a 4-3-2-1, with Ejaria dropping deeper to form the three alongside Drinkwater and Laurent. That trio were effectively tasked with stopping McGoldrick and Gibbs-White from being able to come central. On Wednesday we may have played 4-2-3-1 but TDB and Rino were clearly there to cover for the fullbacks first and attack second, at times almost forming a back six.

TDB presses slightly late allowing a ball into the ST, but the plan is here. TDB holds tight to not allow switch, and the presses when ball comes out to this side.

And it feels hard to say it's not what Veljko wanted because it was actually fairly well-coached. In the first half when Luton moved the ball from left to right then TDB pushed out to the RCB, the team shuffled across and Bristow picked up Kioso. When the ball went across the other side something similar happened, though Rinomhota was more worried with Amari'i Bell at LWB than Naismith.

In both matches, the most important thing about Reading's defensive structure was the shape and maintaining it. It isn't a coincidence that the one time Rino failed to track Bell, things fell apart. The way they've been set out is not about pressing high, it's about compactness and closing off space. It's about making the game boring. It's about making the game... flat. And in both matches, I feel like we actually did an admirable job of that in the first halves. What did Pauno want if not exactly what he got?

As an aside, it also leads to a lot of static players. A lot of players that are more interested in being in the right place over charging into challenges. That's why it's slightly hard to critique players motivations when they're being kept in such a rigid structure. Everyone would like to see someone step up into a challenge, but that can also fundamentally unravel the whole plan.

The pay-off to keeping it tight early is that at some point you should then transition to attempting to win the game. When you concede goals before that switch, you completely negate what you're attempting to do. In fact, in both those games, it felt like the plan was to get to the hour mark and then 'go for it'. In November Carroll was introduced with 60 minutes played, on Wednesday it was Joao's proper return from injury. So to concede in the 57th minute against Sheffield and 58th this week just kills any good work done until that point.

Last season, did we really play so differently? Not really. The wingers didn't drop so deep, that is true, but there was still no real attacking cohesion outside individual skill or set pieces. Let's be real, the reason Reading won games last year is because the front four comprised of Joao, Swift, Olise, and Ejaria. This time it was Swift and three players who aren't first choice.

Ashcroft and Rinomhota carried next to no threat at all. Neither completed a pass into the box, and were more likely to look back down the line than to try to be incisive. That's not a surprise and not a slight.  Ashcroft was the youngest starter in the XI, and Rinomhota is clearly not a right winger. Paunovic criticised the team for not having courage in the final third. Fine, but equally a 17 year old and a defensive midfielder are not going to take the game by the horns.

The opposition scoring the moment they're allowed some space is why it's slightly hard to accept the idea that being more offensive would have changed anything. Everyone was worried about the quality of the full backs going into the game, giving them less cover feels like it could have backfired just as easily.

Obviously, Camara was an option. By the time the youngster came on, the game was all but done. He has certainly looked bright, but a right side with 450 senior minutes also has its drawbacks. Would he have covered as well for his just-as-inexperienced colleague? It's doubtful. Luton were content with their two-goal lead and didn't even attempt to exploit it. Sometimes the grass really is greener, sometimes it isn't. I guess at some point you have to go and check the other field.

An opportunity Yiadom would make more of. Puscas spreads the ball wide well, but Ashcroft can't attack the defender and ends up passing to a Luton player.

Had Reading had Andy Yiadom on the right things may have been different. On a couple of occasions Ashcroft had space to drive forward but couldn't use it. Bristow actually had a fairly good game with the ball on the left, but obviously Rahman would also be welcomed back because the second goal isn't particularly convincing defending again. Had Reading had any of Meite, Azeez, Hoilett, or Halilovic who knows what gaps they could have opened up?

In the moment, I enjoyed the 3412 we switched to but after Luton adjusted it really didn't look any more threatening although Clarke probably deserves a go up front at some point. He certainly has better feet than Puscas, but whether he'd have any more joy is hard to know. The youngster didn't really stand out in the FA Youth Cup against United, where you would hope he would excel if he was ready for first team action. Realistically he's missed the boat anyway if Joao is back.

Mitigating circumstances or not, not many managers would have survived a late collapse at Derby, a loss to Kidderminster, and a 7-0 defeat to Fulham all when three points above the relegation zone. Despite only having a bench of six for the last two games he's now got Morrison, a semi-fit Joao, and the AFCON duo back (if not this week then next week - assuming he survives that long). There really are no excuses from here on out.

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