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Derby County 2-1 Reading

This was a bad result - Mark Bowen said so himself. Seriously though, backing yourself to that extent, away at a team who are unbeaten at home in 2020 (whatever the circumstances) is ridiculous and only sets you up to fail. But either way, we were still rubbish and I preferred it when I was watching German clubs I don't care about.

Rooney and Bird pull the central midfielders wide enough for Wisdom to run straight through the middle of them (something Derby didn't capitalise on enough).

There was a clear plan, so clear that even BBCRB picked up on it, to allow Andre Wisdom to carry the ball. We did allow Clarke time on the ball too but gave him the pass across to his centre back partner, and then cut off the return. I think it can be argued that Wisdom is the weakest of Derby's players on the ball, but to allow him complete freedom to bring the ball out from the back was bizarre. He's not that bad. Yes, a couple of his long balls out to the left were overhit, but more often than not he was managing to pick a progressive pass or carry the ball forward himself. If Derby had pulled Rooney and Bird out of space in front of him - which is what happened for their first goal - he could have been even more effective.

That's not to say the plan never worked. Reading's defensive set up seems fairly unique in 'modern football'. It relies on man-marking almost all the key players - Olise picked up Rooney, Swift harried Bird, Rinomhota marshalled Sibley, Ejaria sat on Bogle, Richards picked up Waghorn, and there are others but I'm running out of synonyms for 'marked' and I think you understand the point. Effectively every member of the squad has a man to follow. When all players are picked up then it's very difficult for Wisdom to pick out a pass, but you also give him an infinite amount of time to be able to find one. This system is how you end up with Chris Gunter winning a ball in central midfield, because he's tracked Tom Lawrence all the way there, before setting a counter-attack in motion.

Ejaria presses Wisdom, who shifts the ball out to Bogle. Ovie can't get back into position. Waghorn makes an intelligent run inside to draw Richards more central, and the full back can't get out to stop the cross.

The issue is that it can also be Reading's downfall when players are caught even slightly out of position. After Derby's first goal Ejaria decided that he needed to press Wisdom instead of letting him run through the centre - which is understandable, but he left Bogle completely free and Richards is unable to go to the ball because he's still picking up Waghorn instead. At some point, Waghorn ends up central enough that Moore should be picking him up, but he doesn't seem to communicate Richards to push out to Bogle - or at least not until it's too late. Moore is the club captain, and in the best position on the pitch to be able to see that - he needs to be telling Richards what to do in that situation.

Tip for teams: Don't give Tom Lawrence space on the edge of the box. Gunter doubles up (needlessly) on Martin, but Meite really should be tracking Lawrence's run but ends up ballwatching.

You could even argue that the system fails for the first goal. Rino tracks Sibley too long, rather than closing down Wisdom, and Meite's ball-watching allows Lawrence to take up a position on the edge of the box. If there's one player you don't want to give time and space to on the edge of the box, it's Tom Lawrence.

This leads me on to a larger point. As I hope I've set out, Reading's defensive set-up is a team effort. Putting the praise or criticism entirely on the centre backs for how well it works is misguided. Morrison and Moore weren't the key to keeping Stoke at bay for 92 minutes, and in most cases they aren't the only ones at fault when things go wrong. That is unless Moore gets away with shoving Louie Sibley in the box, fails to learn his lesson, and then brings down Martyn Waghorn for a penalty minutes later. 

Our defensive frailty could end up masking the fact that our main issues have actually been at the other end of the pitch. xG of 0.64 vs Stoke and 0.94 vs Derby is absolutely nothing to write home about. Our goal on Saturday was gifted by Ben Hamer's inexplicable punch, but only Puscas wild shot in the first half could be called a true chance. Then there was a cross to the back post by Olise which Meite could have directed on target, but it was an awkward height to control and just failed to get over it.

Puscas checks his run to offer a pass inside but is then out of position for the cross. Trust the midfield, George.

The real disappointment is in two moves that don't even show up in xG. The tale of two balls fizzed across by either full-back. The first, less than a minute after half time, saw Gunter lash the ball to absolutely nobody. Puscas stopped his run to offer a ball inside to Olise, but nobody made the run he should have been making. The Romanian has to just get himself in the box. He can drop deep early in the possession, but in the final phase he needs to be in the box. You know, like Joao does.

Ejaria, Swift, and Richards link up well in the build up to get the left back behind Bogle. A fierce ball across looks like it should end up on Puscas head, but it doesn't.

He learnt his lesson later on when Richards did the same from the other side. He made a near-post run, jumped and... completely missed the ball. Meite at the back post didn't have time to sort his feet out either. Another chance went begging.

Alongside Puscas normal struggles, Swift's playmaking ability was hampered by being pushed forward. Derby collapsed on the midfielder, and he never had enough time on the ball to create. When he picked up the ball deeper, which he started doing midway through the first half, he was able to orchestrate a little more. In a common theme throughout all the matches so far teams have sat off and packed the midfield, which is a real problem for a team that look to draw the opposition onto them in order to create space.

A total lack of width - highlighted are the two right sided players (Gunter just made a run round from the outside, to be fair). Olise drops back centrally and does create a chance for Meite at the far post, but it's far harder than it needs to be.

Which means that my twitter assertions that Reading don't lack width are, in fact, completely wrong. All our best chances came when working the ball wide, with that notable exception of Gunter stealing the ball centrally and actually managing to start a counter-attack. If we're willing to press higher that's a genuine tactic, if not we lack speed in transition under these circumstances to be a counter-attacking side.

Gunter waving Olise forward. The midfielder needs to make a run forward, and give Gunter more space to drive into. He's effectively taking himself out of the game

A couple of notes on individual players. Personally, I think this was Olise's worst game in a Reading shirt. Too often drifting into his teammates' space - at one point almost literally running into Rinomhota. You could tell the fatigue and cramp were getting to him as he constantly overhit crosses. He was quiet in the second half against Stoke, and I'd love to see him pushed toward the striker again. Having him track a man so diligently is such a waste when he could be finding pockets of space further up to counter-attack into when we turn the ball over.

Sam Baldock did look good for thirty seconds but was then largely anonymous. In the play above he drops deep to link up play, then gets himself pushing the backline, as Puscas should be doing. No messing about. The substitutions led to us going 4-4-2 toward the end, with McCleary and Masika attempting to ping balls in - which I'm not sure Baldock is really built for. 'Big man, little man' is a tactic for working the ball up the pitch - not besieging the box. May as well have thrown Morrison on.

It's difficult - you want to be positive and give the manager the benefit of the doubt, and not become Arsenal Fan TV, but this game raised red flags in terms of set up, and it comes back to Bowen's comments before the match. The tactics of the team, to me, does not reflect the idea that we were the superior side going into the game. They're far too focused on negating Derby, rather than capitalising on our strengths - and when that defensive set up fails he has nothing to fall back on. 

His tactics leave Puscas isolated when teams aren't content to sit back, and his constant rotation in the midfield - after settling on a tactic before lockdown - are the signs of someone scrambling to find a working system. I think you have to be semi-delusional to believe we were the best team on Saturday. Derby did exactly what they needed to do, and it was only a baffling moment from the keeper that squandered a clean sheet along with their three points.

At the very least I would be seriously concerned that setting yourself up to battle Brentford 1v1 will backfire against Brentford, but that also would go against the two banks of four that he likes to employ. All I'm hoping is that we don't go quite as defensive as we saw Newcastle go in the FA Cup at the weekend. That in itself would be a small victory.


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