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The Big Man Cometh

In the grand scheme of things, I consider myself a bit of an Andy Carroll sceptic. Reading have a penchant for signing players that spend the majority of their time in the physio room, and Carroll aligns with that transfer policy to a tee. It must be said that given the lack of other options, and a short term deal that has no real risk for the club, there isn't any big downside in gambling on the Geordie.

With that being said, even I was calling out for the introduction for The Big Man at half-time on Saturday. Reading had a heap of possession just outside the box in the opening forty-five but couldn't translate that into chances. Drinkwater had a tame shot saved after good work from Yiadom, but the best chance of the half fell to Puscas after a fortuitous deflection off a Forest player. The flag went up for offside but it didn't matter as the striker couldn't convert anyway.

Both managers had done a fairly good job at negating the other side's strengths. Forest's man-marking of Drinkwater and Swift made the home side look significantly weaker, while Reading's press tended to force mistakes from the visitors. Of course, that took time to get going as early in the game Zinckernagel curled in from 20 yards after some suspect defensive play all round by those in the nice kits.

Reading started in a 4-1-4-1, before moving to a slightly lopsided 4-4-2 diamond

It was another fifteen minutes after the break before we saw a glimpse of that bun, but when it came it made a suitably impressive impact. Much like at Birmingham two weeks ago, the introduction of a striker was accompanied by a tactical tweak that was arguably as important. Yes, there were clearly now two centre forwards, but Reading also changed to something resembling the diamond seen sporadically last season.

In reality, this took a little bit of time to solidify and in the preceding chaos, Reading equalised. Ovie, now given more license to roam, dropped between the lines in a manner we haven't seen when playing the 4-1-4-1. Drinkwater made himself a little space to receive and immediately passed forward into Carroll. His first-time ball to the wing found Yiadom, still providing the width despite his move to right back, and it was his cross AC headed down to Swift. Though no shot was forthcoming, Nottingham could only clear for a corner, from which Dann levelled.

Cooper was forced to react and removed Lolley in favour of going to three at the back. All of a sudden, Drinkwater had space between the two wide forwards and could dictate play a little more. Had he not been booked, and lunging into some tasty challenges, then I think Reading would have been able to continue the momentum they'd built in that ten-minute spell. Unfortunately, his withdrawal meant that Laurent dropped deeper and, while excellent defensively, was never going to be able to pick the same passes.

Reading could also find pockets of space in the middle all throughout the pitch. Colback and Yates had to somehow cover off Swift, Ovie, and Laurent (or TDB in the final fifteen) which is hard enough at the best of times. Occasionally one would pick the wrong option and The Royals could break the lines quickly and, crucially, have at least two options in front of them.

It wasn't just in the middle that Reading were able to reap the benefits. Forest's attacking midfielders were no longer able to hold as wide and often had to retreat into the middle after Reading were past the initial pressure. On a couple of occasions, they were also able to work overloads with Swift and Ejaria drifting over to the right-hand side. Carroll tended to start wide on the left, allowing whoever found themselves with enough time to be able to stand a ball up to the back post.

None of this would be nearly as effective with two centre backs who panic every time they receive the ball, but in Dann and Holmes they have ball players on both sides who have the composure to recycle possession. Liam Moore is much safer on the ball, with all his passes tending to be across to his centre back partner, or out to the full back. That's okay, Morrison is hardly an excellent passer of the ball either, but with Laurent in front of the back four it requires the CBs to be more direct and bypass the DM, which he isn't as adept at doing.

One of my worries Before Carroll was that Reading aren't a crossing team. Of course, that changed a little. Reading did attempt almost double the number they normally do but only four found their target. However, just having Carroll as an out ball was clearly beneficial. If Forest were able to push Reading backward, there was always the option to go direct. Even if his flick on didn't find Puscas or a supporting cast member, Reading could then press quickly to try to win the ball. It also stretched Forest vertically. As shown, they couldn't keep pressure on the ball carrier and didn't want to allow an easy flick on for Puscas or Swift to attack. That led to them dropping deeper, and trying to nullify the space in behind.

As with everything, there's a pay-off. Forest had excellent chances to win the match themselves after the switch and none better than when Grabban rounded the keeper but hit the side netting. That move came about because Swift at the top of the diamond was a little late into position after a Forest free-kick, and they could break the lines easily without bodies in the passing lane. Garner turned well, and Grabban's excellent movement on Holmes' blindside meant that the defender was always in trouble.

Another man in midfield probably cuts off that initial passing lane and means that Swift doesn't have as much space to cover horizontally - something that is clearly not his natural game. Yiadom also ends up pinching inside, as all four of Reading's defenders have men to mark with no wingers to help cover, but that actually leaves a man over (out of shot) on his side. Had Garner rolled to the outside, he may have been able to exploit that instead.

Thirty minutes After Debut is clearly too soon to make any real conclusions, but what is without doubt is that he was integral to the change made on Saturday. Not every manager may react in the way that Cooper did, ceding territory in order to keep tighter at the back (though that would just mean more space to work with if Reading did beat the initial press anyway), but Reading now have more options in the toolkit and that wouldn't be possible without him.


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