Reading v Cardiff
Kicking off at 12 on Sunday on Sky Sports, we will get the opportunity to see the favourites for relegation against one of the favourites for promotion.
Reading have started the league season with two disappointing defeats against Sheffield Wednesday (3-1) and Hull (2-1), before scraping past Wycombe in the Carabao Cup on penalties. Having struggled to stay up last season, the warning signs are already once again apparent, and a large turnover of the squad has led to a number of unknowns heading into the season.
Cardiff on the other hand are one of the favourites for promotion. Having kept together the bulk of the squad which battled valiantly against relegation last season, and importantly the manager in Neil Warnock, they head into the season optimistic of a promotion push. An opening day defeat in a topsy-turvy game at Wigan gave them a reality check, but a typical Warnock style victory at home to Luton has settled them down. They received a bye into the Second Round of the League Cup, so freshness is on their side.
Reading finished 20th last season in the Championship, and the worries were two-fold. Scoring only 49 goals, only Stoke and Millwall managed less and survived. The defence didn’t fair much better, conceding 66 goals, which again was one of the highest of the teams that stayed up. So how have Reading looked to solve this problem this season?
Firstly, looking at transfer business, a lot of money has been spent on strikers. Lucas Joao has arrived from Sheffield Wednesday (having ironically netted against them on the opening day) for a sizeable £5 million, whilst George Puscas has arrived for an even higher £7.5m from Inter, coming off the back of a highly successful U21 European Championships Campaign for Romania. Top scorer Yakou Meite (12 goals last season) has remained, whilst Bodvarsson and McNulty have departed. At the back, Miazga has re-signed from Chelsea, whilst Michael Morrison has joined from Birmingham.
Looking at their first two league games this season, Reading have lined up in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation. They have dominated possession in both games averaging 58% across both games with a pass completion over 80%, but have lacked cutting edge. The play is often too slow, and their best chances have actually come when breaking on other teams and utilising the pace of players like Meite and Joao. The slowness and overuse of the ball at the back was particularly clear in the Hull game, completing 430 passes, but only 53 in the final third.
In order to solve this, between the CBs and CDMs, the ball needs to be moved much faster, and in particular move the ball to attacking midfielder John Swift quicker. When he does get the ball, he has been averaging 3 key passes in each game, however due to dropping behind in both games, he has dropped deeper and tried to influence from an earlier point in attacks. For an attacking midfielder, he averages 62 passes across the first two games, which is comparatively high for those in a similar role in this division. Whilst dropping deep can often work for these players, when chasing the game it can detrimental as they are not impacting the game far enough up the pitch and the defending team can get into shape in time. The map below shows the first half (left) v second half (right) against Hull, highlighting how he tried to drop deeper to see more of the ball. Although he does see more of the ball, a lot of his impact on the game is too deep, and if they are to get a result against Cardiff, he will need to see the ball higher up the pitch.
The main issue that Reading have going into this game is that their methodical approach perfectly suits Cardiff. Demonstrating how comfortable they are out of possession and how quickly they look to transition the ball, Cardiff won against Luton with only 37.5% possession. Despite this, they managed more shots (18) and clear cut openings (3), often picking and choosing when to press. They only completed 158 passes in the match, but 79 of these were in the final third. Pacey wingers Murphy and Whyte aid this, and attacking midfielder Patterson offers a great presence and out ball when required. This is particularly worrying for Reading, as the goals they have been conceding have been when teams win the ball high up and overload the defence. Moore and Miazga are comfortable challenging in the air, winning 6/9 aerial duals against a physical Eaves against Hull and 7/8 against a similarly robust Steven Fletcher. However, mistakes in holding midfield and losing the ball cheaply when overcommitted up front has been their downfall and Cardiff’s midfield of Pack and Ralls offer a lot of energy, with Ralls completing 9/9 tackles across to two games this season, the highest in the team.
Patterson’s influence on the game shouldn’t be underestimated either. He will look to isolate the Reading full backs and challenge aerially to avoid Miazga and Moore, which frees up space for Whyte and Murphy. As seen below, this was a tactic deployed against Luton acting as a wide target man, and they will once again look to isolate Yiadom and Richards of Reading.
Reading will need to find a way to break through Cardiff’s low block tactic, and there is a chance that Jose Gomes will look to change formation. He experimented with a 3-5-2 in midweek v Wycombe and could look to deploy this again. This could counter act the wide target man approach of Cardiff, but it does leave a lot of space for quick wingers like Murphy, and overlapping full backs Peltier and Bennett. Hull’s second goal showed how easy it can be to create quick overloads on the Reading box, so retaining possession and not losing it close to their own goal will be key, as Cardiff are set up to pounce.
The 3-5-2 does give an opportunity for Reading to start both Puscas and Joao up top together, and a positive from the last game is that both are getting into the right positions (see below). If they are more clinical, Reading should have a goal in them, demonstrated by their XG of 1.6 across the two games.
The stats are promising up front for Reading’s new signings, however finding a way to feed them the chances appears to be the issue. A change in system may suit and allow Swift more chance to influence the game higher up the pitch, however the current style of play looks to be playing into Cardiff’s hands. Comfortable without the ball for long periods and well structured, I’m predicting an away win. Cardiff 2-1.
Thank you to @BiscuitAnalytic for his extra insight into Reading’s tactics.