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The importance of Reading’s formation change

When manager Ruben Selles came in in the summer he promised ‘attacking and energetic football’. To pursue his attacking and high-pressing style he initially set the Royals up in a 4-2-2-2 structure, similar to how he played in his short tenure at Southampton.


Despite relative success down the flanks, often being able to overload wide areas with overlapping fullbacks, Reading were constantly exposed centrally. The wide attacking midfielders would often hold their shape too strictly, while the defensive pair behind them would remain as a shield for the backline. As a result, one of the deeper midfielders would often have to step out and close down the ball, often opening up angles for them to be easily taken out of the game.


There was an early glimpse of the new 4-3-3 working towards the end of October when Reading were unlucky not to have got a point in a 3-2 loss against table-topping Portsmouth, who were undefeated at the time.


After this strong performance, Selles stuck with the new formation, adopting it in all of his matches after this point. During this time Reading have progressed to the last-16 of the Bristol Street Motors Trophy and earned 17 points from a possible 33 allowing them to climb out of the relegation zone, having been 10 points adrift at one point.


Sam Smith’s return in late October has been the enabler for the tactical shift, the striker is the only player Reading have that is able to play up front on his own. Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan is another option, but despite his presence, the 20-year-old isn’t as physically imposing as Smith and often works better in a strike partnership.


Harvey Knibbs is another player who has flourished in the 4-3-3 system, scoring 10 goals in all competitions since the defeat to Portsmouth. Knibbs has been shifted from a wide midfielder to operating more centrally as the most advanced of the midfield three. Knibbs is often the player to link up most closely with Smith, a pair who are familiar having spent the last 2 seasons together at Cambridge United.

Michael Craig has come into the side since the change and helped provide the balance that had been missing in the early parts of the season. Craig sits as the deepest of reading’s midfield three, doing the so-called ‘dirty work’. Craig’s best attribute is being able to break up play through interceptions before picking up the ball on the half-turn and distribute it into wide areas. Despite being only 20 years old, Craig has been able to fulfil the role which was initially failed by the two deeper midfielders.


Lewis Wing completes the midfield three and acts almost as a bridge between the two. Wing often drops deep beside Craig to create an angle to receive the ball deep, he then can pick a pass, often breaking a line through the opposition midfield or in behind for Smith to latch onto. The summer signing has arguably been Reading’s player of the season so far and it’s easy to see why, he’s notched up 4 goals and 8 assists across all competitions – more assists than any player managed last season. Wing’s goal contributions have all come since the 4-3-3 was implemented, further proving the success of the new system.

The run of fixtures doesn’t get any easier for the Royals, as they face playoff contenders Derby and Oxford in the next month, but the more resolute defensive shape that has been created holds much more promise than it did just 3 months ago.  

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