EFL Championship: Derby v Reading- Tactical analysis tactics
Rooney assisting build-up for Derby

The resumption of the EFL Championship has been a welcome boost to the public. The uncertainty surrounding life in general however has not affected the level and excitement of football. In the Championship, there is still plenty to play for. Any side from 12th upwards has a chance of making the play-offs. One of those sides is Derby County. The rams were one of the form sides pre-lockdown, and have continued that with three wins out of three going into the eagerly anticipated East Midlands Derby.

Reading, their opponents in Derby’s first game back at Pride Park, are one of the few sides with seemingly nothing to play for. Languishing in 16th, they are more than likely safe from the drop and unlikely to make a push for play-off (barring any dramatic twists and turns).

This tactical analysis will analyse in detail how the fixture between the two sides played out and ultimately resulted in a 2-1 for Derby. It will use analysis to uncover tactics used by Derby and Reading, as both sides looked to gain an advantage over each other on the pitch.

Line-ups

First, the tactical analysis will take a look at the line-ups from both sides, and consider briefly the tactics that Derby and Reading would have tried to start the game with.

Derby lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and one which manager Phillip Cocu has rarely deviated from this season. January signing Wayne Rooney sits at the base of midfield and looks to dictate play with his wide range of passing. The youthful Max Bird often plays beside him and will cover extra ground to compensate for Rooney. The front 4 play extremely narrow and width is often provided by the full-backs. With that being said, the full-backs rarely venture past the half-way line. The offensive phase is left to the front 4 whilst the full-backs offer protection and defensive stability.

Reading started the game in a 4-1-4-1, with slight variations in comparison to Derby. The full-backs for Reading would push higher, leaving the centre-backs slightly exposed in the event of a counter-attack. The wide men also provided greater width, as they look to attack in wide areas as opposed to overloading centrally.

The tactical analysis will now consider some of the key tactics from the game, and they assisted in winning/losing the match.

The position of Rooney in possession

One thing that was noticeable from the start and throughout the game was the position of Wayne Rooney. Although he started the game in central midfield, he would often drop back into a right centre-back position to receive the ball. This is not an uncommon tactic, especially for sides who have players who can switch the ball in an instant. A perfect example would be Jordan Henderson of Liverpool, who performs the same role for his side when he operates as the deepest midfielder.

EFL Championship: Derby v Reading- Tactical analysis tactics
Rooney assisting build-up for Derby

The sole purpose of these tactics is to assist in the build-up and deep progression. From this area of the pitch, Rooney can receive the ball relatively unchallenged. In contrast, if he were to receive the ball in the central area of the pitch, he would not be offended the time or space to dictate play. From this position, Rooney is able to do one or two things to help Derby progress up the pitch.

Firstly, a diagonal switch of play is the preferred option from this movement. As Rooney is operating in a wider area, it forces the opposition to readjust and move across. This, in turn, creates space on the opposite flank. A quick switch of play can release the opposite full-back into space which can be attacked. A ball over

Secondly, the ball can be played into midfield easier. Rooney’s positioning forces the reading midfield reshuffle to ensure everyone is covered. This reshuffling, coupled with Derby’s rotation (which the tactical analysis will consider shortly) allows for space to be created centrally. Rooney’s excellent range of passing means he can fizz a pass in behind Readings midfield. As a result, Derby can turn and run at the Reading back 4 with their attackers.

Rotation of Sibley and Martin

The analysis will now consider the rotation of Derby in central areas, particularly Chris Martin and Louie Sibley. At the start of the game, Sibley started as the ‘10’, whilst Chris Martin played as the number 9. However, in various points throughout the game, they would switch and rotate. This is to say, when Martin went short, Sibley went in behind, and visa versa.

EFL Championship: Derby v Reading- Tactical analysis tactics
Martin and Sibley rotating positions v Reading

There were a few reasons why Derby used these tactics. Firstly, Martins style of play means he likes to come short and receive the ball. As a result, the opposing can usually push higher up the pitch and squeeze the play. This makes it considerably easier for the opposition to compress and win the ball back, and harder for Derby to get in behind. The introduction of Sibley and his runs in behind caused problems for the Reading backline. It meant that they had to drop off and afford Martin space in the gap, or risk being caught out in behind with a darting run from Sibley. 

Another reason for Derby using these tactics, as analysis has previously mentioned, is to help with build-up play. The analysis previously touched on Rooney’s positioning and his role in the deep progression. The second part to that is the rotation in central areas. Sibley and Martin making juxtaposing movements meant Martin was afforded space in the midfield when coming deep. This gave Rooney a viable option to play the ball into midfield. From this position, Martin is able to receive the ball in space and be able to run directly at the Reading back 4.

Derby’s lack of width

An area where Derby had a few problems, and one the tactical analysis touched upon, was their lack of width. Derbys front 4 played extremely close to each other and very narrow. Whilst this helped with interplay in central areas, it did cause a few problems once Reading had figured out how to defend against it. The tactical analysis will now use analysis to show how Reading used this to their advantage.

Because Derby’s wide men (Tom Lawrence and Martyn Waghorn) play very narrow, they usually lack natural width. Reading were quickly able to spot this and use this to their advantage. Whenever either of the wingers went short to receive the ball, they were instantly followed by the full-backs. This was key in the defensive phase of play for Reading. It restricted Derby’s build-up as they weren’t allowed to turn, having to go backwards or losing the ball.

EFL Championship: Derby v Reading- Tactical analysis tactics
Richards follows Waghorn into the central area

As the analysis previously mentioned, Derby full-backs rarely ventured forward. However, at the start of the game, it was something they were during frequently to provide width. By the full-backs pressing Derby’s wingers, they were on occasion able to win the ball and spring a counterattack. The space vacated by the Derby full-backs was wide and could have been easily exploited. Cocu realised this and made the decision to withdraw his full-backs to nullify a serious threat posed by Reading. He did have to sacrifice his width as a result, but in hindsight, it was a good decision having collected all 3 points.

Conclusion

Derby v Reading was a fascinating tactical battle and one which Cocu reigned supreme. Derby was able to get in behind, stretching the game and forcing Reading to run towards their own goal. Smart movement from Sibley and Martin facilitated this, and when the ball in behind was not an option, they were happy to play through the thirds. Martins good hold up play and link-up with his fellow forwards allowed for Derby to be unpredictable going forward. 

The impact of Rooney can not be underestimated. The former Manchester United forward has been a revelation. His role at Derby is one of a dictator, and his array of passing is a vital tool in the way they play. Through switching play, passes in behind or breaking the lines, he helps Derby get into attacking areas of the pitch from deeper positions. 

Reading were able to have some joy on the counter-attack. The full-backs were aggressive against the wingers and won the ball back in midfield on several occasions. Had they been slightly more clinical at 0-0, it could have been a different game.