League leaders Reading were comfortably defeated against Stoke City in Saturday’s early Championship kick-off. Michael O’Neill’s side beat the Royals 3-0 at the Madejski Stadium, with strikes coming courtesy of Tyrese Campbell, Steven Fletcher and Jacob Brown. The tactical analysis below covers the game.
It was a change in formation for Veljko Paunović’s side, with the Serbian opting to go with a 3-4-1-2 system against the Potters. Brazilian goalkeeper Rafael started between the sticks, with a back three made up of Everton loanee Lewis Gibson, Michael Morrison and Andy Yiadom in front of him. Both Omar Richards and Tomás Esteves played as wing-backs, the 18-year-old making his fifth league start of the season. Reading’s midfield three contained Josh Laurent, Andy Rinomhota and Alfa Semedo, with the Bissau-Guinean playing slightly more forwards. Lucas João and George Pușcaș were the strike partnership upfront.
In the away dugout, O’Neill once again used the 4-4-2 formation we saw in their away defeat to Watford in midweek. The same starting XI was also fielded in this match, with Angus Gunn once again selected to start. The back four was made up of Tommy Smith, Harry Souttar, Danny Batth and Morgan Fox, with ex-Chelsea man John Obi Mikel and Jordan Thompson just ahead, in the midfield. Tyrese Campbell and James McClean played on either wing, with Steven Fletcher and Nick Powell both selected upfront.
Reading’s attacking phases
At the start of the game, Reading would push on both wing-backs when going forwards to bolster their attack. Alfa Semedo would also play slightly ahead of his partners in midfield, giving the Royals five players to use in their attacking third.
Here we can see an example of these tactics being used within the first five minutes of the game. Wing-backs Richards and Esteves are pushed on to where they are nearly in the 18-yard box, along with both strikers and Semedo lurking just outside the area. This forces Stoke to defend with seven players behind the ball, constantly putting pressure on O’Neill’s side.
During this phase of play, Reading work the ball into the box and win the header, only for it to be saved by Angus Gunn. However, as the wing-backs have been told to push forwards, they can get into positions where, if any rebounds occur, they have space to either cross or shoot.
After failing to score, and conceding two goals in the first half, Reading were pushing hard for a way back into the game. Fifteen minutes into the second half, Paunović changed the system to a more familiar 4-2-3-1, substituting on Michael Olise and Sam Baldock for Esteves and Pușcaș.
With the change in formation, Reading’s tactics alter, and now through balls are attempted to break the lines of the opposition. Above, we can see an example of this happening, with Baldock on the right wing, making runs in behind the Stoke defence and creating opportunities for teammates to make these splitting passes.
Reading in transition
When progressing out from the back, Reading’s forward players would drop into the hole between Stoke’s defence and midfield to collect the ball. Finding these pockets of space allowed their more creative players to have time on the ball and make an effective pass.
Here, we see this happen, with Alfa Semedo dropping into the large midfield space highlighted. Rinomhota’s pass splits the Stoke midfield and finds the attacking midfielder, who now has time and space to find a teammate in a forward position.
When transitioning from attack to defence, Reading pressed the opposition high up the pitch using their middle centre-back. During this phase, both wing-backs would track back and tuck in, allowing their defence to somewhat maintain its structure. Above, we see both Richards and Esteves track back, while Michael Morrison presses the advancing Stoke attacker. The Potters are now unable to progress into Reading’s half, and play is forced back towards the Stoke defenders.
Reading’s defensive setup
Above, we can see the way Reading set up when defending. When on the back foot, the Royals would spread their back three across the edge of the penalty area, while keeping the wing-backs pushed up slightly higher. Midfielders Rinomhota and Laurent (highlighted) have more defensive duties compared to Semedo, and therefore would also drop in and press attackers in the centre of the park.
However, this defensive organisation may come under scrutiny, especially when looking at Stoke’s second goal. The analysis shows that, due to the stretched back three, Steven Fletcher is easily able to find space across the backline. The ball flicked from Tommy Smith finds the Scot without any contention from Reading’s defenders, and the striker scores from the resulting one-on-one.
Stoke City going forwards
In attack, the Potters would use their 4-4-2 formation to get five or six players forwards, depending on the situation. Having previously mentioned Fletcher, it is important to note that the target man was the main focus of Stoke’s attacks and balls into the box. The Scotsman was on the end of 15 passing combinations in total, as well as being involved in eight aerial duels throughout the game (the second-highest among all Stoke players).
Throughout the game at the Madejski, Stoke City attempted 38 crosses in total, compared to Reading’s 13. Only four of these crosses were successful, but Stoke made the most of the chances when the ball did find a teammate. Above, we see how the Potters organised themselves in the box when whipping a cross in. Right-back Smith overlaps around Tyrese Campbell, who in turn travels into the penalty area. The ball is aimed towards Fletcher, who had the aerial ability to beat the Reading centre-backs. Fellow striker Nick Powell hovers around the six-yard box, ready to pounce on any loose ball.
When not crossing balls into the box, Stoke used passing combinations between their strikers and central midfielders to create opportunities to score. Here, we see Campbell (who moved upfront) move centrally with the ball, before then playing a pass to Fletcher. Once that pass is made, he makes a run towards a gap in Reading’s defence, while Fletcher lays the ball off to midfielder Thompson. This run from Campbell creates a passing opportunity for the Northern Irish midfielder, who may now choose to find the winger with a through ball. This is one example of many of these passing sequences throughout the game. However, in this instance, the striker is tracked, and so the ball keeps moving across the pitch.
Stoke City in transition
When fostering attacks during Saturday’s game, Stoke would rarely play out from the back. Instead, they would play long balls towards Fletcher. The Scotsman was again the target to pick out, due to his skill in the air. When challenging for balls, the striker would always have support around him – players who could easily get on the end of any flick on and make chances from there.
Here, we can see how Stoke organise themselves when playing long balls, and what players Fletcher has in support when challenging in these aerial duels. Right-back Smith has pushed on past the halfway line, and so Fletcher can choose to head it back down to him. The option he goes with though is to use the momentum of the ball and flick it on towards Tyrese Campbell, who is now playing as a striker after Nick Powell’s substitution for Tashan Oakley-Boothe. From here, the striker can progress on with the ball and continue the attack from there.
After losing the ball in Reading’s half, Stoke City’s strikers would sit very deep, even passing over the halfway line in some instances. Doing this compacts the midfield areas that Reading look to play into once winning the ball, as well as creating space for themselves when allowed to counter. Above, we see Royals right-back Andy Yiadom about to receive the ball, and, as he is in the area in which Stoke City players are instructed to press within, winger McClean sprints to shut him down. Along with the defensive support from Tyrese Campbell, the two Stoke players win the ball back and hit Reading with a counter-attack. This chance ultimately ends with the English forward hitting the post.
Stoke City’s defensive structure
When under attack from Reading, the Potters made sure to get nearly all eleven players behind the ball. This was especially the case in the second half, as Reading had changed formation to a more attacking 4-2-3-1 in an attempt to score.
Above, we can see how Stoke City’s players were organised during the last five minutes of the game. As Reading’s attack starts on the left side of the pitch, Stoke’s players move in a way that suffocates the Royals towards that touchline. This is done to reduce the space they have whilst on the ball, as well as preventing any passes directed forwards. The backline is also sat quite high outside the 18-yard box, which prevents Reading from gaining ground and reaching the edge of the area.
To conclude, it’s quite hard to decide which side deserved to win. At the end of 90 minutes, Reading dominated in stats, finishing with nearly 70% possession and a total of 15 shots. The Royals had more shots on target, more corners, and created better chances to score, but never managed to put the ball in the back of the net. On the other hand, Stoke had 10 shots but only three of them were on target – resulting in the three goals they scored. On paper, it looks like Reading should have comfortably beaten O’Neill’s side, but the Potters still managed to finish with a clean sheet away from home. From Reading’s point of view, they may feel they did more than enough to win the game, but Stoke could also argue their defensive display was enough to come away with all three points.