How Reading have gone from near-relegation to early promotion contenders under Paul Ince – scout report
Last season was a long nightmare for Reading, who started with a six-point deduction that initially affected them in the league table. However, the worrying sights didn’t wait to come. The ‘Biscuitmen’ were defeated eight times in their first 15 games of the season, drawing one and winning six, conceding 25 goals, almost two per game, and scoring 20. Perhaps offensively, things weren’t that bad, having talented players such as Lucas Joao, Yakou Meité, Ovie Ejaria or John Swift, but the team was sitting in the 16th position.
Things started to get worse week by week, and as the first round ended, the signs were even worse. Reading was in 21st place, they sacked two managers and Paul Ince was brought on to try and save a historic English team from relegation. However, things weren’t as good as a fairy tale could tell. They only won five, drew five as well and lost 13 matches in the second round. If it wasn’t for the 12-point deduction Derby also suffered at the start of the campaign, Reading would have been relegated, but they managed to stay up with two massive comebacks in matchweeks 42 and 43, turning a 1-0 to a 1-2 in the 90+5 minute and a 1-4 to 4-4 in the 90+2 with Tom McIntyre being the saviour.
A season to forget was over, and a new one was opening in the next months, so Reading stayed with Paul Ince and signed several players on free transfers and on-loan that include Paul’s son Thomas Ince, Nesta Guinness-Walker from Wimbledon and loanees Mamadou Loum from UEFA Champions League side Porto, Jeff Hendrick from Newcastle United or Tyrese Fornah from Nottingham Forest that have become a big part of the squad.
Reading has started the season in a new way, with new faces and fresh air. They currently sit eighth in the league table, winning eight matches, drawing one, and losing seven, registering 25 points, only one behind a playoff spot. A three-defeat streak leave them out of the playoffs spot at this moment, however, since matchweek 5 to 14, they have stayed in the top six, being first for one week.
So, the main question is: how Paul Ince has rediscovered this team and made an incredible and shocking overall comeback in the way they play and mentally believe in the purpose? After 16 matches being played, let’s take a look at the tactics deployed by Paul Ince. This tactical analysis piece will be a team scout report of English Championship side Reading FC early into the 2022/23 campaign.
Reading used to play normally inside a 3-5-2 that changes its shape to a 5-3-2 in the defensive phase. Paul Ince likes the players in the front three to be very mobile, especially in the right wing with Yakou Meité and Thomas Ince, considering the technical quality they have to appear in different zones of the pitch. However, players like former Chelsea defender Abdul Rahman, Nesta Guiness-Walker, Tyrese Fornah or Junior Hoilett have been vital in the wing-backs role and are often offering deep and wide threat.
Also, the combination of experienced players like Jeff Hendrick and younger ones like Mamadou Loum have formed a big combination of skills and compactness in midfield.
In the following Pizza Viz we can see how Reading likes to play football under Paul Ince. As other teams in the league like to play in a possession-based style with lots of passes and talented players that bring quality and magic with long retentions of the ball, Ince counters with a low block and a very direct style that looks to harm rivals in big spaces and in the defensive transitions, attracting almost all the team to their own third.
As with every idea in football, it could be risky to get many players in their own area. However, Reading has found a way to be more compact and protected in comparison to last season, shielding results until the last minute of play and becoming a really tough side to beat at home.
Lastly. in this ‘team profile’ section, we display a passing network of Reading from their massive 3-1 victory against Huddersfield Town at home, a 3-1-4-2 structure in the build-up phase of the game, where the centre-backs and the pivot constantly are making passes between them to attract the first line of pressure, to then release long-balls to their fast attacking players. Although, direct play from the floor is also executed with excellent players like Thomas Ince (’10’) that has fit incredibly well in Reading’s tactics which will also be looked at in this analysis.
Low block conduct
Reading likes to be a very pragmatic side that relies on a rigid and narrow low block, forcing rivals to get their 10 players to their own third, stressing them out because of not finding the right and progressive option between the lines but also having highly aggressive behaviours from their wing-backs to mark tight the opposition’s wide receivers. A low block couldn’t be rigid and solid if the roles aren’t as clear as they have been early into Reading’s campaign.
As this picture below shows, Reading likes to sit deep against high-possession sides in a 5-2-3, that is often changing depending on the side. If Thomas Ince (number ’10’) joins the midfield to form a 5-3-2 or stays as right-winger closing down higher, it remains as a 5-2-3. This is to have the most technical player in an elevated zone start attacking transitions, looking for through passes between the last line of defenders. His excellent ball-controls in carries also enter into the argument of why he doesn’t join completely the midfielders.
Here we can see what we pointed out before when the strong side is the right one, Thomas Ince then commits himself to join the midfield line, where he also supports his full-back with coverings and turning 2v1 situations to a 2v2 where opponents have to then change sides constantly. This only keeps annoying the opposition, which is often playing sideways passes that have no dangerous effect against Reading.
Another common movement in their defensive shape is the jumps of some players off their lines to make things slower for opponents. If they always stay so deep, opponents would have things easier to set up in the final third, where things can happen if they keep trying. Although, this also allows Reading to make one of their pressing traps, the pass between the lines and the anticipations of the left-centre-back, who’s always trying to block the free man.
This pressing trap that we are commenting on is a very coordinated and synergic one that Reading has been working on lately. Still, a very simple movement but well-taken that three elements have to work hard for this to get done.
After the pass is played to wide areas, full-backs are very aggressive to go and tackle players to win the ball back. As Reading overload central areas with their narrow shape, wing-backs need to be precautious with passes that are played to the wings. So these three movements are repeatedly seen, mostly on the left-hand side of the pitch. The left centre-back goes off to cover the free-man, in this case, the right-attacking-midfielder of Swansea. The defensive midfielder Mamadou Loum tracks back to cover his position at the back-five and the wing-back jumps aggressively to mark the rival tightly.
This can create many options to counterattack. The left-wingback can recover the ball and then release it to his teammate, or the pass can be made very bad where the left-centre-back and his anticipations enter the pressing trap to clear it out and make a transition if the right players are in position.
One of the biggest and most vital performances in this system has been the compact shape the double-pivot has brought to the team. Mamadou Loum has adapted perfectly as a ‘6’ and Jeff Hendrick has been the Porto-loanee’s exact and needed teammate to exchange positions at times and cover each other when one leaves their zones. Both have been massive with their defensive output, blocking the central lanes with coordinated and organised moves.
However, they have been lacking sharp set-ups in defensive set-pieces, where they have conceded high-scoring chances and also goals, as well as a shot-stopping goalkeeper that can save them in tough moments of the games. Joe Lumley has been underperforming at the start of the season with -5.34 prevented goals in total this season, being the second-worst player in this aspect. Long-shots have also been an issue that Reading has to start looking to fix as they’ve been losing games where they generate the most chances.
When defending the box, Reading again performs the left-centre-back anticipations automatism, where he suffocates the cross-sender and Mamadou Loum covers him inside the box. We can also see how the weak-side full-back enters the box, scanning several times the player who’s coming at his back.
Direct attacking output
As you may think, Reading defend very low on the pitch to then release long balls to connect with wide players or strikers making the run between the centre-backs. However, it is not as easy and simple as playing a long pass to simply score. This is where Tom Ince starts to prove his amazing role under his dad’s tactics. With the number ’10’ at his back, he represents it very well with his movements along the pitch stepping in central, wide and half-spaces. This last one is where the magic happens.
Normally placed between the lines, Tom Ince and Reading like to be very direct. At the moment the centre-backs have connected with the 30-year-old attacking midfielder, he likes to attract pressure and release the ball to the wing or to frontmen if they are free to run and make the pass. He has a high level of scanning so he knows when the next pass is going to be taken.
In this picture, we can see that Ince receives the ball in the half-spaces. Immediately after he sits there, he plays the ball to his full-back who carries the ball high on the pitch to connect with the winger making the run at the weak side of the ball. With all this being executed, the centre-forward stays through the middle waiting for the switch and then the cut-back cross inside the box, that was going to happen and Meité score the 0-1 in this match.
The Data Viz below shows us how important Ince has been for Reading. He’s the set-piece specialist where Reading has also been scoring goals, taking advantage of the isolated situations that can turn a match completely, However, in the graphic we can see how long balls through the middle are a constant thing inside Tom’s role, generating 2.91 xA, and delivering passes that have ended in shots from various zones.
As well as we take a look at what Ince has provided with his excellent footwork and technical quality, Yakou Meité has also played a big part for Reading’s attacking threat with his moves from outside to inside when playing as a winger or a wide-centre-forward, but as well playing in the role of a pure ‘9’, offering great moves that can be shown below with even underperforming stats, considering the high goalscoring chances he receives from his teammates, normally 1v1’s against goalkeepers or cut-back crosses.
Reading has also a common automatism that allows two players to be released in the attacking transitions. Normally, Paul Ince’s team convert defence to attack in seconds, so attacking organised shapes are not seen frequently, only if they’re forced to be more dominant in possession.
This image can show exactly what we’re talking about an automatism to release to the player in the counterattack, to then execute a very simple way to score goals as the back-pass. On this occasion, Reading were playing against Bristol last weekend. They were defending in a low block after a set-piece, which have all the opposition very close to their goal.
The ball is clear and Jeff Hendrick makes the run. He sees recent signing Shane Long making a beautiful run between two players and the delivery from Hendrick is perfect. Long receives the ball and immediately sees Carroll arriving at the box as he was making the run before. He crosses it and the charismatic number ‘2’ finds the net for a late 2-0 result.
Once again, this situation was repeated, not in the exact same way, but with the same principles against Swansea City in their 2-3 defeat at home. Thomas Ince has come to the midfield to clear the ball, it was kicked out with a purpose. Swansea have all their players inside Reading’s own third, this allows Yakou Meité to make a run in a very lonely path where he finds Harry Darling to fight in a 1v1 duel. He wins the ball and Thomas Ince arrives with an incredible run to finish an incredibly well-taken attacking transition.
Finally, when Reading tries to be more organised and calm with the ball at their feet, they have several rotations that, when they are perfectly applied, create spaces in a very fluid way. Lucas Joao, the number ‘9’ experimented striker is one of the more key players in the calm build-ups as he has an amazing associative profile to come out of his zone, drag players and play great through-passes after his turns.
In this final example, we see the left-centre-back Tom McIntyre carrying the ball, where rotations had already happened here. Mamadou Loum pins as a pivot, giving the balance and most easy passing option in the central area. Lucas Joao has dropped out of his zone, Jeff Hendrick at his left has taken the half-spaces and Thomas Ince in a more advanced position that is not located in the image is taking Joao’s spot if a through pass is made between the lines so he can run to get 1v1 against the goalkeeper.
Reading has show a pragmatic, effective, disciplined and organised structure that inside has many automatisms and movements that define a direct and rigid team in both phases of the game. Paul Ince has turned a team from an almost-relegated side to one that is playing massively for the top spots with nice shapes and the exact player profiles to execute his own idea and philosophy inside the pitch. With only 15 games played in the league, they surely will still be winning if the compactness continues and injuries don’t appear as they don’t have the largest squad.