Reading wing it against Man United

Posted by Richard Jolly

Reading 3-4 Manchester United

A strength can also be a weakness. As Reading made history by becoming the first team to score three times in the opening 23 minutes of a Premier League game against Manchester United, they illustrated the advantages of their tried-and-trusted tactics. When United came from behind to claim the three points, they discovered its disadvantage: it leaves them a man, if not two, short in the middle of midfield.

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If the scoreline was remarkable, so was Reading's system. They became the first team to start against United this season with both two strikers and two wingers. If it was novel for Sir Alex Ferguson's team, it was familiar for Brian McDermott's.

Reading's shape has been broadly similar for much of the past decade. The current side bears similarities to Steve Coppell's and Brian McDermott's approach has much in common with his predecessor's. The Royals play 4-4-2, going from back to front quickly and look to play off their strikers, who often work the channels. Perhaps it explains why Brendan Rodgers, who prefers a very different, passing-based game, failed at the Madejski Stadium.

After Reading were promoted, McDermott experimented with 4-5-1 before reverting to 4-4-2. The Royals' old formula gives a midfield with two very different departments. The pair in the middle, Jay Tabb and Mikele Leigertwood, are there to offer energy rather than creativity. The wingers often hugged the touchlines, making the pitch big and providing the supply line.

They did so successfully, to the extent that all three goals came from deliveries from the flanks (two from Nicky Shorey's corners, but because Reading play with width, they win more than most teams in the lower half of the division). The first goal was instructive for other reasons. Jobi McAnuff, who had played on the right against Aston Villa, was moved to the left and tormented Rafael da Silva to such an extent that he was substituted after half an hour.

When the Reading captain crossed, Jonny Evans' poor header redirected the ball to the other winger, Hal Robson-Kanu, who had cut infield and scored. With three goals crosses in the game (plus a wrongly disallowed one), a theme was that neither side's full-backs received enough support.

Another was Reading's delivery, whether in open play or from dead-ball situations. Set-pieces can be a great leveller between more and less talented teams. Reading used them astutely, crowding the six-yard box and exploiting Anders Lindegaard's uncertainty against crosses.

By fielding two wingers and two strikers, Reading were better positioned to push United back, force more corners and send in more crosses - an improbable 34, including those from set-pieces.

Anderson celebrates with Ashley Young after netting at Reading
GettyImagesManchester United's Anderson celebrates with Ashley Young after netting at Reading

But the downside of Reading's boldness was that, particularly with their wingers staying so wide, it left them outnumbered in midfield. That was a contributory factor in three of the goals they conceded. Anderson's (of which more later) was a case in point. So was Wayne Rooney's second, when he came infield, as he usually did when United had the ball, to take up a position just behind Robin van Persie.

The Dutchman's strike, meanwhile showed the merits of a two-tier midfield - Michael Carrick passing from the base, Rooney providing a flick from a more advanced position - to Reading's flat duo in the middle. While Adam le Fondre sometimes tracked Carrick, he was often afforded freedom.

When United had the lead and Anderson went off injured, they had a different midfield triangle. Rather than Carrick and Darren Fletcher behind Anderson, Carrick was left alone as the deeper man while substitute Phil Jones and Fletcher then had individual match-ups against Leigertwood and Tabb respectively. It suited United to have Carrick, their most accurate passer, as the spare man and as Reading needed to chase the game then, it was harder for them to get the ball back.

So United finished playing 4-1-4-1, albeit with none of the central trio venturing that far forward. They started with 4-2-3-1. The tweak was that Anderson played just behind the main striker in the role where Shinji Kagawa or Rooney have often been preferred; indeed it was the position the Englishman often adopted anyway, allowing United to overload with four against two in the centre of the pitch.

Anderson had been on the right of the midfield diamond against West Ham on Wednesday. Criticised for much of his time at Old Trafford for a lack of goals, the Brazilian illustrated what the bridge between midfield and attack ought to offer, first linking play - spreading the ball left for Ashley Young - and then accelerating into the box to collect the winger's return pass and drive in United's first goal.

When he went off, a by-product of both of United's first-half changes was they had more height when defending corners. Jones replaced Fletcher as Le Fondre's marker - the Reading striker had evaded the Scot for his side's second goal - with Fletcher moving to the edge of the six-yard box to try and head the near-post corner away while Chris Smalling, who took over from the smaller Rafael, was given the duty of marking Sean Morrison, the other set-piece scorer. United ended with a bigger team as well as a big win.

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