Can Middlesbrough get the better of Paunović's Reading?
Match Preview: Everything you need to know about Boro's next opponents Reading
There is a sense of relief on Teesside after Middlesbrough managed to halt the sides poor run of form against Huddersfield Town thanks to individual brilliance from Duncan Watmore and a converted penalty from Ashley Fletcher. Yet the North-East based side will be hoping that this can be the start of a good run of from and the work towards pushing the side up the league will begin against formidable Reading.
Neil Warnock will aim to grab the positivity from the previous game by the reigns as they face a side that currently sits in 5th place, yet this may be the best time to play against the playoff contenders.
Reading's Season So Far:
All but one of the teams in the playoff positions have played 30 games presenting a great opportunity to compare how Reading is doing in relation to its closest competitors. They currently sit in 5th position and are within reaching distance of 4th placed Watford as 3 points separate the two London sides. Meanwhile Bournemouth would favour their chances to overtake the Royals as just 2 points separate the sides creating a situation where Reading could move up to 4th or drop to 6th depending on how they fair in the upcoming games.
The former Biscuitmen also have the lowest goal difference in the play off positions meaning that they are liable to drop positions if other sides draw level with them and so they will have extra motivation to maintain a points gap between themselves, Bournemouth and the pack chasing the playoff positions.
While Brentford are currently the highest goal-scorers in the league by a considerable margin, Reading are joint second which clearly indicates the sides strengths are in the attacking third of the pitch, which comes as no surprise with Lucas João finding the net an impressive 17 times so far this season. On the other hand, the side has the worst defensive record in the playoffs and they have conceded 3 more goals than Middlesbrough showing that they are not unbeatable by any means.
Reading's Recent Form:
Veljko Paunovic’s side has been going through a minor rough patch of late as they have earned an average of 1.4 points in their last 5 games a notable drop off from their seasons average of 1.7 indicating that Reading may well be vulnerable at the moment.
While Reading have won two games during this stretch they have occurred at the beginning and end of the period, as they managed an impressive 3-1 win over Bournemouth on 29th January and a 2-0 win over Bristol City last Tuesday. While beating Bournemouth should be considered a warning about what the side is capable of, their form between these two games should give Middlesbrough some hope. The side fell to two defeats against Brentford and Millwall. The former may well be expected and while Millwall are seen as a difficult opponent to play against Reading’s credentials meant that they would have been favourites going into that game. Finally they drew against Stoke City, a result that will be of most interest to Middlesbrough due to the similarity between the two sides situations coming into this game and so giving the team in red and white hope.
Interestingly, Reading has maintained its offensive prowess over this period of games as they scored in all but one game. However the defence let them down on two occasions and so the Royals conceded 6 goals over this period, 5 of which came in the games that they lost in. If Middlesbrough can find a way past the Reading defence then they may well have a good chance of succeeding.
Top Goalscorer: Lucas João (17)
Most Assists: Michael Olise (9)
Most Yellow Cards: Omar Richards (6)
Most Red Cards: N/A
One to Watch: Lucas João
Reading has found themselves in the playoff positions due to their effective attack and Lucas João has been the epitome of this success having scored 17 goals and laid another 5 off for his team mates. Yet the player had never been particularly prolific before he arrived at Reading and so the club and the way the team plays has to take some credit for his prolific form this season.
He started his career in Portugal with Nacional where he was directly involved in 18 goals in 57 appearances between 2012 and 2015. The 2012/2013 season was spent on a stunted loan to Mirandela where he only made a single appearance. João left Nacional in 2015 to join Sheffield Wednesday for a £2.5m fee. During his four years at the club the former Portuguese Under-20 International made 127 appearances finding the net 29 times and setting up 13 more. Yet he did spend one of these seasons on loan to Blackburn Rovers where he made 13 appearances, scored 3 goals and got an assist. Finally a fee of £4.86m was agreed between Sheffield Wednesday and Reading and he moved to his new club at the start of the 2019/2020 season and he hasn’t looked back since scoring 26 goals and making 9 assists in 44 games. This form, that has seen him score a goal once every 1.6 games, has caused a spike in his value and so it is likely that the Owls will make a profit on the forward should he move away from the club in the near future.
The Lisbon born forward is comfortable with his back to goal and will try to pivot create shooting chances, meaning that he subverts the expectation that he is striker is less dangerous when facing away from the goal. He is willing to take on shots from inside and outside of the box with the Portuguese player scoring some impressive goals during his career. Yet his biggest strength comes from his physicality as he won’t shirk a physical battle with a defender and instead back himself to get the better of defenders in these situations. Meanwhile he isn’t the fastest forward and so he will try to avoid dribbling unless he has broken past the defensive line. Instead he will take two or three touches on the ball to try and create a shooting opportunity; failing that he will move the ball on to another attacker. The player also has impressive shooting accuracy, often finding the bottom corners of the goal when in the box and finding the top corners when outside the white markings. Finally he does offer a serious aerial threat and so Middlesbrough may wish to man-mark the striker with someone with a similar aerial presence.
So how can Middlesbrough get the better of him? They could try to stifle the player so he struggles to get a shot away. There are a number of advantages to attempting this as the man-marking system leans into this plan and his pattern before taking a shot means that defenders are aware of how many touches the player will take before looking to move the ball on elsewhere. Finally João is very one footed and he may take the occasional touch with his left foot but he does not feel comfortable having an attempt on goal on that side and so forcing him onto his weaker left foot could help to subdue the player. Alternatively, the defence could back itself to compete physically and prevent the player from turning and/or using his physicality to create openings in the defence.
Manager: Veljko Paunović
Most Middlesbrough fans will be unaware of Reading’s current manager beyond the impressive job that he has done at the Royals since he became manager on 29th August as the coach spent the majority of his playing career in Continental Europe.
The Royals manager was well travelled during a playing career that saw him make over 350 professional appearances in Serbia, Spain, Germany, Russia and USA. The forward minded player started his career at Serbia’s Partizan where he made 13 appearances between 1994-1995 and then he moved to Altético Madrid. He made 87 appearances for the Real Madrid rivals scoring 15 goals. Yet the majority of his time at the club saw him travelling across Spain on loan joining Marbella (1995-1996), Mallorca (1998-1999, 2001-2002), Oviedo (2001), Tenerife (2002-2003), Hannover (2005) as well as two years playing for Atletico’s B team where he scored a goal every 10 games. Finally the Yugoslavian left Altético on a free for two years stability at Getafe (2005-2007). He then had short periods at a number of clubs including Rubin Kazan (2007), Almeria (2008), Partizan (2008) and Philadelphia Union (2011 [he had a career break between his stint at Partizan and Philadelphia Union). After 17 appearances and 3 goals for Philadelphia Union he decided to hang up his boots and turn to coaching.
A period of 3 years in the Serbian FA followed as he took charge of the Nation’s youth teams: Serbia Under-18’s (2012-2014), Serbia Under-19’s (2013-2014), Serbia Under-20’s (2014-2015). His time with the Serbian FA gained the interest of MLS side Chicago Fire who hired him in 2015 and he remained at the club until 2019. Finally moving to Reading in 2020 where he has managed to lead the side into the Championship playoffs.