Match Preview: Stoke City
A comprehensive look at Paul Ince's Reading in preparation for their clash with Middlesbrough in Berkshire.
Middlesbrough has struggled to break their winless duct at the start of the season, and they are set to kick off the fifth game without adding a W to their 2022/23 season record. However, it has not been for want of trying. Chris Wilder's side has put in several impressive performances against notable opponents, including WBA and QPR. But they started the season with a thin squad, and a few lapses in concentration defensively have inhibited them from taking all three points from any game so far this season. Despite their solid start to the season, Wilder will see their upcoming clash with Reading as an opportunity to break their winless run.
On the other side of the technical area, Paul Ince is at the helm of a Reading side that has started the season as one of the favourites for relegation. Many respectable pundits have pointed to their poor season last time out and their thin squad as reasons they will come short of Championship survival. However, Paul Ince has some talented players at his disposal, not least his son, Tom Ince, so it would be unwise to dismiss them. Any illusion to them being easy opponents to turn over was shattered by Reading's convincing 3-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers last time out. Nonetheless, it has been a tumultuous couple of seasons for the Royals, who will hope to build into security following their survival last season.
The club's volatile recent history bled into the summer transfer window with Paul Ince and Mark Bowen desperately trying to form a competitive squad.
A substantial twelve players have left Reading this summer. These outgoings include several players integral to their survival last time. John Swift's eleven goals and thirteen assists have departed for WBA, while the sturdy Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent left for Cardiff and Stoke City, respectively.
While a few of these departures will be considered severe losses, not least John Swift, Reading has also quickly removed those that failed to make the desired impact at the club. For example, former AC Milan and Standard Liege playmaker Alen Halilovic joined with great promise, but after racking up just two goals and two assists across two seasons, they decided it was best to part ways. While fringe player Marc McNulty was also moved on, having failed to establish himself in the side since his arrival in 2017, joining other failed transfers, including Felipe Araruna and Terell Thomas. However, most alarmingly, despite moving 12 players on, Reading saw none of their £19.35m market value, with each outgoing leaving on a free. A predicament that certainly wouldn't have helped their financial records.
The lack of incoming finances forced Reading to recruit free agents and loan players solely. Nonetheless, they have brought in nine fresh faces, with some exciting prospects among them.
The most prominent of these signings is Nesta Guinness-Walker. The former AFC Wimbledon left-back joins the club with glowing reports of his performances in League Two. Whether he can make the jump up remains to be seen, but he should get ample opportunity to impress in a thin Reading squad.
However, the most exciting of Readings summer recruits comes in the shape of Mamadou Loum. The Senegalese international arrives on loan from Portugal giants Porto. If they could get him ticking in the Championship, then it could prove to be a masterstroke by the club. Alternatively, he could struggle to make the step into a more physical league and prove to be largely ineffective.
Paul Ince has also called upon his son, Tom Ince, the talented flanker who has had a spotty career, exceeding at some clubs and struggling at others. However, their father-son relationship could help bring the best out of the elusive talent. Ince will be expected to support fellow incomer, Shane Long. The Irish poacher brings pedigree to a limited Reading squad. However, at 35 years old, there are questions over whether his body will allow him to apply himself competitively and consistently at this level.
Paul Ince has also offered Reading as a destination for players to revitalise their reputations, not least the reputation of Boro goalkeeper Joe Lumley. The shot-stopper struggled in the second half of the season, and he was ultimately dropped from the first XI. Yet, his previous seasons have shown that he can perform at this level. Paul Ince will hope that Lumley can find his pre-Boro form as the clubs' Championship future could depend on his performances between the sticks.
John Swift to WBA (free)
Tom Ince from Stoke City (free)
Andy Rinomhota to Cardiff City (free)
Shane Long from Southhampton (free)
Josh Laurent to Stoke City (free)
Sam Hutchinson from Sheffield Wednesday (free)
Alen Halilovic to HNK Rijeka (free)
Dean Bouzanis from Sutton United (free)
Brandon Barker to Omonia Nikosia (free)
Nesta Guinness-Walker from Wimbledon (free)
Michael Morrison to Portsmouth (free)
Jeff Hendricks from Newcastle United (loan)
Ethan Bristow to Tranmere Rovers (free)
Mamadou Loum from Porto (loan)
Luke Southwood to Cheltenham (free)
Joe Lumley from Middlesbrough (loan)
Orjan Nyland (free agent)
Tyrese Fornah from Nottingham Forest (loan)
Marc McNulty (free agent)
Felipe Araruna (free agent)
Terell Thomas (free agent)
Reading has been fighting fires and plugging gaps with their summer business. However, a number of their incomings are touch and go. They could either thrive and bring Reading to a safe finish this season or crumble, and the side will drop into League One. These signings are a risk, but it was a risk that Reading was forced into following a difficult couple of seasons. So far, Reading has outperformed expectations. However, only time will tell if their recruits can withstand a whole season in the Championship.
Last Time Out:
Reading has had an inconsistent but positive start to the season, with the Royals racking up two wins and two defeats in the first four outings. Nevertheless, Reading's form at the beginning of the season places them in 9th position at this early stage. While it is too early to take the table seriously, it does provide some insight into their start to the season compared to other sides, not least Middlesbrough, whose continued search for a win has left them in 20th coming into the game at the Madjeski Stadium.
One of Reading's two early wins came about last time out as the Royals managed to pull off a shock result against Blackburn Rovers. This impressive result is only beefed up by the lofty 3-0 scoreline indicating that Reading had control over the game despite having a measly 36% possession. Everybody pulled their weight in this win too, but it was up to Hoilett, McIntyre and Joao to get the goals needed to keep all three points at the Madjeski Stadium.
Reading's positive result should be a shot across the bow for Middlesbrough. Paul Ince's side has shown in very recent terms that they can overturn opponents that are expected to be better than the Royals. If Middlesbrough does not bring the required intensity and focus to the game, they too may fall to a surprise result.
When Paul Ince arrived at Reading as an interim manager last season, he was tasked with keeping Reading in the Championship. This challenge would be no mean feat as the side had slipped down the league and into a precarious position. However, they survived by the skin of their teeth, and Paul Ince was rewarded with a permanent role at Reading.
Paul Ince has faced ridicule and mockery during his career, with OneFootball's Alex Mott ironically dubbing him a 'tactical genius' (https://onefootball.com/en/news/tactical-genius-paul-ince-doesnt-rate-solskjaers-united-tenure-24028240). Unsurprisingly, these comments continued following his appointment at Reading last season with some claiming that relegation was already on the cards following his appointment at the Madjeski Stadium. These commenters certainly had a point, though. Paul Ince's managerial track record is far from as impressive as he was as a midfielder. Across seven of his last eight managerial appointments, Ince has failed to break the much-important 1.5 ppg mark, indicating a substantial period of relative success under that manager. However, he did outdo this marker at MK Dons earning 2.11 points per game, enough to win the Dons promotion from League Two. However, the fact Ince has struggled to put together a similar run in the higher divisions may mean that he has yet to bridge that gap in quality. Whether he will prove the doubters wrong at Reading remains to be seen as he looks to keep the club in the Championship once more.
Tactically, Paul Ince is a reactionary style manager. He builds his teams and the system they play in with the opposition's strengths and weaknesses in mind. By managing his team this way, Paul Ince is going against the tactical grain with modern managers increasingly playing system-based football wherein the team's system takes priority over exploiting the opposition's strengths and weaknesses.
Nonetheless, this also makes Ince's sides unpredictable. So far this season, Ince has deployed two systems, a 5-4-1 (against Blackpool, Rotherham and Cardiff) and a 3-1-4-2 (against Blackburn). These systems share some similarities, from playing three centre-backs to clogging up the midfield with four or five players. However, in the former, Reading will be made up of two steady banks of defensive players when out of possession. In the latter, a defensive midfielder will screen the space between these two areas while only one player covers each of the wide spaces. There is also some continuity in Reading's overall style of play, with Paul Ince favouring a counterattacking football. The former MK Dons manager instructs his team to stand off defensively in a passive deep block encouraging the opposition onto them before using the pace in the side to instigate a counterattack.
Despite having a panicky summer window, Reading have also recruited players that suit this style of play. Loum and Lornah in central midfield feel comfortable on the break with the ball at their feet consistently racking up dribbles in each match to support the quick counterattack. While Guinness-Walker is also a good pacy dribbler from the wide defensive space. This gives Paul Ince diverse options to break on the counter allowing them to seize on opposition mistakes regardless of where they are made.
In the final third, Ince puts the onus on his son, Tom Ince, and fellow wideman Jeff Hendricks as he directs the attacks down the flanks where they will look to put crosses in to Shane Long whose movement in the box makes him a danger from these situations.
However, despite being unpredictable in their lineup, Reading are undeniably one-note in philosophy. Paul Ince's side have struggled in any game where they have had more possession than the opponent as his sides struggle to break down the opposition once they are set in their defensive system. This limitation has only been worsened by the exit of John Swift, the former advanced playmaker has left a gaping creative hole that Ince has yet to fill.
All the same, today's game could work in favour of Reading. The Royals will likely see less of the ball allowing them to maximise their counterattacking style against a Middlesbrough defence that has looked shaky at the start of the season.
It is rare to see a father-son dynamic in professional football. Zinedine and Luca Zidane are the most recent ones that currently come to mind, but Luca was not a key player for Real Madrid. While Tom Ince will be pivotal for the success or failure of Reading this season.
The traditional winger is part of a dying breed in professional football as wide attackers take on more roles in the inside flank and central areas. Nonetheless, a flanker that hugs to the touchline can still be a dangerous proposition in modern football especially against sides that are increasingly look to play with a single wide player.
Tom Ince will look to get on the ball in the wide areas to isolate the wingback 1-on-1 using his pace and trickery to get the better of the opponent before attempting a cross. His crosses can be particularly dangerous when flashing across the goalmouth but he will also look to pick out a head should it be the preferred option.
Tom Ince has had a career of fits and starts, succeeding and thriving at one club and then struggling to even break into the first team at others. Hopefully the parental guidance of his manager, Paul Ince, will help to play at his best and reignite a somewhat fledging career.
Tom Ince has made quick work of proving that he isn't at the club just because his father is the manager with a number of impressive early season displays. To date, Ince has made two direct goal contributions cross four games. If he continues in this form then he could have a stellar season dragging Reading to safety in the process.
For Paul Ince's counterattacking style to work, he will have to implement a very strong defensive unit at the Madjeski Stadium. Unfortunately, he has failed to succeed in these aim so far, with the side underperforming their xG (they have conceded six goals despite only facing an xG of 3.7). As with Middlesbrough (https://www.riversideobserver.com/post/3-things-we-learnt-from-boro-s-draw-with-stoke-city), Reading will have to fix their leaky defence if they wish to hit their targets this season.
Paul Ince's work on the defence will be heavily reliant on Tom McIntyre. The 23 year old has been a starlet in an otherwise less than impressive 2021/22 season. Despite not being the tallest centre back, McIntyre has more than held his own in the Championship. He is particularly strong in the tackle and his parrying means he can dictate the opposition without the ball. However, he is not bereft of mistakes and his relatively short stature makes him a potential target for target men when competing for a cross.
Overall, McIntyre is a very respectable centreback who may prove vital if Reading are to stand a chance of staying up. In the more recent future, Middlesbrough may find it hard to play their preferred style against the Scotsman which could make Reading a more difficult proposition.
Prediction: Reading 0-3 Middlesbrough
Reading will be forced to field their second choice goalkeeper against Middlesbrough today. A recruit from League Two, it will be asking a lot of him to make the step up and prevent the leagues top goalscorers from hitting the back of the net. If Wilder's side manage to score a goal or two early on then it would likely take the fight out of Reading. Alternatively, it would force them to be more proactive opening pace that Middlesbrough will only exploit.