Veljko Paunović arrives on Teesside under severe pressure. His recent tactical adjustments have failed to turn around their current poor run of form. He will look towards the Middlesbrough fixture as another opportunity to turn it all around. But are the odds insurmountable? Can his philosophy win out?
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Reading finished last season in a promising 7th position. The Royals looked to be moving up in the Championship. Many were contemplating their chances of getting promoted when the new season rolled around. However, disaster struck Paunović's men when a transfer embargo and a 6-point deduction were imposed on the Royals, scuppering their promotion chances. The club's difficult predicament was worsened by a poor run of form that saw the side drop into a precarious position.
Paunović's position at the club is now looking far from secure. The fans are calling for a change to stave off a potential relegation and secure their Championship status. But Paunović is deflecting questions regarding his future despite a dramatic defeat to Fulham and a surprising loss to Kidderminster Harriers. The situation will come to a head for many when Royal's line up against Middlesbrough. Many fans believe that the former Serbian youth international coach needs a result against Boro to remain in place at Reading.
Paunović has remained steadfast to his philosophy, which is likely to stay against Middlesbrough despite the growing pressure on the former Atletico Madrid player while his tinkering remains persistent.
Paunović's persistence with his philosophy has offset the tactical turbulence in recent weeks. He brought his attacking mentality from playing as an attacker into his coaching style, focusing on the best ways to create opportunities rather than the best ways to stifle the opposition. Unfortunately, this offensive focus is mirrored in the club's failings as drastic defensive issues have quashed their respectable goal return. They have shipped 43 goals to date.
In transition, Paunović's sides play a direct style of football. In Thomas Holmes and Scott Dann, Paunović has two defenders who are comfortable playing long progressive passes into the attacking options. Meanwhile, Danny Drinkwater, Dele-Bashiru and Josh Laurent can play incisive passes to find players in dangerous positions. This plethora of long passers helps Paunović to progress the ball directly towards the attacking options. New recruit Andy Carroll is essential here as a target for these passes as Paunović aims to play these long balls into central areas. Playing direct is essentially a shortcut through the typical transition phases, allowing the side to progress forward without playing through an often-congested midfield zone. Paunović will frequently instruct his players to attack from the central sectors of the pitch, causing an overload in and around his target man.
Once the ball has been received in the final third, Paunović encourages his sides to play in a traditionally attractive manner. His talented attacking options are instructed to use crisp intelligent passing and on and off the ball movement to play through a defence caught on the hop from their direct style of transition.
This philosophy worked to a significant effect last season. Still, Reading has been caught out this season, and their defensive issues have been exposed repeatedly. Paunović will need to address these issues to remain in the job at Reading.
Analysing managers tactics frequently reveals a feature that remains constant despite their tactical changes. In Paunović, this is an attacking playmaker. Regardless of formation changes, this individual (or individuals), often John Swift, can be recognised. This player may have varying defensive responsibilities depending on the system and the players position within it. But, when the side is in possession, he has the freedom to find space. In this free-roaming role, he can drop deep, move out wide or run beyond the strikers resulting in him being an ever-present creative force. This advanced playmaker is the lynchpin of Reading's attack as he provides the main creative outlet for the Royals. If the opposition can suffocate him, it would prevent Reading from playing their usual game.
The ever-present advanced playmaker has provided the consistency needed in recent weeks as Paunović has turned to numerous formations to stop the rot. Reading started this period playing a 4-1-4-1. The advanced playmaker played as half of the double pivot in central midfield in this formation. In this role, he was expected to take up more defensive responsibility. Still, Paunović gave him a free role when the side was in possession.
Nonetheless, the advanced playmaker, in this case, John Swift, has his limitations defensively. To counteract this, Paunović partnered him with a more conservative and combative central midfielder. This formation held an initial timid promise following a draw with Nottingham Forest and a win over Swansea City. However, the limitations of Paunović's squad meant that it was not a sustainable success. Reading is lacking wide midfielders. This meant that these roles were occupied by either a fullback, Ejaria, or advanced wide playmakers. To get the best out of these individuals, Paunović instructed them to make runs into the central areas of the pitch.
Additionally, by instructing these players to cut inside, Paunović created a central overload preferable to his direct philosophy. Meanwhile, the fullbacks were required to overlap the wide midfielders to provide width. However, this left an opening on the flanks that the opposition could exploit. This weakness could have been counteracted if the midfield had a more defensive make-up. But, with the advanced playmaker and the lack of a specialised defensive midfielder to break up play, the side was vulnerable to opposition attacks. As a result, the side would average 0.3 points per game in this system, painting a bleaker picture.
Paunović tried to adjust for these frailties before facing West Brom, turning to a 3-4-2-1 formation. In this system, Paunović removed the singularly advanced playmaker replacing him with an extra centre back. Meanwhile, the wide playmakers were brought inside to make up the difference. Interestingly, this change meant that Paunović's Reading matched their tactical setup with Ismael's West Brom. As a result, Reading succeeded in stifling a strong WBA side to a single 62nd-minute goal from Robinson. The closeness on the scoreline was not mirrored in the statistics, though, with Ismael's opposing men finishing the game with 2.91 expected goals. However, this highlights Paunović's side's ability to outperform expectations defensively on this occasion. By making these changes, Paunović may have overcompensated for the side's weaknesses. Their solid defensive display was balanced by an uninspired offensive performance, with the side only attempting four shots.
Following these failed experiments, Paunović returned to a previously hugely successful formation at Reading: 4-2-3-1. This saw the return of the primary advanced playmaker with John Swift occupying the No. 10 role. At the same time, Paunović deployed a double screen in front of the defence to solve their defensive failings. Dele-Bashiru played in this defensive midfield screen. The midfielder typically plays further upfield but was brought back to facilitate a deep-lying playmaker role. Early signs following a return to the 4-2-3-1 were promising, with some hope that a solution had been found to their current predicament. A draw with Derby County, while not that impressive, saw the side lead the Rams for a large portion of the game before a late capitulation led to the sides sharing the spoils. However, any excitement would be revealed to be premature as a surprise defeat to Kidderminster Harriers, and the 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Fulham meant that their poor run of form only worsened following their return to the old formula. Following these recent failings, it wouldn't be surprising if Paunović revaluated his tactical setup before this weekend's fixture with Middlesbrough.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 3-1 Reading
There is no denying that Middlesbrough is the favourites coming into this fixture. The Teessiders go into this game almost the opposite form of their opponents. The Royals will be in their sights as potentially three points. However, it is crucial that Middlesbrough, and their fans, do not get complacent. Reading remains a dangerous team going forward, and there is quite a high likelihood that they endanger our goal at some point during the game. Nonetheless, Middlesbrough should have enough to deal with the threat, and they should have enough talent to score the goals needed to keep all three points at the Riverside.