Stam pays price for post play off collapse - Interview
Thursday, 29th Mar 2018 09:05 by Clive Whittingham
Loads going on at Reading at the moment so we’ve gone for a bumper opposition profile with Simeon Pickup and Dave Harris from The Tilehurst End blog along with Jake Moore who we got off the Twitter.
Ding dong the witch is dead – presumably very little disagreement with the sacking of Stam? Where did it go wrong for him?
DH: Very difficult to put in a couple of paragraphs - in short he was unable to arrest a slide while sticking to his principles. The raw statistics only serve to back up the assessment borne from what I witnessed on the pitch, and paint a pretty desolate picture which indicated that, unless something drastically changed, the results and success last season was never going to be sustained. The matches are broadly similar in pattern - lots of possession and passing predominantly in benign areas (we only "lost" the possession battle on a dozen or so occasions I think), very few genuine chances created (our expected goals stat is very low), and a porous defence with goals conceded from all over the pitch (121 goals conceded in 84 league matches). The errors being made by individual players never abated (prime culprits Tyler Blackett and Tiago Ilori), the type of goals conceded were broadly similar (set pieces or being caught on the counter - see PNE and Brighton away last season). We have had a tendency to go more direct at times this season (almost unheard of last season) which yielded some short-term positive effect, but despite Stam continually tinkering with personnel and formation to find the winning formula his need to revert to type and complete inability to improve the style cost him.
On top of that, one of the biggest issues Stam had this season was his complete inability to keep fans onside. Supporters grew increasingly frustrated at the play-safe approach which was mind-numbingly boring at times. Possession-based football that English supporters like to see is generally intense, skilful, tricky play with risks taken in the final third of the pitch. It is a style of play that inevitably leads to the need to pass and move in tight spaces, particularly when the opposition drop deep, squeeze the spaces between the lines and attempt to stifle the attacking threat. If fans see a team intent on winning and taking risks in the right areas, they'll generally be frustrated at losing matches but will be broadly happy that the they are on the right path (see Brentford or Fulham for example). If fans see a safety first approach which, as I said above, lots of benign possession they'll end up bored, and when it starts to go wrong they'll depart in swathes. At the end of Stam's tenure the footfall was the worst we've had at second tier level at the Madejski. We were literally down to the bare bones of core support because the club and Stam had alienated so many with both the football, the lack of urgency in trying to do something about it, and Stam's forthright demeanour in post-match press conferences. For example, after the dismal 2-0 home defeat to Birmingham in January the point was immediately put to him by Tim Dellor (BBC Radio Berkshire) that the game could only have been considered appalling, to which he responded "well I disagree, but what do the fans expect?". He has also questioned the negativity pervading the stands and suggested those who are negative should stay away. Many of them did. I could go on for a whole essay about what was wrong in the end, but I'd hate to bore your readers before they've even managed to get to Q2!!
SP: Although Reading’s failings this season have been caused by a lot more than just Jaap Stam, ultimately the buck has to stop with the manager. Recruitment and injuries were both big factors, but the Dutchman’s tactical failings, combined with his inability to get the team organised and motivated, became painfully obvious in the last few months of his time in charge at the club. Despite our success last season, Stam didn’t really make Reading excel at anything other than keeping the ball. Under him the Royals were as un-entertaining as they have been in many years, and they never became solid defensively - striking for a former world class centre half.
JM: Yes, personally at this stage of things I wasn't aware of anyone still in support of Stam and I had been wanting change for months. From my perspective, it all went wrong for the Dutchman for two key reasons: poor recruitment in the summer and also the inability to change tactics/formations as and when needed.
How have Reading gone from play-off final to their current state? Assess the season for us…
DH: The fundamental difference to last season is that we were unbelievably clinical, to an almost unprecedented level. We took the lead in the majority of matches, in part thanks to a fairly high penalty count (which we almost always missed but stuck the rebound away) and went on to control from a winning position. We lost just two home games all season, the second best single season record we've had at the Madejski. Ultimately though, last season's success was a statistical anomaly. There was an air of positivity at the start of the season, a hope that after a season of bedding in and the most expensive transfer window we've ever encountered the standard of play would intensify and improve, but we sorely needed a genuine striker to replace Yann Kermorgant. The striker was sorely missing, and while there have been a couple of notable personal successes (Mo Barrow for example has been a constant thorn in opponents’ sides), the majority of the squad has reached a plateau in performance level. In this game, you need to constantly improve your individual performance and squad, but the general feeling in our heart of hearts was that we were never going to see the success of last season without a genuine improvement in quality on the pitch. Slightly paradoxical I suppose, but I think we were prepared to allow for a bit of a dip in league position provided there was an improvement in all-round game play. As it transpires, we've seen a drastic turnaround in league position to unacceptable proportions, and no real improvement.
SP: In 2016/17, we constantly got on the right side of fine margins and regularly edged games by one or two goals - this season, after the losses of key players Ali Al-Habsi (to Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia), Danny Williams (to Huddersfield of all teams!) and Yann Kermorgant (to injury) we consistently got on the wrong side of them. After some dodgy recruitment in the summer (asking Dave Edward to play pass and move football was never going to end well), we’ve failed to recreate a winning formula in the starting XI. That said, injuries have crippled us for much of the campaign, meaning we’ve often had to make do without a left back, advanced creative midfielder or striker - all crucial positions when you’re trying to play Dutch-style total football. Things got progressively worse, and our collective confidence was shot by February. We’ve won just one league match since early December, and it’s frankly a miracle that we’re not in the relegation zone. Thanks are in order for an awful bottom three whose ineptitude have spared our blushes.
JM: For a team who, previous to last summer's transfer window were seconds away from a return to the Premier League, we should've done a damn sight better when it came to bringing fresh faces in. A transfer that stands out for myself and many others under Stam is that of Sone Aluko from Fulham. He's definitely up there with one of the worst players I've seen in recent times at the club and apart from the game against us in the playoffs, I didn't think he was as good as people made him out to be.
As for his tactics, when he arrived nobody knew his style (including Reading fans) so every fixture nobody knew what to expect. Despite getting the results, our performances weren't much different from the current campaign. This season everybody had him figured and due to his reluctance to change things up, we've been punished. Having said that, the players deserve a lot of the stick and blame too.
What do you make of the Paul Clement appointment? How has it been received by the supporters?
DH: Personally, pleased to the extent that I think we'll see a change in results, but not massively enamoured as it is very much "more of the same" in playing style. They may have been unlikely to be able to prize them away from their respective clubs but my own choices were Nathan Jones or Dean Smith, both of whom seem to understand what it takes to play a possession game with flair and intensity and achieve genuine results. The rest of the support seem pleased however, so the air of hope and positivity has returned at least.
SP: Considering the awful situation we’re in, we weren’t going to get anyone better than Clement - although he’s still been very well-received by the supporters. In fact, in a poll we at The Tilehurst End ran after his appointment, 67% approved of the choice, with only 4% objecting to it. Personally, I’d say he ticks all the important boxes - stylistically he’s not too dissimilar to Stam (they both love to keep the ball), he has a recent record of successfully winning a relegation fight (with Swansea City last year), and has an optimistic yet down-to-earth manner that’s endearing to an apathetic fanbase.
JM: I'm fairly optimistic regarding Paul Clement. I feel he was unfairly sacked at Derby when they were fifth in the Championship and so has experience in this division. Also, he guided Swansea to safety when they were (I think) around 12 points adrift of safety. I think you've always got to keep your opinions and judgements clear with new managers as, despite previous records, they could still come good at your club, so I'm hoping that he'll bring the feel good factor back to Berkshire.
What does he need to change?
DH: Simple really - create more chances, score more goals, concede fewer chances and concede fewer goals. If we're better organised, more fluid and inventive in attack then we'll be ok and supporters will accept that. If we continue to be stifled however, supporters will inevitably be turned off again and the negativity will return. The thing to remember is it wasn't just Stam boring us, albeit his was the final straw after dangling a massive carrot last season. Other than some brief part-season spells in 2008 and 2010 we've had pretty uninspiring fare since pretty much the first PL relegation under Coppell, McDermott (twice), Adkins, Clarke and Stam.
SP: Simply put, he has to get the team organised and motivated. Stop us from conceding stupid goals, teach our back four how to defend set pieces, and give the attackers the confidence to find the net. They’re simple things, but they’ve been missing this season. As Clement himself said in his opening press conference, there’s enough quality in this team to compete at a much higher level of this division, so it’s a (hopefully not too complicated) matter of unlocking that potential.
JM: First of all, I'm happy for him to do his thing and hopefully keep us in the league. Then his first big job is to clear the deadwood and start to rebuild - albeit with backing from the owners. Stam was often known to play very defensively, whereas I've seen Clement seems to offer something different with a 4-3-3, so again, I'm happy to let him do his thing and see how it works out.
Player of the year candidates?
DH: Mo Barrow, Chris Gunter, Jon-Dadi Bodvarsson...could be any of those really but to be honest the squad has underperformed so horribly that I'm not sure any single player deserves it really.
SP: Modou Barrow - the Gambian came in from Swansea City in the summer and has delighted the fans with his rapid pace, confidence and goal-scoring ability. He’s consistently been one of our better players, and often manages to play well even when no-one else is. Otherwise, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson has been surprisingly good for a striker who managed just three goals in 42 for Wolves last season - he’s currently on ten goals in 30 after a slow start to the campaign that was dogged by injury. We’re depressingly low on other candidates.
JM: There are only two names I can think worthy of the award. Modou Barrow and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson. Barrow has been electric and offered our only real attacking threat - even during the latest spell of tough results. He's shown passion and commitment to the cause, and that's all us fans are asking for. Bodvarsson is my second choice. When he signed I'll admit because of his previous record at Wolves I wasn't too happy but like Mo (Barrow), he's shown energy and a willingness to work hard on the pitch and has scored important goals which is, of course, all you ask of a striker.
Weak links in the team?
DH: If they play, Tyler Blackett and Tiago Ilori. Terrible habits of switching off at critical moments. Watch the Derby highlights to witness a car crash performance from Ilori,and see any number of our 121 goals conceded to witness individual errors from Blackett. If not afforded adequate protection, for all his genuine talent Liam Kelly can all too often be bullied out of games as well.
SP: Intriguingly, in the first half of the season we were poor going forwards but pretty decent defensively (we didn’t concede more than three in a game until January), but that’s flipped in recent weeks. Eleven goals for us in our last nine games is respectable enough, but that’s been undercut by 20 strikes against, and we’ve not managed a league clean sheet since early January. Critically, the confidence isn’t there. When we get the first goal, we don’t have the resolve to hang on to a lead (see our last three league games for examples) - but equally, when we go behind, heads drop.
JM: Defensively on the whole we're just a shambles as of late. I'd tell you to expect to score against us but due to the managerial change I'd like to think Clement will change things up and make us look a bit sturdier across the back line.
What’s the current ownership/financial situation?
DH: We somewhat surprisingly revealed a profit for 16/17 which will ease the FFP burden going forward, but we were still under significant financial stress last season thanks to the scattergun approach under the Thais. Our Chinese owners have genuine wealth though, and will inevitably put that into infrastructure works to enable sustainability going forward. In the meantime, the huge loss made in 15/16 has been alleviated somewhat so next season will be under less pressure, subject to maintaining current divisional status of course.
SP: Financially, we’re pretty well-off after a takeover last May from Chinese siblings Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li - it meant we could afford our biggest summer transfer window outlay in the club’s history last year, spending a few million each on the likes of Leandro Bacuna, Vito Mannone and Sone Aluko. The takeover also gives us long-term hope (fingers crossed) after some unstable times behind-the-scenes at the club.
Back in 2012, long-term owner and local businessman Sir John Madejski achieved his long-term aim of selling the club to a billionaire - Russian Anton Zingarevich. A few years down the line, it turned out that ‘billionaire’ Anton was getting his money from his dad Boris, who eventually cut off the flow of cash. After a flirtation with administration, a Thai consortium saved the club and even pumped in some cash to help the playing squad, but they seemed to be keener on the lucrative land next to the stadium rather than the club itself.
Last May, they sold a majority share to the Dais - two of them left completely, whilst Narin Niruttinanon stayed. One of the departed duo (Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth) has since bought O****d United.
In the long-term, I’m pretty optimistic about the state of the club behind-the-scenes. The owners have appointed wise head and former Chelsea CEO Ron Gourlay as CEO, so we’ve got an experienced, knowledgeable guy to impose some stability going forwards. It was also him that chose to appoint Clement - they worked together at Stamford Bridge a few years ago.
JM: I'm still a bit unsure of our owners, however credit where it's due they gave Stam a license to spend in the window. They don't really show their faces very often but seemed very loyal to Stam for longer than expected which, in some cases, is very good. I'd like to see a bit more of them, but on the whole I can't complain and I shouldn't think other fans would either.
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