Injuries and strange selections undermine Bowen's bright start - Interview
Wednesday, 25th Dec 2019 20:14 by Clive Whittingham
Mark Bowen hit the ground running as Reading manager, including an impressive performance at QPR in October, but has stuttered since amidst injuries to key players and weird team selections, according to Simeon Pickup from The Tilehurst End.
Five wins since Mark Bowen took over, what have you made of his impact so far?
He started off fantastically well with three wins out of his first four matches - the only outlier was the 2-2 at Loftus Road in his second game, although that was widely seen as a very good point gained rather than two dropped. Otherwise a gritty 1-0 late win in his first home match (against Preston North End) before seeing off Millwall and Luton Town relatively comfortably at the Mad Stad later on.
But, after the international break, things started to go wrong. We lost narrowly to Brentford and Leeds United (1-0 in both cases) and then started to pick up some critical injuries - John Swift and Ovie Ejaria were missing for a few weeks and took the bulk of our creativity with them to the treatment room, while marauding wingback Andy Yiadom is set to be on the sidelines until well into January.
Despite a bizarre late turnaround at Wigan Athletic (George Puscas netting a seven-minute hat trick), the aggression and work rate of Bowen’s first few weeks vanished. Birmingham City beat us fairly comfortably at the Mad Stad, rock-bottom Barnsley should have done the same at Oakwell, and the less said about a 0-0 at Stoke City (no shots on target for either team) the better.
However, a morale-boosting 3-0 win over Derby County has put a spring in our step once more. It’s no coincidence that that game marked the return of Swift - he got an assist for Lucas Joao to make it 2-0.
League results so far…
What’s he changed? We were quite surprised how good Reading looked at Loftus Road but that was straight after he was appointed…
That game was pretty much the first proper sign of how he wanted Reading to play. In his first game against Preston he’d taken the 3-5-2 that Jose Gomes had used for part of the season, made a few tactical tweaks (like putting Ovie Ejaria higher up the pitch and bringing John Swift deeper), but most crucially got the team working much harder off the ball to frustrate the opposition. Evolution rather than revolution.
He hadn’t however taught the team how to attack, and that long-ball Preston performance was painful viewing for large spells. But he clearly worked on offensive play in the following days and, at Loftus Road, we knocked the ball around on the deck much more comfortably, particularly in using Ejaria and the wingbacks.
As I mentioned above, the loss of Ejaria and Swift left us sorely short on creativity, and Bowen started going 4-4-2 more and more often. First it came out for part of the second half at Wigan (working very well), then for the entire second half at home to Birmingham, and eventually it was deployed from the off against Stoke and Derby.
However, he didn’t seem sure on how exactly to make that 4-4-2 work. At Stoke for example he played Ejaria (a number ten) and Charlie Adam (the least mobile outfield player in the division) as narrow wingers, essentially making it a 4-2-2-2. Fast-forward to Derby and Adam came into the middle, Ejaria stayed out wide and the much pacier Yakou Meite went to the opposite flank. Bar a few problems that I’ll talk about under ‘weak links’ below, the system was fairly promising - of course with the proviso that Derby were down to 10 men for almost all of the game.
Have the fans taken to him? Saw some pretty forthright criticism of his team selection on Saturday prior to the win – but then that could just be Twitter…
His immediate impact meant all the questions and frustrations over his appointment were soon forgotten, although the post-international break downturn brought different questions to the fore. In particular his team selections and tactics have been criticised for being fairly scattergun. Going 4-4-2 for the entirety of the second half against Birmingham City for example made us far too open and helped Brum win the game, Reading’s return to playing out from the back (despite his apparent preference for direct football) resulted in a howler of a goal against Barnsley, and the aforementioned 4-4-2 with Adam out wide was just… odd.
That said, he’s still very much in the realm of ‘it doesn’t matter as long as he gets results’. The fans are fully aware that he’s new to management, will make mistakes, and has been working with one hand tied behind his back recently due to the absences of Ejaria, Swift, Matt Miazga, Yiadom, Sam Baldock and George Puscas to differing extents.
Team selection is easy when all your best players are fit and available, but when that’s not the case - and there aren’t clear alternatives for how to play - the manager needs some leeway room. Any overly forthright criticism is probably just the typical overreactions you get on Twitter.
Heads were turned by some big money deals late in the summer window, what’s the club’s FFP situation if (as seems likely) you’re still in this league next season?
Your guess is as good as mine. The club doesn’t talk publicly about its situation regarding Financial Fair Play, not even the chief executive talking to the local media, so anything I say here is more guesswork and estimations on my own part.
Although we did do some big-money deals in the summer, we didn’t actually spend that much money. Puscas and Joao will eventually cost us well past £12m, but those fees are spread across a few years, while Ejaria is essentially a permanent addition but his arrival’s been worked as a ‘loan with an obligation to purchase next summer’ to avoid us forking out in this year’s accounts.
Similarly, a certain K Joorabchian is reportedly influential in getting us players, such as the two loan deals we’ve agreed for Miazga from Chelsea this year.
It’s also helped that we sold off the stadium to our owners not that long ago, although that was presumably a one-shot cash injection that won’t bring us any more money. Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County are two others clubs to have done it aswell, and the practice both a) makes a mockery of the ‘profit and sustainability’ rules and b) winds up the Leeds United ownership, so all in all it’s a big win.
That said, the wage bill is still too damn high, so the process of cutting it is an ongoing process that probably won’t be sorted in the summer, let alone January. It turns out that signing pretty old players with little resale value to long lucrative contracts isn’t a good idea. I’m sure you can relate.
Ins: George Puskas, 23, CF, Inter, £7.2m >>> Lucas Joao, 25, CF, Sheff Wed, £4.8m >>> Rafael, 29, GK, Sampdoria, Free >>> Michael Morrison, 31, CB, Birmingham, Free >>> Charlie Adam 33, CM, Stoke, Free >>> Matt Miazga, 24, CB, Chelsea, Loan >>> João Virgínia, 19, GK, Everton, Loan >>> Pele, 27, DM, Monaco, Loan >>> Ovie Ejaria, 21, CM, Liverpool, Loan >>> Lucas Boye, 23, CF, Torino, Loan
Outs: Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, 27, CF, Millwall, £765k >>> Joey van den Berg, 33, CM, NEC Nijmegen, Free >>> Anssi Jaakkola, 32, GK, Bristol Rovers, Free >>> Andrija Novakovich, 23, CF, Frosinone (Italy), Free >>> Liam Kelly, 23, AM, Feyenoord, Free >>> Marc McNulty, CF, Sunderland, Loan >>> Adrian Popa 31, RW, FCSB (Romania), Loan >>> Jordan Holsgrove, 19, CM, Balearas (Spain), Loan >>> Tennai Watson 19, RB, Coventry, Loan >>> Sam Smith, 21, CF, Cambridge, Loan >>> Modou Barrow, 26, LW, Denizlispor (Turkey), Loan >>> George Legg, 23, GK, Released >>> Danzell Gravenberch, 25, CB, Top OSS (Netherlands), Free >>> Paul McShane, 33, CB, Rochdale, Free >>> John O’Shea, 38, CB, Retired >>> David Meyler, 30, CM, Retired >>> Callum Harriott, 25, LW, Released
Any January business planned/rumoured?
Absolutely no rumours whatsoever. Bowen had made it clear that Reading don’t plan to be that active in January - bar shipping out some fringe players to trim the wage bill, which seems to happen every transfer window now. At a push, we might bring a few players in depending on injuries, but I doubt it.
Stand out players and weak links in the side?
If fit, Swift is capable of running the show and unlocking your defence with some eye-of-the-needle passes, and you’ll need to triple mark Ejaria. They’ve both been some of our most important attacking players across the course of the entire season, although a few other positives have emerged recently: Adam dictated the play against Derby really well with long-range passing on Saturday, while Meite revelled in running at their left back for much of the second half. Joao is also in the goals at the moment and has scored three times in our last four.
There are plenty of weak links at the moment though, and the most pressing is our lack of mobility in the centre of the park. Adam’s passing range is excellent - he’s arguably one of the best in the division at it - but he can barely move, and Reading got cut open too often by ten-man Derby because of it. He also fell over when a Stoke player dribbled past him a few weeks ago which was as funny as it was defensively worrying.
At the back, Reading for some reason insist on playing out short despite having a goalkeeper (Rafael) and centre back (Morrison) who have little aptitude for doing it under pressure. Look up Barnsley’s goal at Oakwell for a succinct illustration of what happens when that goes badly wrong. If you press us high, particularly from goal kicks, you should get some joy.
And in the final third I don’t think we know how to get any proper width. We used to play with wingbacks, but the current fullbacks in our narrow 4-4-2 (Tyler Blackett and Chris Gunter) can’t take men on or beat them for pace, so we’re often left having to play through the middle. That’s not always a problem, but I wish we could stretch teams and get in behind more. Without orthodox wingers (Jose Gomes got rid of them in the summer because he didn’t want to use them), there’s no clear alternative.
Expectations for the rest of the season?
Gradual improvement, slowly pushing up the table, getting into the top half of the table and staying there. It’s likely to be a slog, especially if we keep having the stop-start form that’s dogged our season so far, but this squad is more than capable of closer to the top six than to the bottom three.
The Twitter @TheTilehurstEnd, @SimFromBucks, @loftforwords
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