In Reading’s Championship-winning campaign last season, manager Brian McDermott played a 4-4-2 system in all but two of their 46 League matches. Yet already this season, the Royals manager has employed two very different central midfield formations in order to combat specific opposition. The summer addition of Danny Guthrie has given Reading a new creative influence in the middle of the park, and his effect is noticeable after just 180 minutes of Premier League football.
Reading’s first match saw them host Stoke City, and McDermott stuck to the formation which worked so well last season. Last year it was Mikele Leigertwood and Jem Karacan who held the fort in midfield, breaking up opposition attacks and spreading the ball out wide to the wingers in order to create chances. Karacan had not fully regained fitness after a broken ankle sustained in April, so Guthrie slid into the side naturally as his replacement. Leigertwood was the aerial defence against the obvious aerial threat of Stoke, whilst Guthrie was the more mobile terrier of the two, slotting into Karacan’s role almost seamlessly.
In terms of distribution, however, Guthrie was the midfielder entrusted with spreading play and creating chances for teammates. The ex-Newcastle man attempted far more passes in the opposition half than his counterpart, and double the amount of long passes in order to try and release wingers and strikers – it was his pass into space which released McCleary to win Reading’s game-tying penalty. Guthrie also attempted four crosses to Leigertwood’s zero, giving hints that he would be the creative influence in the Royals’ midfield.
Against Chelsea, it was clear that a 4-4-2 system would be overrun by the Blues’ superior technical quality. McDermott brought back Karacan and played a 4-5-1, with Guthrie sitting slightly in front of the two “old guard” as an advanced playmaker. Their tackling statistics showed that all three were getting in the action – it was not simply Guthrie playing a “trequartista” role, but instead chasing players higher up the pitch and pressuring the ball in Chelsea’s half, whilst Karacan and Leigertwood reverted to their familiar roles of absorbing pressure in their own half.
It was, again, going forward where the roles of the midfielders started to differ. Whilst Leigertwood and Karacan generally broke up Chelsea attacks, sat back and watched Reading’s own attacks unfold, Guthrie was a key cog in the Royals’ attacking movements. He made more passes in the opposition half than the other two combined, and 5x their combined final-third passes. He also popped up with the free-kick goal which gave Reading the lead for 40 minutes (though Petr Cech will surely not drop another clanger like that this season).
To conclude, Reading’s system from last season hasn’t seen a massive shift in dynamic, only a tweak to play to the strengths of the central midfielders available. Danny Guthrie is far more creative than either Leigertwood or Karacan, which allows the Royals an extra dimension in attack which was unavailable to them last year, when the system was “get it out wide and let the wingers do the work”. Brian McDermott has also shown that he is happy to divert from his trusty 4-4-2 to suit the opposition, and most Royals fans would agree that both results (1-1 vs. Stoke, 2-4 vs. Chelsea) could so easily have been different had mistakes from goalkeepers and linesmen not occurred.
With Karacan nearing full fitness again, McDermott has a real dilemma as to who to pick if he decides to return to a 2-man central midfield. Guthrie-Leigertwood might lack dynamism and energy, Leigertwood-Karacan is weak on creativity, whilst Karacan-Guthrie doesn’t seem physically imposing enough. Still, there are worse problems to have as a manager – McDermott will be happy that all three of his central midfielders have performed as expected so far in the Premier League.
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