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Assessing Reading's chances of play-off glory

05 May 2017
By Hob Nob Anyone?

Reading are finishing their league campaign in good form, with six wins in eight, but whether their closing matches provide the right preparation for their play-off fixtures is more debatable.

Used to possession play

Reading's play for much of the season, especially against the bottom six teams they have faced in their run-in, has been expansive. They have spaced out their centre-backs, pushed their full-backs up, played in their own half to invite pressure from the opposition and then moved through the resulting gaps. The physical presence of Yann Kermorgant, Reading's 17-goal marksman, gives them the chance to play balls over the midfield and then resume their patient probing further up the pitch.

That approach has served them well this season, but it has also left them prone to capitulations on the road. In 11 away games at top half opposition, they have lost by three or more goals on six occasions and shipped seven in their worst display of the campaign at Norwich last month.

Conscious of this, manager Jaap Stam hinted on BBC Radio Berkshire that in the play-offs, he will change his open approach to accommodate the opposition. While continuing to beat the lesser sides might seem like a morale-boosting way to enter this competition, it has not given the Dutchman a chance to dry run a more pragmatic system.

Key figures at the back

Success therefore, is likely to hinge on the performances of Ali Al-Habsi, who was recently voted Player of the Season. The Omani goalkeeper has kept 10 clean sheets in 23 games at the Majedski Stadium including four against top seven opposition, conceding twice there only to Brighton, Aston Villa and Brentford. Though more exposed on the road, he put in a man-of-the-match display at Sheffield Wednesday to aid a 2-0 win at a crucial time.

A close contender for Al-Habsi's award has been Liam Moore, who impressed at this level with Leicester City. Whilst proving a competent defender given the right protection, Moore also combines a high pass completion ratio of 86% with the capacity to switch play effectively.

Moore though will hope to be helped by the return of key defensive performers from injury. Joey Van Den Berg excels in a defensive midfield role due to his strength in tackles, of which he makes 2.2 per game, more than any player in the team. Fellow absentee Paul McShane is a little more restrained but instead adds intelligence and leadership qualities, with both 31-year-olds hoping to return for the first leg.

McCleary's injury

Further up the pitch, there are also fitness concerns surrounding Garath McCleary. The ex-Forest man assisted Kermorgant's sixth minute winner in the 1-0 victory over Wigan, where he was one of the brighter first half performers, but limbered off just before the break. McCleary signed a new long-term contract in January, but a lingering groin injury has hampered his form over the last month and Stam has suggested he needs surgery this summer, meaning he may struggle to influence Reading in the play-offs.

That could be a huge blow, given that the 29-year-old has made more dribbles per game (1.4), played more key passes (two) and made more assists (nine) than any other player at the club. His likely absence may be partly why at the time of writing (02nd May), Reading are as big as 9/2 odds to win promotion with Betway Sports, such is their reliance on the winger's form. In a possession-based side, it is important to have players who change the direction of play by being brave on the ball and moving quickly in tight areas.

With McCleary either missing or limited to substitute appearances, who will provide those qualities? There may be increased responsibility on Roy Beerens to step up a level. The summer signing from Hertha Berlin has grabbed six goals, four against Reading's three play-off competitors including a brace in December's 2-1 home win over Wednesday. In other games however, most recently Saturday's uninspiring performance against Wigan, Beerens has been anonymous.

Grabban the chance

Equally, there could be opportunities for Lewis Grabban, whose second half introduction instigated a second half turnaround in last month's 2-1 win over Rotherham. The following week at Villa Park, Grabban partnered two-goal man Joseph Mendes in a 3-1 victory, the duo successfully leading attacks in front of a disciplined midfield.

That compact 3-5-2, with a little less possession but quick balls into the forwards, may be the team's best approach. It may be particularly useful in the semi-final first leg, with the team in need of a different plan of action away to strong opposition. Any tweaks to the current setup however, there is little time to exercise.

Against the odds

The bookies consider the Berkshire outfit as the least fancied team out of the four contenders, despite them having more points than Fulham, Wednesday and Huddersfield. To defy the odds, to bring Wembley glory to the Royals and to end the club's four-year top flight exile, Stam must replace McCleary and the players must respond quickly to different tactical demands.

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