Reading 1-2 Aston Villa: McDermott's Tactical Shortcomings Will Doom Royals
With both teams in lowly English Premier League positions, a three-point haul for either faction would severely boost survival hopes and confidence. As it happens, Villa won the game 2-1.
The Midlands outfit moved clear of the relegation zone, stand three points off 14th-placed Sunderland and lay 12th in the form table.
The Royals, however, are level with bottom-boys Queens Park Rangers and sit 19th only on goals scored.
Brian McDermott and Paul Lambert, the two managers tasked with saving their respective sides from relegation, have taken two very different approaches to proceedings this week.
Lambert has repeatedly stated his side face a succession of cup finals, underlining the importance of each and every game and suggesting a target number of points.
McDermott, meanwhile, spent the week preceding this game vehemently denying it was a "six-pointer" and suggesting phrases such as "must-win" don't mean anything.
Considering the aforementioned respective positions of the two clubs—and the now-four-point gap—McDermott seems very much in the wrong.
But whether that was the correct philosophy to take before the biggest match of the Royals' season is irrelevant, because it was the manager's tactics and team selection that doomed his side at the Madejski Stadium.
Despite the 4-4-2 plainly not working at the start of the season, and the subsequent switch to 4-5-1 significantly improving results, McDermott bowed to home pressure and went for it.
Pavel Pogrebnyak's red card in the home defeat against Wigan Athletic left the Reading boss with no target man. Not feeling comfortable using Adam Le Fondre, Nick Blackman or Noel Hunt up front on their own, he went for a two-man partnership.
Deploying two strikers meant sacrificing a man in midfield, and Lambert's 4-3-3 allowed Villa to dominate the middle of the pitch and enjoy a three versus two overload.
Yacouba Sylla, Ashley Westwood and Barry Bannan enjoyed time on the ball and played a patient game in an attempt to draw Reading out and leave holes.
Critically, this meant that whenever Reading built some momentum, Westwood and co. would simply pass it around for a few minutes and take the sting out of the Royals' attack.
Villa's second goal was picture-perfect, making fans reminisce about that goal by Argentina in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. It was a product of time and space on the ball, as neither Hope Akpan or Mikele Leigertwood were able to break rank and chase down the man in possession.
It looked easy, and that's because Reading made it easy.
The Royals carried a threat in the wide areas, and Matthew Lowton had a rare bad game. Both full-backs were slow to meet their markers and allowed dangerous crosses in—had Brad Guzan not had yet another excellent game it could have been very different.
But the home side were never able to sustain periods of pressure on Villa, and that's a product of the tactical mismatch in midfield. Neither side dominated the end-to-end encounter, but Villa held onto the ball when it mattered the most.
Westwood completed 64 passes, Sylla completed 42. Were any of them penetrative? not particularly, and the charts show the passes were made to control rather than to carve open.
Perfect game from Lambert, the polar opposite from McDermott.
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