CHELSEA'S MIDWEEK OPPONENT Reading drew 1-1 against Stoke City in their opening match of the season. The Royals bossed the possession for the majority of the game, but conceded a poor goal in the first half. They put pressure on Stoke from the wide areas and their effort finally paid off as the substitute winger Garath McCleary won a penalty from which they equalized very late in the game. Although playing at home against a physical and direct opponent like Stoke may not tell us much about how Reading will play away from home against Chelsea, there were some relevant lessons to be learned about the new promoted side from this 1-1 draw. Some opposition scout notes after the jump.
These days it is hard to find a team in the top leagues play pure 4-4-2. Most choose 4-2-3-1 which has a similar shape to 4-4-2 but allows for a creative attacking midfielder the space right behind the main striker. Some opt for 4-4-1-1, which again has similar form to 4-4-2 and is almost interchangeable with a 4-2-3-1. So it was rather refreshing to see Reading started (and played through out) against Stoke with a pure 4-4-2. The front men Le Fondre and Pogrebnyak stayed pretty high up the pitch in both attacking and defensive phases. They did drift to the wide position now and again but it was pretty infrequent.
The goalkeeper Federici's distributions were direct and aimed at his two forwards. When building the attack from the back, Reading circulated the ball through their two central midfielders -- Guthrie and Leigertwood -- and moved down the flanks to deliver crosses into the box. This approach was mostly unsuccessful and we will talk more about it later.
|Chart 1. Federici's distribution and Pogrebnyak's aerial duels|
As mentioned above, Reading keeper Federici tended to use long distributions toward Le Fondre and Pogrebnyak. This might work against other teams but not against Stoke. Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross is one of the best center-back pairing in the league when it comes to dealing with long balls, both in attack and defense. Pogrebnyak himself is a big lad but he couldn't compete with Stoke's center-backs. The Russian won only 2 out of the 18 aerial duels in this game. Le Fondre, meanwhile, had a better chance of getting on the end of direct balls from the back when he drifted to the wide left.
|Chart 2. Reading's crosses vs Stoke's clearances|
It was the same story with the crosses put in by Reading in this game. Stoke's defensive approach forced Reading to cross from a much deeper positions, and then successfully dealing with them as they came in. Reading attempted a total of 24 crosses and only 7 were successful. Stoke, on the other hand, made 32 successful clearances out of 43 (even though there are little differences between successful and failed clearance statistics as a defensive measure).
It may not have worked against Stoke, but this approach could very well threaten Chelsea. The Blues' defense, especially John Terry, did brilliantly against Wigan's crosses on Sunday, but Pogrebnyak and Le Fondre will be much harder to deal with than Di Santo in aerial battles.
|Chart 3. Passes by Leigertwood and Guthrie|
Leigertwood and Guthrie ran Reading's central midfield. They are both quick and dynamic midfielders who move up and down the middle of the pitch. Guthrie was a much better passer, in that he attempted longer and more direct passes. Leigertwood covered a lot of ground and did most of his work off the ball -- pressing, tracking and marking.
On the wings, McAnuff had a decent game on the right, but Robson-Kanu, on the left, was much quieter. Therefore, it was no surprise that McCleary would come on for Robson-Kanu with 20 or so minutes left in the game. The substitute took the right flank while McAnuff moved to the left. McCleary's introduction changed the game for the better for Reading. He combined well with Pogrebnyak and his trickery won the penalty in the dying minutes of the game.
Defensively, this shouldn't be anything that Chelsea's two banks of four couldn't deal with. As long as the wide players drop back to help out the fullbacks and the central players watch Leigertwood and Guthrie closely, I don't see Reading's midfield causing much problem to Chelsea.
|Chart 4. Passes Received by Walters and his player dashboard|
Reading were defensively strong in the Championship last season. They conceded the fewest goals (41) and kept the most clean sheets (20). But last Saturday, Stoke's attack troubled Reading defense in two ways. First is Stoke's direct approach -- crosses, long balls and long throw-ins into the box. In fact, the Stoke goal came after Reading failed to clear a long ball into the box from a rather deep position. This, however, does not indicate a specific weakness on Reading's part. Most teams in the league have problems dealing with Stoke's direct approach. Plus, Chelsea won't be this direct against Reading.
But Reading were also troubled by Stoke's Jonathan Walters, who played in the pocket of space behind the main striker Peter Crouch. With Etherington to his left and energetic Kightly to his right, Walters roamed between the Reading lines and was a constant threat. He was especially troublesome when he ran into the space in behind the Reading left-back Harte to combine with his right winger Kigntly.
This is very promising for Chelsea's attack that has the likes of Hazard and Mata operating in that role behind Torres. If Reading couldn't find a way to tighten their lines come Wednesday, they could be in a lot of trouble. Furthermore, it is bad news for Reading that Ramires is fit for this game. The Brazilian's energy and pace on the right flank will cause a lot of problems for Reading's defense.
I EXPECT CHELSEA to dominate this game and exploit Reading's weaknesses. However, the Blues will need to be wary of Pogrebnyak's physical presence centrally while dealing with their wingers movements down the flanks.