Gylfi Sigurdsson – an endless affinity

Tonight Gylfi Sigurdsson’s Iceland face France in what is indubitably the Nordic nation’s most significant ever game. It is probably also the biggest game of the attacking midfielder’s career – after seamlessly overcoming England last Monday, the 26 year old is finally and deservedly achieving recognition on the international stage.

England fans who follow Reading supporters on Twitter will have no doubt seen honourable mentions to Mr Sigurdsson over the course of the tournament and possibly after England’s loss to Iceland. This may seem slightly surreal to the neutral, especially given that Sigurdsson only spent one season in the first team at the Madejski. So why is the Icelandic emblem so popular in Berkshire?

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it is more than just ‘he’s one of our own’. Sigurdsson has was signed by Reading in October 2005 and spent over three years in the academy, yet he symbolised something more than being just a homegrown talent. Granted, he does fall into the category of ‘academy graduate’ but that term was fairly redundant to Reading fans. The likes of Nathan Tyson, Jamie Ashdown and Simon Cox preceded Sigurdsson as academy graduates but never excited like the Icelandic did. With Sigurdsson, the Royals finally had a graduate who possessed talent in enough abundance to penetrate the first team for years, perhaps decades to come.

With goals like those featured in the above video, it may seem like a mystery as to why Gylfi didn’t come into the first XI sooner. However, there is some context to the delay in his rapid rise to the top at the Madejski. Reading had enjoyed the greatest successes of their history when Sigurdsson came over from Iceland. They were promoted to the Premier League for the first time ever in 2006, subsequently revelling in a stellar first season in the top flight before being relegated in 2007/08. Steve Coppell infamously only ever played younger players in the more trivial cup fixtures – in fact, the only young player to break through to Coppell’s record breaking teams in this three year period was Shane Long.

Sigurdsson made his debut in 2008/09 in the League Cup against Luton Town but failed to ascend to the starting eleven in the Championship that season. Coppell was still in charge and did blood young centre back Alex Pearce and the defensively minded Jem Karacan into his team, albeit infrequently. However there was no room for Sigurdsson who had Marek Matejovsky, Brynjar Gunnarsson and James Harper all ahead of him in the pecking order.

When Coppell did leave in May 2009, it signalled the end of an era. The likes of Glen Little, Kevin Doyle and Dave Kitson would finally end their tenures at the club, making way for the next batch under the perennially optimistic Brendan Rodgers. The Northern Irishman naively dreamed of Europe while allowing Hal Robson Kanu, Simon Church and Scott Davies to progress to the first team – a juxtaposition if ever there was one. The Icelandic midfielder scored his first Reading league goal in a loss to Peterborough in September 2009, but it wasn’t until Rodgers was (finally, thankfully) sacked in December 2009 that Sigurdsson really became a sweetheart of many Reading fans, essentially meaning that he was able to create such an affinity with Reading fans in just over half a season – a quite astounding feat.

This was in part due to Brian McDermott’s success as manager. The former chief scout converted Sigurdsson from a limited inverted wide-midfielder into a free and flair-filled central attacking midfielder, forming a bridge between Shane Long and the midfield in a 4-4-1-1 formation. It would be an understatement to say Sigurdsson flourished in this role – his new found freedom meant he developed rapidly, energizing a decaying Reading team which was languishing near the bottom of the Championship. Reading fans, after four years of success of some kind, were back to facing a dreary reality where little old Reading would inevitably stare down the table rather than look up it. The days of Doyle, Sidwell and Little, such exceptional players, seemed to be over until our Icelandic gem arrived on the scene. Sigurdsson had the drive of Sidwell, the finishing ability and goalscoring prowess of Doyle and the sublime ball control of the highly dexterous Little combined into one.

Sigurdsson’s rise was kickstarted by that penalty at Anfield, when he scored the equaiser in a 2-1 win over Liverpool. He was calmness personified as thousands of Reading fans trembled from the stands. It was the smoothest of spot kicks – a fragile, elegant stroke into the bottom corner which symbolised an intelligence and arrogance which had arguably been missing from Reading sides for the previous two years.

The FA Cup win against Liverpool revitalised Reading’s league form. The Royals would eventually finish ninth in the league after relegation looked a serious possibility and Sigurdsson finished with 21 goals in that campaign from 44 appearances, but his most memorable moments came in the FA Cup – fitting, given that originally, Sigurdsson could only get game time in Berkshire through cameo appearances in early season cup fixtures.

One particular moment was the late, late winner at home to Burnley in the FA Cup fourth round. Sigurdsson actually scuffed his effort into the corner but his endeavours were made even sweeter by the fact that Burnley had beaten Reading to a place in the Premier League in the previous season’s play offs. This too was an unthinkable accomplishment made possible only by the genius and determination of the attacking midfielder. His strike was scuffed, but by this point Reading fans would be right to suspect that this was part of Sigurdsson’s game – his ability to succesfully miscue a strike so well that it released an untapped euphoria was not merely coincidence. Legends are born through their ability to create special, unforgettable moments and Sigurdsson definitely had that gift.

Reading’s next opponents in the cup were West Bromwich Albion, a team second in the same league as Reading. The Royals took them to a replay at The Hawthorns and remarkably beat the Baggies 3-2. Sigurdsson (unsurprisingly) scored the winner in this game with a strike that I deem to be my favourite of his. He picked up the ball in extra time with the scores level at 2-2 a good thirty yards from goal. What followed was simply world class. Seamlessly and instantly, Sigurdsson would stroke the ball into the top corner of Scott Carson’s goal, producing a spectacular amount of curve and power and dip. Fundamentally, it was unlike any Reading goal I had previously seen. The team of 2005-2008 definitely had their share of sensational strikes – but this effort had an edge to it. It was a strike that dared Reading fans to dream again after such a downturn in results following 2008/2009, a goal that qualified Reading for the FA Cup Quarter finals for the first time in decades. It was another unforgettable moment.

Reading would ultimately lose the Quarter Final to Aston Villa but the result didn’t dilute the creation of an icon. Reading have since reached the quarter finals and the semi finals of the same competition in recent years and much of that is arguably owed to Sigurdsson’s drive and endeavour.

The Icelandic star would leave Reading at the beginning of the 2010/11 season but at the end of the summer transfer window, leaving time to create two more unforgettable moments with goals against Scunthorpe at home (a 25 yard screamer) and then away to Leicester (a beautiful chipped goal). His departure was heartbreaking and tough to digest for a lot of younger Reading fans. However Sigurdsson’s time in Reading’s first team showcased the fortunes of the club; success, however fleeting, would surely come around again with the right amount of flair, endeavour and skill.

Reading fans have an endless affinity with Gylfi Sigurdsson because we never got to see him peak – or fall – with us. Sigurdsson was ultimately a beacon of hope and expectation for many Reading fans. He represented the future, and still does to some extent. Reading have had their worst two finishes in the league for over a decade in the last two campaigns yet there is still a Sigurdsson-shaped hope an expectation that success is only around the corner, waiting to embrace Reading Football Club.

 

Why Chris Gunter should not be offered a new contract

Chris Gunter certainly has his supporters. Charles Watts’ public backing of the Welsh full back was tonight followed by the hashtag #giveguntsacontract, leading to Gunter tweeting the ‘thumbs up’ emoji, hinting that he may possibly have been offered a new deal.

But, in case he hasn’t, here’s why I think he should not be given a contract to extend his stay in Berkshire. 

Gunter is often referred to as ‘Mr Dependable’ on social media and in particular by The Tilehurst End. I think the only thing you can depend on Gunter for is to be the only fit senior right back in the squad, because his displays certainly wouldn’t merit a starting berth in any other competitive team. His performances are evidently regressing as his crossing has become poorer, his defending is weak and he constantly seems shot of confidence when in possession in his own half. The Gunter of the 2012/13 season preferred to play backwards and would often panic when closed down, and to be completely honest I haven’t seen much progress from that. Unless he’s playing with Garath McCleary in front of him, his attacking utility is quite futile. Given the variety of wingers Reading have this is evidently a problem.

While the above all seems like heavily biased opinion (admittedly I do have an ongoing fixation with the player) WhoScored.com states that Gunter is ranked as the 18th best Reading FC performer this season, behind the much maligned Michael Hector, Jordan Obita, Hal Robson Kanu and the recently departed Orlando Sa. 

Furthermore, incredibly ironically, WhoScored claim Gunter’s weaknesses include aerial duels and tackling, (he averages 1.1 per game) of all things. His strengths? Nothing of significance.

  

Chris Gunter is ranked as the 23rd best right back (with 10 or more appearances) in the whole of the Championship this season, with an average rating of 6.55, meaning only one right back in the league (Elliott Bennett) has a worse score. Another more damning statistic includes Gunter managing only 1.1 interceptions per game, the lowest of any senior Reading defender behind the oft-injured Anton Ferdinand. Gunter also ranks second lowest in the Reading back line for the number of clearances per game (2.3) only in front of understudy Andrew Taylor, and an average of 4.5 clearances behind captain Paul McShane. This sees Gunter ranking as the 10th, 12th and 6th best defensive player for tackles, interceptions and clearances per 90 respectively in the Reading squad this term, behind the likes of many offensive minded players.

Charles Watts’ liking of the Welsh right sided defender originates from him thinking he is  a ‘Strong, quick, superb athlete’. Dismissing the ‘strong’ allegation, I can’t argue with him being quick and athletic. Gunter probably has one of the best cardio-vascular endurance levels in the team. This has lent to him earning 2 assists this season, the joint 4th highest of the current Royals crop so far in 15/16, but his offensive stats still aren’t great. Watts rightly noted that Gunter ‘is well on his way to be his country’s most capped player and is wanted by PL teams.’ The former is certainly true (the latter I’m  genuinely unsure about)  and while he does seem to perform adequately for his country, this by no means he automatically plays just as well for his club. Furthermore, Wales, who play a 5-3-2 formation, play their only two recognised right backs (Gunter and Jazz Richards) in the same XI, meaning Gunter is naturally going to accumulate a fair amount of appearances over the last few years and in the near future.

Anyway, the main argument Gunter seems to benefit from from his Reading supporters is that he’s a passionate player. Yeah, he does give his all and his energy levels are tremendous and I’ve no doubt whatsoever he loves the club and the local community, but the underlying feeling for me is that Gunter has been synonymous with the clubs situation in the last few years. While both the club and the Welshman harbour plenty of ambition, drive and enthusiasm, the former in terms of his playing style and the latter in terms of their goal to obtain promotion, both were ultimately very error strewn, inept and incapable over the last few years and and essentially, neither has made much, if any, progress. 

Gunter’s time in Berkshire has hardly been successful (both individually and collectively) and I think it’s about time he moved on. His performances, in my opinion, don’t seem to be improving despite him reaching his supposed prime years (He’s 26 now) so maybe it would be mutually beneficial for both parties to part company. If he moves onto a new club and proves me wrong I will happily eat my words but for now, I can’t envisage a future where Gunter is an integral part of a successful Reading team.

The Da Vydra Code

A healthy group of effervescent, young players washed up on Reading’s shores around a week ago as Lady Sasima and Steve Clarke, having discarded the flotsam, aim to steer their blue and white ship in the right direction and sail towards the Premier League. Matej Vydra, Lucas Piazon and Ola John were added to an already strong squad which is now overloaded with a surplus of wide midfielders. Given that the Czech starlet Vydra is essentially guaranteed a starting spot what with Reading’s current inability to take advantage of the copious chances they create every match, Steve Clarke will, as already established across various social media outlets, have quite the selection dilemma bestowed upon him. Despite his tenure with the Royals still being in its infancy, the Scot has already illustrated his adaptability when it comes to juggling his squads. Hence, here are an array of formations that the Reading coach may try. Four left wingers vying for one starting spot? Easy as Pi(azon). Sorry.

442

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When West Brom finished 8th in the 2011/2012 season, Clarke was very much a 442 advocate. His front two rotated often; Shane Long, Romelu Lukaku and Peter Odemwingie gave the Baggies a hybrid of pace, power and creativity. West Brom’s high finish exemplified that 442 is not dead, or futile, in the Premier League, as some modern pundits may attest. Put simply, you need the right players for the right positions. Yes that sounds glaringly obvious but in essence, formulating a working 442 relies on hard working and energetic players who can cover ground well.

Therefore, it could be that less mobile players a la Norwood and Orlando Sa make way for players that can press with more efficiency. While Stephen Quinn’s Reading career so far has been relatively uninspiring, he has displayed a willingness to work hard for his team. Williams is the vivacious box to box centre midfielder that is essential to a 442 operating team, so it could be that the American and the Irish man get the nod in a 442 system. The defence takes care of itself for now as McShane and Ferdinand’s wealth of experience outweighs their lack of pace and mobility.

Up front, Vydra and Blackman may be the preferred options. Neither are lightning quick but both are undoubtedly more manoeuvrable than the Portuguese Sa. As Reading fans have seen already, Blackman is in fine form and dropping him now would be incontrovertibly harsh and arguably detrimental to all parties. Given that Vydra’s best seasons in football have come playing alongside Watford striker Troy Deeney, it could be worth Clarke’s while trying to replicate that partnership. Blackman isn’t anywhere Deeney’s level yet; the latter is stronger and more clinical, but, he is undoubtedly more of a similar player than Orlando Sa is. The wings are an interesting aspect in a 442 system. Steve Clarke’s West Brom side often featured old fashioned wingers flanking the pitch, namely Chris Brunt and James Morrison who would play on the side of their preferred foot in order to give the team width, something notably absent from Reading’s game so far this season. Garath McCleary is the only winger at the club who predominantly plays in that style, as Paolo Hurtado, Lucas Piazon and Ola John are all right footed wingers who prefer to cut in from the left. It could be the Peruvian’s ambidexterity that sees him complete the side though; having read reports on the relatively unknown South American, his left foot is allegedly as potent as his favoured right, meaning he can either take the full back down the line or cut inside.

433

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As Reading fans will be aware the 433 formation has been the first choice sytem of Steve Clarke so far this season. However, it would be fair to say this style was deployed out of necessity over choice, as Clarke has had to accommodate four worthy centre midfielders (including Tshibola) while only having one out and out striker to choose from, along with two players who most Reading fans still can’t decide whether they are better as a striker or a winger in Robson Kanu and Blackman.

Now, with another centre midfielder added through the signing of the Spaniard Fernandez and two more wingers in John and Piazon, along with Hurtado and McCleary returning from injury and Vydra all but cementing his spot in the starting line up, Clarke has more options than a Cadbury’s hot chocolate die hard.

The defence and the midfield picks itself in a 433. The triumvirate of Quinn, Williams and Norwood has so far been a near perfect collaboration, with Norwood excelling in the Pirlo-esque deep lying centre midfield role, which in turns allows Quinn and Williams to be more adventurous in possession and when pressing/defending.

The selection of the front three will be intriguing. Although I don’t really see Vydra as a lone striker, he will almost definitely start. Therefore in a 433 with Vydra as the number nine, the wingers would more than likely be inverted (i.e. they play on the wing opposite to their stronger foot) so that they can come inside and support Vydra through the centre, while also allowing Obita and Gunter to exploit the space in behind them that they leave behind. Therefore I would expect to see Ola John start on the left wing of a 433 as his scoring and assists record in Portugal, while unspectacular, is still reasonable. Blackman would most likely occupy the right being the best left footed winger/striker/entity at the club (forgive me, Hal). Although, as aforementioned, Hurtado is more than capable of striking a ball with his left. McCleary, too, has a perfectly able left peg as shown previously.

4321

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A variation of the 433 is the 4321 (yes, the Christmas tree). Clarke used this formation against Leeds United earlier in the season with Robson Kanu, Sa and Blackman essentially playing as a front three that interchanged consistently throughout the match. This system only survived 45 minutes as Clarke then switched to a 442, but with the addition of Vydra it would be interesting to see how a 4321 with the Czech on the left, Blackman on the right and Sa through the centre works. Vydra is quick enough to play a little further out wide and Sa would definitely benefit from having two strikers adjacent to him as his hold up play has been very promising thus far. It is quite a naïve and primitive idea to suggest more strikers equals more goals; if that were the case every teams would field 11 centre forwards. However, Reading find themselves near the top of table in terms of number of chances created and shots taken so having 3 players leading the line may prove profitable.

The Diamond formation

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The reader may have noticed that as of yet, I have not mentioned Piazon. The Brazilian is definitely the holder of many superlatives at the club and he may well be the most technically gifted player we have had since Gylfi Sigurdsson if many scout reports and inconveniently sensationalised YouTube compilations are to be treated as a real representation of his talent.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see where he is going to fit in unless he plays as a number 10. Personally, I cannot envisage Piazon as a left midfielder in the Championship; his tendency to drift inside whenever in possession won’t fix the width problem plaguing the Royals at the moment and is arguably more suited to the Premier League, as cutting inside allows the ball-holding team to flood the midfield. Natural number 10s like Juan Mata, Christian Eriksen and David Silva often find themselves on the wing and coming inside in order to assist the centre midfielders. If Reading can retain Piazon for the next year then they may have a real player on their hands.

Anyway, in a diamond formation, Piazon would spearhead the midfield with Quinn and Williams just slightly behind him. Oliver Norwood holding would allow the full backs to cover the wings while also allowing Quinn and Williams to drive on, with Piazon being given to licence move into the final third and thread passes through to two of Vydra, Blackman and Sa. Fundamentally, the diamond formation works well because the lack of wingers acts a trigger for the other team’s full backs to move into the free space ahead, leaving space in behind him. Consequently one of Piazon, Blackman or Vydra would occupy the free space behind the full back, stretching the other team. This system was executed to perfection for Swansea versus Manchester United in the Welsh side’s 2-1 win a fortnight ago and works best on the counter attack.

4231

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By this point in the article it may have become apparent that most of these formations are quite heavily linked and the changes between them are quite minimal. The 4231 formation is essentially a variant of the 442 and the 433 but is basically better for linking play between the defence and the midfield and the strikeforce.

It is easily the most common formation in the Premier League but is not as prevalent in the second tier. It tyically features a deep lying playmaker and a ball winner/ box to box midfielder as the pivot; Oliver Norwood and Danny Williams would fulfil these positions respectievly in a 4231 Reading side. The number 9 is usually a powerful and technically apt target man who can encompass all other players around him into the attack. Naturally, Orlando Sa would be best suited for this role. This excludes Matej Vydra, unless he plays as the number 10, dropping deeper to collect the ball from the midfield and to receive anything Sa knocks back to him.

Piazon and Fernandez, as well as Quinn could also occupy this role as they all have a better range of passing than Vydra, so it depends how Clarke wants to operate. If he starts Vydra as ten, he can comfortably move him up alongisde Sa to a 442 so there are two number nines if Reading are chasing the game. If he starts Piazon, Fernandez or Quinn and Reading are containing the oppositon, one of them could easily drop deeper in order to create something resembling a 433. The wingers in a 4231 are important too, but the personnel again depends on who plays at ten. If it’s Piazon et al, then inverted wingers would be more suited to aid Sa through the middle; if it’s Vydra, who will position himself higher up the pitch as a ten, then industrious, more conventional like McCleary and Hurtado wingers are better for this formation as there is one less man in midfield.

352

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The Shoreditch of the formation world, the 352 is a system that can seem pretentious; a formation that has a long, unkempt beard and a superiority complex to boot. And yet, it doesn’t seem a million miles from little old Reading. Given the (low) likelihood that the conservative and traditional Steve Clarke will deploy a formation without four defenders, I won’t spend long on this. The 352 is a formation that can be used to accommodate that young, talented Chelsea defender everyone seems to have forgotten about.

A base of Ferdinand – McShane – Hector may well be the strongest defensive line the Championship has seen for years. Despite having a deep and unmoving vendetta against Chris Gunter I think McCleary and Obita would be best suited for the wing back roles. The latter was primarily a left midfielder in his academy days and McCleary has manifested his defensive capabilities through the last three years, often covering for Gunter at right back.

My verdict:

Personally, I would like Steve Clarke to try a 4231 with Norwood and Williams as the pivot, and Vydra as the number 10, with John and Blackman flanking him and Orlando Sa up front as the target man.

Agree? Let me know your opinions and your XI in the comments or tweet me @oliverjsirrell / @ojs611

World Cup Predictions – Part One: Brazil To Win

 

 Welcome all to the first instalment of this five part series of predictions. The World Cup is just two days away now, with the hosts Brazil facing Croatia at 9pm UK time. Henceforth it seems like the predictions should get underway by looking at the favourites to win the greatest show on earth.

 The much heralded fact that a European nation has never won a World Cup in South America is an ominous omen for Europe’s elite. While stats and facts are often deemed irrelevant and futile because of football’s unpredictable nature, I think this one could remain intact.

 For me, Brazil and Argentina look the most likely to claim the golden globe. The suggestion that the former will reign victorious could be seen as a naïve and easy choice that some punter down the pub, who doesn’t delve into football’s many variables, would select because of their home advantage and previous successes. However, fuse together some other significant factors and the suggestion doesn’t appear so impulsive…

 Suggesting that Brazil’s triumph at the 2013 Confederation’s Cup guarantees victory is, of course, absolutely incorrect and smacks of folly. Brazil have won the last two Confederations tournaments prior to the previous summer’s and in the two World Cup’s that proceeded them, the yellow and blues failed to deliver. Ironically, Brazil went onto win the 2002 World Cup, as we all know, despite finishing in fourth place at the 2001 Confederations Cup.

 Instead, O Selecao’s conquest at last summer’s hugely enjoyable Confederation’s Cup served to highlight both the quality of Brazil’s team and the temporary demise of Spain. Fears surrounding Brazil’s lack of a renowned and prolific number nine were arguably quelled when Fred indicated to the world that his contribution was imperative for Brazil’s game. This was seen only three minutes into their opening match, when the curiously named striker expertly chested down a driven Marcelo  pass, so Neymar could volley superbly past the despairing Japanese goalkeeper.

 

 

 It truly was an exquisite, beautiful goal. While Fred may not be your typical, conventional Brazilian number nine, a la Pele or Ronaldo, he is ultimately the man who allows this beautiful football to occur. His inclusion means the likes of Neymar and Hulk can flourish.

 Fred is perfectly capable of leading Brazil’s line but the lack of strikers for cover is alarming. Fortunately for Big Phil Scolari, he certainly doesn’t have such selection headaches elsewhere on the pitch. Few other teams, hence my choice of Brazil for World Cup favourites, can boast such a plethora of defence and midfield options.

 Scolari’s back four is resolute, reliable and adventurous; 3 quarters of Brazil’s defence in Alves, Luiz and Silva could be part of PSG’s defence next season, but there cohesion and collaboration is already well tested. The latter two’s firm partnership is the reason why the oft precarious Luiz gets in ahead of Munich’s Dante, and the pace and width Alves and Marcelo supply are integral as it allows Neymar and Hulk to cut inside onto their stonger feet. Despite their attacking prowess ironically being the focal point of their game, Marcelo and Alves are still adequate defensively, their speed often compensating for any lapses.

 

 If the wing backs are bombarding the opposition high up the pitch the defensive midfielders provide reliable cover. Last summer’s Confederation’s saw Luis Gustavo and Paulinho form a formidable partnership in the middle. Add the likes of Ramires, Hernanes and Fernandinho and Brazil’s holding midfield options are arguably the best in the world. Football is dominated by 4231’s in the modern game so the role of the anchorman/ anchormen is vital. Brazil’s quality here may be of paramount importance in deciding who lifts the trophy.

 Finally, Big Phil’s World Cup experience obviously counts for something. As we know he guided Brazil to glory in 2002, and led Portugal to a very respectable fourth place in 2006. Since he took over from Menezes in 2012 Scolari has created a stable, well-functioning squad that desperately needed steadying after the rocky rides endured under Dunga and the aforementioned Menezes. His decisions to exclude highly performing players from across the globe, including Coutinho, Miranda, Filipe Luis, Lucas Moura and favourites from yesteryear Ronaldinho and Kaka indicate the ruthlessness of the moustached manager. Clearly he demands respect and expects exceptional quality and total commitment from the players he does select, which again may just be the key factor in deciding this year’s victor.

 My other favourites, admittedly behind Brazil, are their South American neighbours Argentina. While Brazilian’s

are content with Fred as their centre forward, Argentine’s salivate at the thought of their offensive strength. The quad-force of Di Maria behind Messi, Aguero and Higuain could be one of the most potent attacks world football has ever witnessed. The box to box energy of the Real Madrid man is hugely effective as Sabella’s Argentina play with a style more closely linked to Real Madrid than Di Maria’s compatriot, Lionel Messi’s club, Barcelona. With the pace these four possess counter attacks could be devastating. Higuain acts as the reference point of the strikeforce, with Messi and Aguero flanking him. The combination of these two should be emphatic as they have been playing together since they were around 12 years old. This system also works for Higuain, as he collected 17 goals for his Serie A side Napoli playing in a similar system, with Insigne and Callejon either side of him.

 You feel that with Messi now being 26, this could be his last chance to seal his immortality as a true footballing great. Of course a footballer’s age doesn’t always belie their abilities; Ronaldo is arguably at his peak at 29. However Messi’s key characteristics that make him so extraordinary, like his phenomenal dribbling, unbelievable balance and incredible pace are almost certainly likely to be inferior at his next World Cup. Obviously every player endeavours to give 100% at the World Cup, but this added incentive may lead to Messi evoking even more effort and consequently galvanising his team and his nation to glory.

 Unfortunately though there is a colossal juxtaposition in the Argentine team. While the holding midfielders Mascherano and Gago are important yet not among the world’s finest, Argentinia’s prowess starts to diminish from there. The expertise of the attack and the defence is completely polarising; Messi and co. form one of the deadliest strikeforces ever to be seen at the top of the field whereas at the foot of it, the players are average at best. Ezequiel Garay is renowned for being solid yet has never really been tested in an elite league; Zabaleta had a fine season for Manchester City but his willingness to get forward could leave Argentina vulnerable at the back. Fernandez is good at Fiorentina yet again he isn’t high quality, and the left back, Marcos Rojo, is a centre back by trade and is often called out for being Argentina’s weak link. The ‘keeper, Sergio Romero, was only the number two shot-stopper at Monaco this season, again signalling Argentina’s mixture of positional fortunes.

 Henceforth it is because of Argentina’s perennial defensive imperfections that Brazil are more likely to secure glory this summer. But why can’t Europe’s elite win this summer?

 France, Italy and obviously Spain and Germany are Europe’s best representatives this June and July but for copious reasons I can’t see them emulating Brazil or Argentina.

 France’s squad is young, vibrant and very, very exciting. Pogba, Varane, Griezemann, Digne and Lloris will all be among the world’s finest (If they’re not already) by the next World Cup. Despite playing lowly Jamaica, Les Bleus stormed to an 8-0 victory just a few days ago, minus Franck Ribery. Evidently they are a force to be reckoned with but I think ultimately the young player’s inexperience, and the seemingly inevitable infighting and turmoil that follows France at every international tournament will be their downfall.

 Italy’s fate has been mixed since their dreadful 2010 World Cup campaign, reaching the final but ultimately losing 4-0 to a ubiquitously superior Spain team, followed by a fair showing at 2013’s Confederation’s. Combined with the fact that Italy have won one in eight going into their opener against England, which includes a dismal 1-1 draw versus Luxembourg, most of the signs point towards an underwhelming 2014 performance. Italy are situated in the ‘group of death’ too, so qualification for the last 16 should be difficult, but then again, Italy are about as predictable as the UK’s weather and could surprise us all, just like eight years ago.

 Germany are like a combination of Brazil and Italy, but with both positive and negative consequences. Like Brazil they have an unfathomable range of options in midfield with Toni Kroos, Schweinstiger, Muller, Khedira, Draxler, Bender and more all vying for a starting place. However like Argentina, they do have some defensive issues. Lahm, Mertesacker, Hummels and Howedes are all short on pace and liable to exposure once Germany press high up the pitch. Jerome Boateng may be forced to fill in at left back, an unnatural position – if Joachim Low decides Dortmund’s Durm isn’t experienced enough. Finally their final third options aren’t that potent either. Miroslav Klose, at 36 years old, is their only recognised out and out number nine. The veteran has an exceptional World Cup record but whether he can supply the goals in the absence of left wing genius Marco Reus is yet to be seen.

 Spain have their downfalls, too. They are strong all over the pitch, having numerous options and world class players in midfield, attack and defence, as well as goalkeeper. The concern for me, though, is the age of their squad. The lynchpins of their successes in 2008, 2010 and 2012 are ageing into their mid/late 30’s now. Casillas may not be as dependable any more, as seen by his error in the Champions League final. Xavi isn’t always regular starter for Barcelona anymore, Iniesta has lost some of the fluidity that saw him mentioned in the same breath as Messi and Ronaldo and David Villa has reached the age where he feels the need to move to America to seek one last pay day. Despite the emergence of capable replacements in De Gea, Koke and Diego Costa and the maintenance of their infamous possession based football, whether or not Spain can continue to achieve glory without the perpetual influence of their most successful ever players remains, as displayed in the mauling they received from Brazil in last year’s Confederation’s final, dubious.

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Thank you for reading. All comments, criticisms, feedback is greatly appreciated, be it positive or negative. In the coming days I will be writing about the teams which I think will be the most exciting, the teams I feel will under perform, this year’s golden boot winner and how England will fare this summer.

 

Links:

http://www.zonalmarking.net/category/world-cup-2014/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FIFA_Confederations_Cup

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/27388351

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/22896226

 

My personal twitter: @OJS611

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Chelsea & Manchester United: Could a change in formations benefit both sides?

This weekend sees two teams that have been stuck in second gear for most of the season meet for the alternate fixture. Chelsea vs United has been an anticipated contest for the best part of ten years now, with both sides consistently being title challengers in this period. However, rather anti-climactically, Chelsea and especially United have failed to hit the ground running this season.

                There’s been copious articles and reports from across the internet examining why United have been so lacklustre and why Chelsea haven’t completely found their way under the ‘Special One’, but what solutions are there for both the Blues and the Red Devils? In this article I explain how a change of formation for both could set them on the right path.

Manchester United: 4231 to 352

                Not much has paid off for David Moyes this season. He’s lost the services of Robin Van Persie and more recently Wayne Rooney due to injury, had trouble with numerous accounts of unhappy, want away players and has lost too many vital games already this season. However in United’s last game, in the league at home to Swansea, the supporters definitely had something to smile about. In a season where Moyes has been plagued with ineptitude in midfield, it finally looked like United had found the right combination in the middle of the park on Saturday.

                Moyes is expected to buy a new, creative and combative midfielder this window (reports suggest he is scouting Paul Pogba and/or Arturo Vidal) but the midfield trio of Carrick, Fletcher and Kagawa performed admirably on Saturday. United had 3 more shots than what they average on Saturday, with Shinji Kagawa having 4 of those. Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick had a pass accuracy of 93% and 88% respectively and intercepted 3 and 2 passes respectively, clearly highlighting their defensive and offensive capabilities.

                It is this midfield three that I think Moyes should build his team around and operate a 352. In defence, Moyes should use Vidic as a sweeper. Without being disrespectful, Vidic has lost a yard of pace over recent years and isn’t agile enough to be playing further up the pitch. On Saturday he was very impressive, intercepting 5 passes, making 9 clearances and blocking 2 shots. However he did not win a tackle, so perhaps he is best suited to the sweeper role where he can prevent anything from leaking through. Either side of him should be Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Neither of them have had outstanding seasons but both have the capabilities to play centre back and full back. This will come in useful when A) United are defending a lead – they will have plenty of defensive cover and B) when United are looking for a goal – they can push wide and play as makeshift full backs, giving United more options.

                The inclusion of Kagawa, Fletcher and Carrick as the central midfielders has already been discussed, so that leaves us with the wide players, Adnan Januzaj and Antonio Valencia. These two should play their position similar to the way Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner play for Juventus, offering both a defensive and offensive outlet. Putting Januzaj and Valencia on their stronger side gives United width, which is clearly paramount to their game as against Swansea as 36% and 42% of their play was down the right and left wings on Saturday. Also, just like with Smalling and Jones, when United need men behind the ball, the wingers can play as full backs allowing the centre halves to become narrower. Valencia has played at right back plenty of times for the Red Devils this and previous seasons, and is more than capable of playing there when required. Questions remain over Januzaj; while he averages 0.9 tackles and 0.7 interceptions a game, it is unknown whether he has the discipline to hold down such a pivotal role.

 United are blessed to have a plethora of world class forwards. While Hernandez has fallen down the pecking order considerably, when Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney return from injury they will certainly provide competition for the inform Danny Welbeck. Perhaps one of the reasons United have failed to create consistently in games this season is due to the over reliance on Wayne Rooney playing as CF instead of an out and out striker. If United play 352 then Rooney will be free to link up with Welbeck for the duration of the game instead of having to drop deeper. However Rooney’s position in the 352 can be adjusted according to the situation. If United are losing, they can drop Rooney in the hole behind two of Welbeck, Hernandez and RVP who will make way for one of Carrick or Fletcher, allowing Kagawa to sit a bit deeper and dictate play from further back.

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Chelsea: 4231 to 4312 (false nine)

For a team third in the league Chelsea are, as it has been well publicised, very poor in front of goal. Despite spending over £50 million on Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o, Chelsea don’t have a consistent striker and don’t look like they are ready to buy one this January window. Therefore they should metamorphose from a 4231 to a 4312, with Oscar (or perhaps Schurrle) playing as a false nine instead of one of Torres, Eto’o or Ba playing as striker.

Although the change to the formation is admittedly very slight, Chelsea should benefit from it. Oscar has better stats across the board this season than Chelsea’s main forward Torres. While the Spaniard has scored 4, the Brazilian has 6. But it’s not all about goals; Oscar averages the same amount of shots as Torres per game, has assisted 3 more goals than Torres and averages 0.4 more key passes per game. Given that Oscar traditionally plays deeper than Torres, these stats would only increase if he was playing as a centre forward. Oscar has also been hailed for his defensive work this season – his 2.7 tackles per game in comparison to Torres’ 0.7 make Oscar a better candidate for the first line of defence.

Allowing Oscar to play as a false nine instead of a striker would also allow Hazard and Willian to push further forward, playing as left and right forwards instead of wingers. This move could benefit Hazard enormously in the way it has done for Ronaldo – allowing him to play high would do wonders for Chelsea on the counter attack and would undoubtedly increase the Belgium man’s goal tally.

If Chelsea go with this formation then the left and right full backs would have to be able to sufficiently cover ground and retain possession down their respective flanks to allow Willian and Hazard to play high. Chelsea needn’t change their personnel down these flanks though. Azpilicueta and Ivanovic both have a pass success rate of over 80%, and on ‘WhoScored’ holding onto the ball is listed as one of their strengths for both players.

This then means that Chelsea need to have 2 defensive midfielders to cover the full backs. Luiz would be ideal for this role because of his experience as a centre back; if Chelsea were on the attack he could drop into to form a defensive three with Terry and Cahill to allow the full backs to push wider. Ramires would be his partner; his stamina and energy would be useful for covering errand full backs/ Hazard and Willian. In front of these two would be the oft-omitted Juan Mata. Despite being criticized for his lack of defensive work Mata still averages a tackle a game and with Ramires and Luiz covering him, he would have more freedom to link with Hazard, Oscar and Willian. Also, with an average pass success rate of 87%, he would be vital for keeping possession.

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Thanks for reading my suggestions on how both Chelsea and United could alter their formations in order to achieve success. If you have any thoughts please let me know!

All stats obtained from www.whoscored.com and correct as of 16th January 2014.

 

World Cup 2014: England’s 23 man squad and how those selected can propel them to glory in the not-too-distant future.

Greg Dyke’s infamous FA commission, set up recently with the aim of securing a successful future for the England men’s senior team, has already come under harsh scrutiny from various leading figures in British football and the media.

Dyke has dismissed England’s immediate future, claiming that Roy Hodgson’s men won’t ‘realistically win the World Cup’. Instead, the FA’s chairman has targeted the 2022 World Cup as the tournament in which England will bring home silverware.

The FA won’t be able to have much of an influence on the development of English players this season, but come May, when ex-Switzerland coach Hodgson will pick his 23 man squad for Brazil’s festival of football, the FA should be pressuring Hodgson on his selection. A few unexpected additions here and there could impact the Three Lions future emphatically. In this article I will take a look at who may and who may not be included.

Goalkeepers:

Every man and his dog knows that Joe Hart has been suffering recently from what seems to be either a lack of focus or a lack of concentration, which in turn has led to his performances for club and country to become abject. At the moment he would still be many England fan’s number one, but if he cannot force Costel Pantillimon out of the Manchester City side then his place may come under threat. Fraser Forster and John Ruddy seem to be the ‘keepers who are most likely to remove Hart from the helm, but there are other options, particularly in the Championship, that may also deserve a place in Hodgson’s 23 man squad in order to challenge the City stopper.

Alex McCarthy, Jack Butland and Robert Green have all fared well for their respective clubs this season and the former and the latter certainly proved themselves in the top flight last season. The QPR stopper will be overlooked considering he is approaching the final stages of his career, while Jack Butland is probably best off developing in the Under 21 squad for a few more years. McCarthy earned himself a place in the Three Lions squad at the end of last season and has carried his form into this season with Reading. I firmly believe he is a more capable ‘keeper than John Ruddy and he can definitely give Hart and Forster a run for their money. Given every England manager’s tendency to overlook Championship players McCarthy should seek a move to the top flight in January in order to secure his spot. He has at least 12 more years left in his goalkeeping career and most of them could be spent protecting England’s goal. Therefore selecting him for this World Cup will aid his progress which could lead to him becoming an asset for England in the future.

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Defenders:

The last generation of England defenders were arguably our best for a long time. The absence of a really talented right back was the only deficiency a back line of Ferdinand, Terry and Cole. The current crop isn’t as spectacular but are still very solid. Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are very reliable as no nonsense defenders and have formed a fairly tight partnership in recent qualifiers, but they shouldn’t be England’s future. Instead Hodgson should look to recruit centre halves who can not only defend but who are also capable of playing in a more modern system.

Take Germany for example; Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are both superb in terms of keeping the opposition out, but are also excellent at retaining possession and using the ball effectively. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are almost already certainly travelling to Brazil but are almost definitely going to be second choice. Both centre halves have played at right back so they have the experience of running with the ball and picking out key passes to expose opposition. Therefore Hodgson may be keen to develop their partnership in the middle of defence in order progress England’s transition from a typically conservative side to a more attacking yet still stable team. Cardiff City’s star man Steven Caulker should also be vying for a place; the 21 year old only has one cap so far for England but his form this season suggests he should be earning more.

At left back the options are numerous. Ashley Cole was recently axed by Jose Mourinho for a slow start to the season for Chelsea and it’s time for Hodgson to follow suit. That may sound easy, but Hodgson should arguably go one step further and remove him from the squad altogether. This may sound barbaric as Cole has been world class for a number of years now, but given the number of left backs waiting in the wings it may be the right choice. Leighton Baines has enjoyed a stunning start to the season for Everton and performed admirably for England against Poland and Montenegro recently so for this World Cup he should be the first choice left back.

 Kieran Gibbs should be pushing Baines for the starting spot in Brazil as he has flourished at Arsenal so far this season and he plays in a more modern system for the Gunners, as does Luke Shaw for Southampton. Both Arsenal and the Saints like to press, retain possession and counter attack hard. This is how Greg Dyke and his pals on the commission should be encouraging Roy Hodgson or a future England manager to play, so evidently Shaw and Gibbs are at an advantage.  However Shaw will have at least 4 more chances to play at a World Cup, so it may be best to leave him at home this time around. Shaw should be on the fringes of the squad immediately after the World Cup though.

The right back slot hasn’t been vacated by someone truly convincing for lengthy duration now. Glen Johnson has predominantly occupied the position but is now under pressure from pacey Spurs star Kyle Walker. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have been deployed there under Hodgson but both prefer to play in the middle. Walker and Johnson have plenty of attacking flair but they have always received criticism regarding their defensive duties, so unless they improve their work rates the position is certainly up for grabs. One man who may be looking to take advantage of this situation is Luke Shaw’s teammate Nathaniel Clyne, of Southampton. Like Shaw, the right back knows how to press and plays in a team full of attacking purpose. In contrast to Shaw Clyne is at an age where he is ready to step up to the England seniors, and with his performances contributing to Southampton’s defensive integrity, he may be the perfect man to provide competition for Walker and Johnson.

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Midfield

Now this is where it starts to get complicated. Aside from left back, England have the most strength in depth in the centre of midfield. You have the likes of Gerrard, Wilshere, Lampard, Carrick, Henderson, Milner and Tom Cleverley all vying for a spot. Then there’s Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley and Ravel Morrison all hoping to be Roy Hodgson’s go to man in attacking midfield.

Let’s start with Carrick. He absolutely one hundred percent has to be starting, let alone just being in the squad. The role of the defensive midfielder is paramount in today’s football and if England want to progress and become one of the world’s best teams, this position has to be taken seriously. The role of the holding midfielder is often under estimated but the best teams in the world have them in abundance. Brazil, for example have Gustavo, Lucas Leiva, Paulinho, Fernandinho, Ramires, Sandro, Felipe Melo, Hernanes and commonly play in a 4231. The holding midfielder allows the team as a whole to become more attacking because they let the full backs gallop up the pitch. When in possession Baines and Walker should be high and wide, waiting to receive a pass from a defensive 3 of Carrick and the two centre halves. When England are not in possession the holding midfielder can just sit and read the game whilst his peers press intensely. Then, when the pressing leads to a mistake, Carrick can obtain possession and look to retain the ball for England. By including Carrick in the team he can pave the way for the next generation of defensive midfielders to become part of England’s future.

Now that’s settled we can look at who will play with Carrick. If England play 4231 or 424 (as Hodgson has done in recent qualifiers) Gerrard is the natural partner. The extra forward in attack means England have to compensate with another defensive minded midfielder. I wouldn’t exactly call Gerrard a defensive minded player but he’s the best there is. After having an exceptional season last term Gerrard has become a bit of a passenger in this season’s Liverpool team, so he may need to up his game a tad.

If Hodgson decided to deploy a 433 or 4321 then Gerrard should be dropped for Wilshere and Henderson, who would play just in front of Carrick. The former has had an indifferent start to the season whilst the latter has performed well under the radar. The reasons for their inclusions are as such: Arsenal and more recently Liverpool have embraced the style of football that England should be playing. Like I mentioned before with Gibbs and Shaw, Henderson and Wilshere know how to press and know how to keep the ball under pressure. Again, as mentioned above, by allowing Wilshere and Henderson to press Carrick is allowed to sit and intercept and retain possession from the opposition. The Gunner and the former Black Cat are also quite balanced footballers. Both can attack effectively, and both can defend adequately, making them ideal for this 4123 type of formation.

Many writers have been calling for Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Ravel Morrison to be called up to the England squad after their exploits this season. The first two were rewarded with caps against Germany and Chile in the week, but the latter is still training with the England U21’s. I’m not sure if there’s space for all three of them but I’d certainly advocate the inclusion of Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana. Both are relatively young and are the type of forward players England should be producing (i.e quick dribblers, lots of attacking flair, and knowledge of how to retain possession and then use possession effectively). However I can’t envisage Roy starting either of them, because of the formation likely to be utilised at the WC, but in later years when England are hopefully operating with a more modern 4231 or 352 then we will see them included.

I don’t think any of Lampard, Milner or Cleverley should be included. Lampard is unfortunately way past it, and offers little compared to his direct rival Gerrard. Milner is versatile and a perfectly good player in my eyes, but his lack of game time for City and better options around him mean that he has to be omitted. However I would include him if Lambert is selected, as he is a fine crosser of the ball. Finally, Cleverley is… Cleverley. Rubbish.

In terms of wide men our options are also fairly good. If Andros Townsend continues to perform as he did for England last month then his plane ticket is assured. I’d like to see Alex Oxlade Chamberlain return to fitness and have an absolutely incredible second half of the season for Arsenal as I’m keen to see Roy use inverted wingers. Townsend and The Ox are just 22 and 20 respectively so by using them on either flank next summer Roy could create a special partnership. Theo Walcott will almost definitely be on the flight to Brazil and will probably start too, which is somewhat irking. I have never truly been convinced by the Arsenal wide man, but now he faces some competition from Townsend, he may just step up his game. Welbeck and Lallana are capable of playing on the left or the right so the need for a fourth traditional winger isn’t so vital.

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Strikers

This one is relatively simple, in all honesty. The lack of young, prosperous strikers coming through the ranks is alarming but it makes writing this article a lot easier. The only debate here is whether or not to include Saints striker Ricky Lambert, who has scored twice for England since being called up to the squad last August. I think he’s a decent player, and I admire him for his endeavours during his career, but I’m not sure if his inclusion is completely necessary. He can play with his feet and in the air, but then again so can Rooney, Sturridge and Welbeck. Also, I get the feeling that Hodgson is including him in the squad because he’s the big striker you lump it up to, like Heskey or Andy Carroll before him, and England need to move away from this way of playing football and look to play neat, intricate football to the feet.

Saido Berahino is the only prospect currently coming through from the U21’s that may be in with a chance of making the trip to Brazil, but like with Luke Shaw and Ravel Morrison, it’s probably too early for him, given that he’s only just broken into the West Brom first team squad. He does look promising though, and if he nets 10 or more goals this season he may be something for Roy Hodgson to look at. Jay Rodriguez did O.K. for England against Chile, but I doubt he’s World Cup material. Jermain Defoe is excellent against weaker opposition, but with England not being seeded there won’t be much weaker opposition to face. Also, his inclusion won’t do anything for the development of English football.

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(My) Final Squad

Goalkeepers: Hart, Forster, McCarthy

Defenders: Jagielka, Cahill, Smalling, Jones, Walker, Clyne, Gibbs, Baines

Midfielders: Townsend, Carrick, Wilshere, Gerrard, Lallana, Henderson, Oxlade Chamberlain, Barkley

Forwards: Rooney, Welbeck, Sturridge, Walcott

 

On standby: Ruddy, Caulker, Cole, Milner, Lampard, Defoe, Lambert.

 

So, that’s the team I’d select for the upcoming World Cup. Please remember I selected these players based on how they could impact England’s future and whether they are totally necessary. So please post any comments with this in mind!

 

Reading Vs QPR – Match Report

There’s a few ways of looking at the outcome of this match. On the pessimistic side today’s lunchtime stalemate means Reading have only taken 2 points from 9, which is hardly promotion form. However the optimist would argue that a 1-1 draw against a ludicrously strong QPR side who currently sit 3rd in the league and have lost but once all season is a very positive result, especially after the humiliation of last week’s thumping at Hillsborough.

A strange side was announced at around 11.20 am. The exiled Kaspars Gorkss was re-instated for the unlucky Alex Pearce, meaning the Latvian would link with Sean Morrison, just like he did last season against QPR (away). Stephen Kelly’s horror show against Wednesday went unpunished as he kept his place at left back. Adkins also went with a tridente of McCleary, Obita and Hal Robson Kanu, the latter operating as a central winger behind Pogrebnyak, as opposed to a perhaps more offensive 442.

After a minutes silence the game got underway and QPR went all out. A series of sumptuous attacks left Reading on the back foot but Alex McCarthy and the cross bar saved them from going 1-0 down. Reading dispelled QPR’s early dominance and they grew into he game and started to threaten QPR’s back four. Gunter and Obita seemed the most willing to scamper down the line and plagued Dunne and Hill with numerous crosses, none of which found a Reading player to slot home. Pogrebnyak was unlucky with a few efforts, but still needs to shoot more. His confidence is growing as he was in fine form today, but he needs to let the players behind him work harder as he needs to be in the box when Reading venture forward.

A succession of corners and free kicks awarded to the home side enabled Reading to nullify any attempts from Rangers to get back into the game. Reading perhaps should have had a penalty when Jordan Obita was ‘tripped’ ( I haven’t seen the replay) in the box but the referee waved away blue and white protests.

The first half was played at an entertaining tempo, which was ironic as very few outstanding chances were created. Perhaps if Adkins had started with a second striker instead of the largely anonymous Robson Kanu then Reading could have entered half time with the lead.

QPR again started brightly in the second half as Matt Phillips in particular looked threatening. For all his self- proclamation Joey Barton was very underwhelming and looked a bit out of shape in all honesty. Charlie Austin didn’t provide much aerially or on the ground as Sean Morrison and Kaspars Gorkss formed a surprisingly composed partnership.

The breakthrough came on the hour mark when Garath McCleary drifted in from the right and smashed a 20 yard drive into the bottom left corner, beating the unlucky Rob Green. Neither side looked likely to score at that point but Reading seemed to have more possession and arguably created the better chances, so Reading probably did deserve to be leading.

When Reading have taken the lead this season they often take their foot of the gas and allow the opposition to take control. This infamous lull didn’t happen as obviously today, but a moment of complacent defending allowed QPR back into the game. The ball was rolled into Charlie Austin who was supposedly ‘fouled’ by Gorkss (the Latvian felt hard done by in his post match) and Matt Phillips then shot straight at the ‘keeper. The referee pulled play back for the foul on Austin and the previously sluggish Barton curled the ball cooly to the left of McCarthy and into the net.

The thing that will irk most Reading fans about this goal was that arguably advantage had already been played. Matt Phillips’ shot at McCarthy was a fairly clear cut opportunity so Gorkss may have rightly felt aggrieved at the decision. As the game drew to a close another thing that angered Reading fans surrounding me was the omission of any substitutions from Adkins until the 89th minute when strangely, he brought all three on. Akpan, McAnuff and Sharp essentially had no time to make an impact. The sad thing is that these were probably the right substitutions to make (and they could have won Reading the game), Adkins just made them embarrassingly late.

On reflection 1-1 was a fair, and frankly, quite inevitable result. Just when Reading got us thinking they could challenge QPR at the peak of the table, they lost focus and slipped up. This was a far more encouraging display and if they play like this against all sides in this league, they will finish in the top 6. QPR’s side looks too strong to finish outside the top two, and Burnley have something special about them. This Reading team is very good but it would surprise me if they pip the Clarets or Rangers to one of the automatic places.

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Ratings:

McCarthy – 8

Gunter – 8

Morrison – 7

Gorkss – 7

Kelly – 6

McCleary – 8

Guthrie – 7

Baird – 6

Obita – 7

Robson Kanu – 6

Pogrebnyak – 8