With Brian McDermott holding the reins, the first obvious change was reverting to 4-4-2. Whilst Brendan Rodgers had used the formation on occasions, he still seemed determined to deploy a 4-3-3 system as often as possible. Playing three in midfield, two wingers and a lone striker can be a very effective system, as witnessed at Chelsea and Aston Villa in recent seasons. In English football, however, the system has not been overly common in recent decades and most young players come through the ranks at their clubs playing with four in midfield and two up top. Asking the best players to have immediate success in a new system is one thing. To ask Championship players to adapt instantaneously represents something of a gamble.
Often clubs use the same system across all their teams. From the first XI down to the young age groups in the academies, clubs like Ajax, Barcelona and Manchester United have pioneered the belief in getting young players ready for first-team football by familiarising them with how the first team fashions itself. This encourages seamless transition as players are promoted from one team to the next. With Steve Coppell having enjoyed a long reign at the Madejski Stadium, the plethora of young players that have made the step up to the senior side this season have come through playing in Coppell’s preferred 4-4-2. It has been a massive demand to ask all the youngsters to not only step up a level but to do it in an unfamiliar formation. Adding to the quandary, the majority of senior players at the club playing alongside them have been recent signings yet to find their feet at the club.
The major task for McDermott is to stabilise the side and make sure things do not go further downhill. The best way he can achieve this is to go back to basics and keep the players in their comfort zones until confidence is restored. The 4-3-3 experiment was showing signs of potential in recent weeks, largely down to the emphasis on Jobi McAnuff in the system – a player who is on top form. Nonetheless, 4-4-2 remains the most familiar for the majority of players and McDermott is shrewd enough to recognise this as the best base to build from as the club enters another period of transition.
Earlier in the season, the Royals were struggling to get shots on goal because the midfielders were not making the necessary forward runs. The lack of a second striker meant it was imperative that at least one of the central trio got forward, if not two, but this was not happening. The wingers also needed to get accustomed to playing narrower, more in the old inside-forward channels than hugging the touchlines. The team have showed a steady improvement since McAnuff established himself in the starting XI but it was not so smooth for the likes of Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu. The defence have been playing as a flat back-four all season but the defensive record has been poor with very few clean sheets – the lack of wide midfielders directly in front of the full-backs has aided this quandary.
The Christmas period brings two quick games and a good result against Swansea on Boxing Day will be important if the Royals are to take positive momentum into the match with Plymouth 48 hours later. With the comfort blanket of 4-4-2 in place, McDermott can focus his attention elsewhere as he bids to improve on Rodgers’ results. Rodgers was right to offer his faith to the talented young players coming through from the Academy, particularly with the club having to cut their cloth accordingly, to borrow John Madejski’s favourite quote. Where he fell down was placing too much pressure on the players to adapt to first team football whilst not playing their natural game. The 4-3-3 system may still play a big part in the future, but right now 4-4-2 offers the best way forward for the new faces to gel and for the team to progress up the table. When results pick up and confidence is flowing, then is the time to be more inventive and revolutionary with tactics. Sometimes you have to walk before you can run.