The playoff final between Reading and Huddersfield presented an intriguing tactical battle where both teams cancelled each other in a match which ultimately went to penalties. It was also a triumph for young coaches with Jaap Stam and David Wagner both experiencing their first jobs in top-level management and overseeing two teams that had improved vastly, as the teams were stocked with young players demoted from the Premier League who improved under the guidance of devoted young coaches. Jaap Stam set up in a 3-4-1-2 system which he deployed to great effect in the semi-final against Fulham while Huddersfield set up in a 4-2-3-1. The most expensive game in football and the prospect of Premier League football was on the line for both managers who have shown enough potential to manage at that level.
For the first 20 minutes, Huddersfield pressured the Reading back three and goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi into taking long goal kicks. The front-three would engage the back three with one player moving to press Al-Habsi into taking long goal-kicks but Huddersfield then decided to sit back and allow the back-three to have the ball. Reading sought to play early balls into the pockets and with Huddersfield sitting back, they would have more press protection and could work overloads to regain possession and set-up quick breaks with the likes of Nakhi Wells, Izzy Brown and Elias Kachunga in their attack.
Wagner’s style of pressure is much like his good friend Jurgen Klopp which means the pressure is not particularly about men, it is about working overloads and hunting the ball in packs and to do that against teams that are more adept at holding possession means that the overloads can be found in the deeper areas. Huddersfield only pushed high in situations as they held a 4-2-3-1 medium block and enticed Reading into playing early balls into the central pockets where they could work 3v1 situations to win the ball back.
Jaap Stam was formerly coach of Jong Ajax and he has sought to implement some facets of Dutch tactical philosophy into his team. The most glaring aspect is the man-orientated pressing as Yann Kermogant and Lewis Grabban pressured the Huddersfield centre-backs as John Swift was tasked with pressuring Jonathan Hogg, while Danny Williams and George Evans marked Aaron Mooy and Izzy Brown. The wing-backs Tyler Blackett and Chris Gunter marked the Huddersfield fullbacks while Tiago Illori and Joey Van den Berg were tasked with closing down the half-spaces.
Stam showed an unwillingness to move to a more zonal system which resulted in his players being dragged out of position in situations like when the Huddersfield midfield dropped deep, Williams and Evans were forced to follow them which left no press protection and made them vulnerable to accurate long balls. A major theme of this game was Huddersfield manipulating Reading’s man-marking scheme to work 2v2s against Blackett and Van den Berg, which was the catalyst for some of their best chances. However, the man-marking system worked in limiting Mooy who is not a press-resistant midfielder while when Reading moved their block up to press the back three, Huddersfield could not circulate the ball at the back and found it more difficult to access the 2v2 situations in the wide areas.
Reading balls in between the lines triggering Huddersfield pressure
Another ploy that Stam learned from Dutch football was direct passes from the back into the central pockets which Reading struggled to properly implement due to weak positional play. Grabban was normally the target for these passes but tended to drop in front of lines of Huddersfield pressure where he was caught in 2v1/3v1 situations, while Reading’s inability to properly work the ball in these situations due to poor spacing, positioning and movement from Swift and Kermogant led to them losing the ball seconds later. When a team plays a ball in-between the lines into a high-pressure situation, the receiver should be given an option for a first time lay-off which requires movement and understanding of the pass and the next phase of the play which Reading dearly lacked. Reading were also poor in manipulating the passing triangles they created to move the ball forward in unison which was a shame considering the positions they got into.
Reading’s only shot on target (clip above) resulted in their best execution of this situation when Illori played the ball to Evans who laid off to Swift to have a shot that was easily saved by Danny Ward. Given the fact Huddersfield were playing a medium block 4-2-3-1/3-3-3-1 which allowed the Reading centre-backs more time on the ball, Reading needed to work these situations better because the spaces were available with proper passing and movement. Another clip below shows Van den Berg, Liam Moore, and Illori moving the Huddersfield line of pressure with ball circulation to play the ball in between the lines in an opportunity which is ultimately wasted.
Situations like this need understanding and moments of individual brilliance with layoffs, flicks-ons, quick one-twos and other forms of movement which Reading lacked to properly move the ball in these situations. Every ball in between the lines triggered a wave of pressure on the player in possession, which ultimately leads to Reading turning over the ball with poor decision making from the player in possession. There was also a glaring lack of coordinated counter-pressure from Reading as the only form of counter-pressure was individual. Some counter-pressure after losing the ball could have led to a higher sustenance of attacks which could have been the catalyst for some better chances.
Above is a picture of Grabban who has dropped behind the line of pressure and is looking to release the ball. Wing-backs Gunter and Blackett are stretching the play as they usually do as Reading rarely utilised their width, while there is an opportunity for a passing triangle in the middle to then eventually move the ball to Gunter out wide or Kermogant (out of shot) and Grabban through the centre. Grabban is caught in a 2v1 situation but has the opportunity to move the ball to three teammates in 1v1 situations but he chooses to play a one-two with Van Den Berg (out of shot) to find himself in a 3v1 situation where he loses possession. This situation is symptomatic of the poor decision making that Reading made in the opposition half throughout the game through poor ball circulation and movement.
Huddersfield targeting 2v2s with Blackett and Van den Berg
With a flat-five man defence, teams could choose to switch to a more zonal defensive system but Reading chose to retain a man-orientated marking system. Chris Gunter and Tiago Illori were much more assured in their defending on their flank because Gunter is more experienced as a wing-back while Stam spent time on the sidelines coaching Illori through his movements. Blackett has played in a three at the back system before as a wide centre-back under Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United, but was played as a wing-back and Van den Berg was a midfielder and now played as a ball-playing wide centre back which meant their lack of pace and poor reading of some situations made them Reading’s Achilles heel, even after Jordan Obita came on for Van den Berg and Blackett moved to a more familiar wide CB role.
Blackett would either step up by a few yards or leave a massive channel of space next to Van den Berg to push up to engage Chris Lowe and the rapid Elias Kachunga used his pace and strength to target a vulnerable Van den Berg which led to the latter getting a yellow card and walking a tight-rope. The duo was less vulnerable when midfielder Williams moved to cover the space in between the two when Reading were in the defensive phase but due to Williams’ own man-marking assignment, it meant that the duo was left vulnerable in some situations.
Huddersfield began gearing attacks to that flank due to the lack of joy that they got from Illori and Gunter on the other flank which meant switch balls and long balls gave them joy as those were situations where Blackett was a few yards higher and Van den Berg was vulnerable. Huddersfield’s two biggest chances came from that flank with Kachunga crossing for Brown to put a chance wide of an open goal and Evans covering for Obita and Blackett in extra time for Kasey Palmer to cross past five recovering players for Nakhi Wells to shoot wide. In the second-half, more players like Brown and Mooy chose to move into those areas which resulted in their markers tracking them, with Blackett and Van den Berg gaining more support, but it was still a situation where Reading couldn’t work an overload throughout the game.
Huddersfield managed two shots on target and Reading only managed one in a game that was ultimately decided by penalties. Huddersfield adapted to the game and geared their defending towards the wastefulness and naivety of the Reading players while they created their best chances using the weaknesses of the Reading defence. Stam could have tinkered his defending to a more zonal system with a flat back five, a flat midfield three or four and one player up front to ultimately limit the influence of some Huddersfield attacks. Reading also failed to create clear-cut chances from balls in between the lines, pressing situations and set-piece situations.However, Stam has already shown tremendous potential as a young manager to change Reading’s fortunes and implement a system he learned in his home country and it will be interesting to see how he develops and adapts next season.
Wagner’s adjustments in this game and Huddersfield’s devotion to fields of analytics and recruitment prove that they have a talented manager and cohesive system behind the scenes to avoid being a team that drops back down to the Championship after one season. The teams cancelled each other out but Huddersfield presented a more organised defensive system which was also due to Reading’s weak ball circulation in the higher areas. Both teams and managers present interesting prospects next season in their respective leagues and it will be interesting to watch the development of both of these young managers.