TILEHURST END COLUMN: Bowen’s tactical dilemma after Reading’s late defeat to Leeds United

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Reading v Leeds Utd

The 1-0 defeat at home to Leeds United on Tuesday evening sure was frustrating. The Royals defended very well for the vast majority of the game, restricting serious contenders for automatic promotion to minimal chances – a far cry from the 3-0 rout in the same fixture last season under Jose Gomes. 

However, for all the team’s organisation and resolve at the back, they didn’t create anything like enough in the final third. After some good openings on the break in the first half weren’t capitalised on, chances started to dry up – due to a mixture of Leeds’ own defending, Reading’s creeping fatigue and a lack of ideas. 

One element shouldn’t be missed out though: the strike pairing of George Puscas and Yakou Meite. On paper, it’s Reading’s best option. They’re joint top-scorers with four goals each this season in all competitions, so playing them together in Baldock’s absence has some sense to it. But tactically it leaves a lot to be desired. 

Puscas and Meite are at their best when facing goal. Both likely prefer to get at a defence quite directly, whether running towards defenders with the ball at their feet or trying to get in behind so that a teammate can find them in behind with a through ball.

On the flipside, neither are that great at holding the ball up or dropping back into space to link up with teammates. Both have a solid work rate, but are also held back by a lack of technical ability, making the job of receiving possession with their back to goal and holding the ball up pretty difficult for them. 

Pairing two strikers with similar strengths and weaknesses can pay off, but generally leaves a team short of ideas. Really, Reading should know this already – the Puscas/Meite partnership started at Bristol City and at home to Preston North End, looking ineffective on both occasions. 

So it again proved on Tuesday night when Leeds’ defence was organised and mobile enough to neutralise Meite getting in behind (or winning aerial duels), while Puscas – dropping off into a withdrawn role – didn’t have the guile to link up with the midfield and connect them to Meite. 

In the end, it took Mark Bowen far too long to make a change. Replacing Puscas with Lucas Boye should have been done in the starting XI, let alone in the 70th minute of a match in which Puscas had struggled to get involved in an attacking sense. 

The Argentine, versatile enough to play out wide or as a support striker, added the dynamism that Puscas lacked in the job of supporting Meite. Boye generally linked up well with the midfield, ran at the Leeds defence more convincingly than Puscas, and still had the work rate off the ball.

It was by no means a perfect performance, but from a tactical perspective he was a much better strike partner for Meite than Puscas. Bowen should bear that in mind on Saturday when Reading go to Wigan.

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