Former colleagues at Chelsea Frank Lampard and Paul Clement faced off in their teams’ first games of the season. It was Lampard’s first match as a manager, taking over Derby in the summer, while Clement has some history with the club, having managed them two years ago.
Clement set up his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, whereas Lampard opted for something like a 4-3-3 – the midfield shifted around with sometimes just one player in front of the defence and sometimes two, however generally Craig Bryson sat in front of the defence while Mason Mount and Joe Ledley switched between pushing forward and sitting next to Bryson.
The first half could largely be summed up in the first ten seconds, with Derby passing back to the defenders from kick-off, Curtis Davies giving the ball away and Reading springing forward to jump on the mistake and create a chance.
Derby were attempting to play out from the back, however it didn’t work for several reasons. The most obvious was that the centre-backs don’t look comfortable on the ball: Richard Keogh gifted the ball away three times in the opening 25 minutes and while Davies was generally more accurate, his passes were quite weak.
This played into the second problem: that their passing was too slow. The centre-backs would slowly pass between themselves, taking two touches, looking up to see if there was an option in front, before passing it back across to their partner. This was also a problem ahead of them, with a lack of movement making it difficult for Derby to create chances.
As a result Reading could easily shift across and cover any gaps that opened up, while any Derby attackers that did pick up the ball generally looked isolated – Tom Lawrence looked the brightest spark, trying to get at Reading quickly, however him only ever using his right foot meant he was often running into trouble.
The third problem with Derby’s build-up was that it didn’t have any depth. Having decided that they were going to play out from the back, they seemed unwilling to hit the ball long if the option was there. Reading quickly realised this and pushed forward when defending. They rarely actually applied much pressure to the ball, instead blocking the passes into midfield, but stepping up so high meant there was less space for the defenders to utilise and there were no consequences as Derby were unwilling to hit a ball over the top and turn Reading’s backline until the half hour mark.
While Derby were patient to their detriment, Reading played very quickly once they had the ball. They would defend in a 4-4-2 shape, shifting across the pitch and covering one another until Derby made a mistake then pounce. Once the ball was won it would either go to Jon Dadi Bodvarsson to hold up and lay off to a runner or out to Modou Barrow on the left, with all of the front four and often one of the two midfielders bombing forward to attack the box at speed. Due to Derby’s build-up shape, they were often left two against four at the back, with those ahead of the centre-backs unable to recover quick enough.
Barrow was Reading’s biggest danger, as Andre Wisdom often gave him plenty of room, presumably worried he would use his pace to sprint past him, giving Barrow the time to pick out a cross.
Reading were generally wasteful in the first half but finally got their breakthrough in the second. Derby gave the ball away cheaply, it was passed up to Bodvarsson, who turned away from Ledley and moved the ball forward, eventually making its way to Barrow on the left. Still being given lots of space, the winger picked out a pinpoint cross onto the head of Bodvarsson to finish.
Even though the goal had many of the features of their play in the first half, the match had undoubtably changed. Derby were quicker in their build-up and now much more willing to hit the ball long. This meant that Reading couldn’t simply push high up in Derby’s half without risking being caught out by their high line, and it also made it harder for them to shift across and cover any gaps that opened up as Derby moved the ball around.
Although Derby’s equaliser was primarily a mistake by Vito Mannone, it was also made possible by Derby’s changes to their play. Reading were forced into defending deeper to limit the amount of space behind them with Derby more willing to directly attack it, while Derby’s increasing competence on the ball meant they were actually able to work it into Reading’s half. Mount, who had more joy in the second half by sticking closer to and combining with Lawrence, was able to exploit a gap in the Reading midfield – Sone Aluko positioned deep and wide and David Meyler unable to come across in time – to get a shot away.
The majority of the rest of the game was played in Reading’s half, although Derby rarely had any breakthroughs. That was until injury time, when substitute Mason Bennett rolled Omar Richards from a throw-in and sent in a cross for Lawrence to pick out the far side of goal with a header.
Undoubtedly some teething problems for Lampard in his first game in charge, yet he claims a win from very little.