McDermott plots to write Reading into history books
Barcelona win the European Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. It is 1992. From afar, Sven-Goran Eriksson watches. Within weeks, he is in charge of the beaten finalists. From Sampdoria, he moves on to Lazio and then to England. But he never coaches at Wembley – the historical old venue is being reconstructed to the tune of £757million. After leaving his role with England, Eriksson then takes an infamously circuitous route around the globe before finally ending the long journey at his current location – Leicester City.
Just a few months ago, it looked entirely possible that Eriksson would finally be leading a team out at Wembley. Leicester were flying in the Championship, winning seven out of eight in the New Year to put themselves within touching distance of the play-offs. Form then dropped alarmingly, and their final chance to make the top six would come at the Madejski Stadium. Defeat against Reading would probably spell the end of Eriksson’s bid for promotion in his first season with Leicester.
Reading had replaced Leicester as the form team in the division, confidence flowing throughout the side and winning becoming a habit. Despite the possession football Eriksson had installed at Leicester and the presence of high-profile loan signings such as Yakubu and Diomansy Kamara, Reading were understandably favourites to triumph.
But Brian McDermott, the Reading manager, knew his men had to adapt in order to give themselves the best possible chance of winning. A student of the game with meticulous attention to detail, McDermott analysed Leicester’s style of play and deduced that an attacking approach would be ill-advised. His opponents were comfortable on the ball, but often committed too many men forward when in possession and were susceptible to the counter-attack. Luckily, or perhaps by design, Reading are perfectly set up to hit teams on the break. McDermott instructed his back four to stay compact, his midfield to stay deep and let Leicester control the ball. When they gave it away, the attack would begin.
An away win would have reduced the gap between the sides to six points with four games to go, but victory for the hosts would put them twelve points clear of their visitors – an unassailable position. Sure enough, when the final whistle sounded there were double figures between the two teams after Jimmy Kebe, Jobi McAnuff and Noel Hunt sealed a 3-1 success for Reading.
“We had to really dig in,” said McDermott after the game. “Unusually for us, we had to play like the away team. We had to play a different way against them and we got the result. Sometimes you play against a team who play that way and have a bit of the ball, and the important thing for us was not to go chasing the ball on our own, and to do it as a team. Our shape was good.”
It is a method that Reading honed further in their play-off semi-final second leg win over Cardiff City. This time they actually were an away team and they gave a textbook away performance, keeping themselves well-organised at the back and taking advantage of their nervous opponents’ mistakes at the other end of the pitch. Again they scored three, this time keeping a clean sheet too. And with that, Reading were Wembley-bound.
McDermott can draw on these experiences, both of which came within the last six weeks, as he plots the tactical downfall of Brendan Rodgers, his predecessor who will now face him as Swansea City manager. The win over Cardiff was all the more impressive given that Reading were unable to call upon their injured winger Jimmy Kebe, who will again be missing at Wembley. With Kebe unavailable, McDermott opted to play a wild card in Wales and fielded right-back Shaun Cummings on one wing and McAnuff in his usual role on the other. Cummings, who played under Rodgers both in Chelsea’s reserves and for Reading, turned in an excellent display to nullify the danger posed by Jay Emmanuel Thomas on Cardiff’s left wing – another tactical victory for McDermott.
There is, of course, one final masterclass the Royals manager will be able to watch with interest. Eriksson will be watching Barcelona at Wembley again this weekend. And you can absolutely guarantee that both McDermott and Rodgers will also be tuning in to watch the Champions League Final on Saturday evening. Rodgers is a keen Barcelona enthusiast who catches as much of Pep Guardiola’s team as he can.
While Swansea cannot expect to control the ball at Wembley to the same degree that Barcelona regularly manage, the blueprint is there for all to see. Given his prior form for adapting his own side’s tactics to suit the opposition, McDermott may be more interested in what Sir Alex Ferguson comes up with to counter the threat of the Spanish champions.
What price a Manchester United victory on Saturday being swiftly followed by another display of tactical acumen from McDermott’s Reading on Monday?