Who’s going to progress the ball for Reading?

Over the past couple of seasons, Reading’s narrow midfield has been an integral part of their game. Coming up against Reading, teams will expect a physical battle in the middle of the pitch and difficulty getting the ball forward. Using StatsBomb’s open data from 2019/20, Reading’s opponents moved the ball from their half to the final third with the 4th lowest success rate.

Before last season, the midfield consisted of three more energetic, ball-winning type midfielders and Fara Williams, who added creativity and set-piece ability into the side. Last summer, Jess Fishlock was added to the side, perhaps suggesting a shift in style, placing a greater emphasis on controlling the ball. Fishlock’s quotes from an interview with the Guardian before the start of last season suggest this:

The common denominator among top teams is tempo – on and off the ball. In America I’ve learned that manipulating tempo is how you control games. Helping Reading figure out when we slow it down, when we speed it up and how to control shape is my No 1 priority. Right now, we’re one speed – either slow or 100mph – but, if I can help change that, it will definitely take us to the next level.

Unfortunately for Reading, if there was a shift to control the ball more, it didn’t have the desired effect on their underlying numbers. Reading’s non-penalty expected goal figures were worse at both ends of the pitch. There’s a worry that matches against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City can warp figures for sides outside the top three, but that isn’t the case for Reading. Even excluding those clubs, Reading’s expected goals allowed rose from 0.83 to 1.23. Their attacking figures remained around the same level, with a slight drop from 1.59 to 1.52.

You wonder whether Reading are the side to suffer most for the strides made by Manchester United and Everton in the past couple of seasons. From having a positive expected goal difference and wanting to try and push closer to the top three, Reading perhaps look more at risk of moving in the other direction now — especially if they can’t replace the midfielders they’ve lost this summer.

Fara Williams has retired, Jess Fishlock has gone back to OL Reign and Angharad James has joined North Carolina Courage. All three played a big role in getting the ball forward for the Royals last season. I didn’t pick the axes well, considering it’s looking at one team, but the graph below helps highlight how important they were for getting the ball up the pitch last season. (I should also point out I hate how I worked out progressive passes per team’s 100 touches, but I wanted to try and find a way of seeing which players move the ball forward relative to their team. It likely tells you more about a squad than an individual.)

It’s not to say if a player hasn’t done something, they can’t — after all, someone has to get the ball up the field. Reading might have a player capable of it, but it might have never been their job considering the other players on the team. But it doesn’t fill you with confidence.

Considering Emma Mitchell had the most progressive passes for Reading last season, maybe it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. Mitchell wasn’t the only defender to have strong figures too, Deanna Cooper was only marginally short of the midfield trio. Reading may look to get more progression out of their defence rather than their midfield to combat the losses. In some ways, it may be a return to 2018/19 for Reading. Defenders Jo Potter and Kirsty Pearce made the most progressive passes for the Royals back then — as well as Rachel Furness in midfield.

The transition Reading have made in midfield may quell some fears, with Jade Moore, Remi Allen and Furness all leaving the club over recent seasons, but Reading have only brought in one midfielder this summer. Looking through their squad list, new signing Chloe Peplow and Rachel Rowe look to be the only central midfielders the club have on their books.

From her time at Tottenham, there’s little to suggest 22-year-old Peplow is the answer for getting Reading up the pitch. She didn’t put forward great progressive pass numbers for Spurs or Brighton. If anything, Peplow profiles more like a belated replacement for Jade Moore. In 2019/20, they both attempted a similar number of tackles + interceptions and progressive passes. Most of the time I saw her at Tottenham, she was the deepest midfielder, tasked with guarding the back four and breaking up play. But perhaps there is reason to be more optimistic.

Using numbers on The Analyst, Reading had the 2nd lowest PPDA, whereas Tottenham had the 5th highest. With the ball, Reading had the 3rd highest direct speed, while Tottenham had the 4th lowest. Reading placed a greater emphasis on having a higher tempo, both with and without the ball. Could Peplow stand to benefit from playing for a team with this approach?

Going back to 2019/20 with the StatsBomb data, midfielders attempted 64.8% of their progressive passes within the first 10 seconds of a possession. Tottenham were right around average with 64.6%, but this was the fourth-lowest value in the league. Reading’s midfielders attempted 71.4% of their attempted passes in this time, the highest in the league. Peplow fits into this mould, having played 77.4% of her progressive passes within 10 seconds of a new possession — the fifth highest value in the division (min. two attempts per 90).

There are some caveats to these figures. It’s from my old method, defining a progressive pass as one that moves the possession at least 10 yards closer to goal. It’s likely easier to meet this definition earlier in the move. After all, winning the ball back and pushing it forward ten yards would be a progressive pass. Looking at it within more context, perhaps within x seconds of a turnover, could be better — at least if we’re looking for players who thrive (or rely) on hitting teams in transition. Then, with the top clubs enjoying more and longer spells of sustained possession, it’s easier for players from other clubs to shine when looking at things this way. Getting control of a loose ball and hitting it long will count as an attempted progressive pass here.

Factoring in pass completion makes things more interesting. Reading may have played the highest proportion of their progressive passes in the first 10 seconds of a possession, but they also had the worst completion rate. The teams with the best completion rates were Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Perhaps a sign that the previous measure rewarded teams with a more direct approach.

Looking at players, the good news for Reading is that Peplow still shined after factoring in pass completion. The below graph shows how Peplow not only had a higher percentage of her progressive pass attempts come in the first 10 seconds of a possession, but she also had a better completion rate for these passes compared to Reading’s midfielders in 2019/20.

The data may be from 2019/20 but, given Reading still looked active off the ball and direct on it last season, Peplow could be a good addition for Chambers’ side. Her defensive ability should help solidify the Reading midfield, plus it’ll be interesting to see if her passing game benefits from the change in style. Reading will be hoping it does, as someone needs to step up and fill the void left by the departing trio.

Data from StatsBomb (either via FBRef or their open data)