New Reading Chronicle Digital Sports Reporter Benjy Nurick offers his thoughts on the problems facing Reading boss Velijko Paunovic...

With five minutes of normal time remaining on a bitterly cold night in Berkshire, the ball fell to Andy Carroll 35 yards from goal. He lifted his head searching for a pass. Nothing on. So out of nowhere, he hit it. 

The rasping drive stung the palms of Sheffield United goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, a fine effort and nearly the moment of magic Reading’s performance needed - albeit didn’t fully deserve.

But why was Carroll even in that position? And chasing a goal, how could that bolt from distance be Reading’s best and really only opportunity following Jayden Bogle’s 57th-minute volley?

The speculative effort showcased the talent and pedigree that once took Carroll to the heights of the Premier League elite but for his new club, it was a moment that symbolised wider systemic problems - prompting more questions than any sort of answers.

Reading Chronicle: Andy Carroll lets fly against Sheffield United. Image by: JasonPIXAndy Carroll lets fly against Sheffield United. Image by: JasonPIX

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Carroll was heavily involved after his introduction on the hour-mark at the Select Car Leasing Stadium, racking up 21 touches, eight more than the man he replaced, Tom Dele-Bashiru had managed in double the minutes. But while Reading’s new weapon helped earn his side a point against Nottingham Forest at the weekend, Carroll was blunted three days later, the aforementioned hit from long-range his only sight of goal.

Carroll had the same number of touches, five, in his own half as he had in Reading’s attacking third while the vast majority of his involvement occurred in the middle of the pitch. Carroll managed a few touches on the edge of the box, but none in the areas where you want your physically imposing centre-forward to be as he was forced to drop deep in search of the ball. 

Reading Chronicle: Andy Caroll touches by area of the pitch vs Sheffield UnitedAndy Caroll touches by area of the pitch vs Sheffield United

Compare Carroll’s involvement with his opposition number, Rhian Brewster. While Brewster started the match and played 72 minutes (ten of those with the game stopped due to John Fleck’s shocking collapse), he still only touched the ball 28 times, just seven more than Carroll. But there was one key difference: where those touches occurred.

Reading Chronicle: Rhian Brewster touches by area of the pitch vs ReadingRhian Brewster touches by area of the pitch vs Reading

More than 60% of Brewster’s touches came in his attacking third, compared to just 33% for Carroll. Brewster was far from impressive, failing to get a shot off as he was relatively easily marshalled by Reading’s back four. But the blueprint of his performance displays the fundamental differences in the two sides approaches - Sheffield United getting their threats on the ball in dangerous positions while Reading failed to do so.

On a night of fine margins, Reading never looked like scoring. Had the game continued deep into the early hours of Wednesday morning it’s likely they still wouldn’t have breached Fodderingham’s goal, the keeper spending the night as a relative spectator.

Reading were blunt, Reading were toothless, and Reading were not particularly fun to watch. And it’s becoming an uncomfortable theme.

Despite sitting 9th in the Championship table in terms of possession, keeping an average of 50.4% of the ball, Velijko Paunovic’s side rank 22nd in shots per game with 9.8. 

Reading Chronicle: George Puscas cuts a frustrated figure as his goal-drought continues. Image by: JasonPIXGeorge Puscas cuts a frustrated figure as his goal-drought continues. Image by: JasonPIX

Going deeper and the issues just look more and more severe.

Seconds per sequence, a metric used to measure the amount of time each team holds the ball for, has Reading ranked seventh amongst all Championship sides with 8.83 seconds per sequence. In addition, they sit sixth in terms of the number of passages of play with ten or more passes.

These stats tell the story: Reading have largely excelled at keeping the ball. The problem is, they’ve not been able to consistently turn that possession into anything meaningful. 

While they’ve managed 4.2 shots per game from outside the box, 12th-most in the second tier, they sit joint-bottom with 0.4 shots per game from inside the six-yard box. Meanwhile, only six teams have mustered less than their 5.3 shots per game from inside the box as a whole. 

Reading Chronicle: Reading shots per game by location this seasonReading shots per game by location this season

The Royals have frequently enjoyed the majority of the ball across their 19 Championship fixtures, but 33% of their play has come in their own defensive third - the highest proportion in the division. Only 24% of their play has come in the opposition third, least of all 24 clubs. The best teams don’t rely on spectacular individual goals, but instead, work the ball into positions to repeatedly hurt their opponents. Reading are finding it tough to do just that.

Reading Chronicle: Reading's possession this season by area of the pitchReading's possession this season by area of the pitch

We’ve thrown plenty of numbers at you but the conclusion they yield is crystal clear - and hardly surprising if you’ve watched much of Velijko Paunovic’s team this season. Capable of some neat build-up play, this team is struggling to get into threatening positions and freezing in attack.

“BOOORRRIIINNNGGG” came the cry from a particularly frustrated member of the SCL crowd in the first half on Tuesday night as Reading huffed and puffed without much joy.

The visitors managed 21 touches in Reading’s box while the Royals tallied just 15 touches in Sheffield United’s penalty area. It’s a trend that’s run right through Reading’s unimpressive recent form. 

Against Sheffield United, Reading had less ball and less total touches than their Yorkshire foes, but across their last seven matches, they’ve held nearly 54% possession while having more touches than their opponent in four of seven matches. Yet, despite this frequent control, not once in these seven exchanges have Reading ended with more touches in their attacking penalty area than their opponents. Reading have averaged nearly five less touches in the box than the sides they’ve faced.

Possession. Sterile, futile, and truthfully, boring possession. 

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Now that we’ve established Reading’s struggles when it comes to turning possession into chances, let’s connect it back to the big man: Andy Carroll. An emergency signing owed in part to a spate of damaging injuries, Carroll has been greeted as the hopeful saviour of the Royals problems up front. On Saturday he played his part to perfection, changing the complexion of the game and helping set up Scott Dann’s equaliser. But on Tuesday, he struggled to make an impact, as did his entire team.

Carroll is no doubt a good player at this level, that much has been clear in his brief cameos. But he’s also a player who needs his team to play in the right system, armed with the right service. Whether it’s as Paunovic’s Plan A or as a secondary Plan B off the bench, if Reading want to get the most out of Carroll, they need to adapt...quickly.

Asked about his side’s inability to get Carroll going against Sheffield United, Paunovic levied the blame on a lack of understanding with the striker who only arrived through the door a little over a week ago.

Reading Chronicle: Reading's newest addition, Andy Carroll. Image by: JasonPIXReading's newest addition, Andy Carroll. Image by: JasonPIX

“One of the things we have to learn to do is play with Andy, who has had just ten days with us here. The week when we signed Andy, we had international players away. You have a midweek game, so where are you going to learn that other than in the game?”

Bringing Carroll into the club was always going to be a move fraught with teething pains due to the former England international’s lack of game-time over the past six months. But the issues are far more deep-seated than Paunovic was willing to admit.

Once described by former West Ham manager Slaven Bilic as "the best in the world at heading a football" Carroll has built his career on a bedrock of aerial dominance. Now, he’s arrived in a side that essentially does not cross the ball - and if it does, doesn’t do it effectively.

Reading are averaging 13 crosses per game this season with only two Championship clubs delivering from wide areas less frequently. They’ve supplied 258 crosses and faced 421. John Swift leads his team in crossing and a sizable portion of those have come from set-piece situations.

Part of Reading’s issues are simply down to personnel. With a dearth of natural - and fit - wingers in the squad, the Royals have relied on Abdul Baba Rahman and Andy Yiadom to supply width. The two Ghanaians rank 58th and 87th respectively in crosses per game amongst all players in the Championship with 0.6 and 0.4 - the low totals owed in part to the fact that they’ve primarily been utilised as full-backs in a flat back four - only occasionally thrown further forward as wing-backs in a back five.

Swift, with eight assists and eight goals, can be the focal point of this team, but the Chelsea academy graduate is at his best when roaming all over the pitch rather than stuck out wide. On Tuesday, that left Tom Dele-Bashiru and Ovie Ejaria as the other options around lone forward George Puscas. Contrary to the pre-match expectation, it was Dele-Bashiru who played furthest forward while Ejaria dropped deep.

Reading Chronicle: Ovie Ejaria in action vs Sheffield United. Image by: JasonPIXOvie Ejaria in action vs Sheffield United. Image by: JasonPIX

Speaking after the defeat, Paunovic explained the surprise tactical manoeuvre, saying: “He (Ejaria) is good at holding the ball and we need him to hold the ball. We know our team, we know where we are in the season. They will allow us to have possession and keep the ball.”

The manager certainly isn’t wrong. Ejaria is one of the more adept players in this squad when it comes to holding and keeping possession. On Tuesday he attempted 43 passes, second-most amongst Paunovic’s players behind Danny Drinkwater. How many of those 43 did Ejaria complete? Every single one. But on a night when Reading seemed totally lost in attack, it’s fair to wonder if Ejaria’s wizardry, while inconsistent, was wasted in a deeper role. Just 12 of his 60 touches occurred in the attacking third as Sheffield United kept Reading at an arms’ length with barely any fuss.

Reading Chronicle: Ovie Ejaria touches vs Sheffield United by locationOvie Ejaria touches vs Sheffield United by location

The solutions to Reading’s problems are far from obvious. The make-up in this squad, particularly with the likes of Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite sidelined through injury, makes finding balance tricky, their strength in central midfield offset by weaknesses out wide and up front.

Perhaps the 5-4-1 system trialled recently is a partial solution as it allows Yiadom and Rahman to focus more of their energy in attack and provide some much-needed width. Yiadom in particular excelled in this role against Forest.

It is clear that while fatigue no doubt played a part in Reading’s dull display on Tuesday night, as Paunovic pointed to, there are also deep-lying fundamental and systemic issues with this team and their tactical approach.

Andy Carroll is an important piece of the puzzle. He’s experienced, hungry, and provides something completely different to the rest of Paunovic’s current options. But Reading need to figure out how to properly utilise the 32-year-old so that he’s not required to create something out of nothing - as he so nearly did in that 85th minute against Sheffield United.