Mark Bowen’s tenure at Reading is a curious case study.
Look at the results - which show that the Royals would currently be fifth in the Championship if the season had started when Bowen took the helm in mid-October, that they are 11 points clear of the drop zone - and the wily Welshman deserves huge credit for keeping the team up so comfortably.
Listen to supporters, though, and the message is mixed: although a likely majority support Bowen, the criticism of him can feel louder when results are negative, than the praise does when they are positive.
Does that highlight concerns over the sustainability of Bowen’s work at the Madejski Stadium?
Does it show that he does not get the respect he deserves in full?
Alternatively, is this merely a reflection of life – does discontent, generally, need to be vocalized at a volume that enjoyment does not?
We examine the situation...
The Jose Gomes era
Pragmatism worked best for Bowen’s predecessor, Jose Gomes.
The Matosinhos-born manager tried to get his team playing out from the back in his first home game in charge last season against Swansea, but they were caught out emphatically in a 4-1 New Years Day defeat, which saw the Portuguese tactician switch to a more conservative outlook.
They kept seven clean sheets in 23 under his guidance and sturdy, defensive displays in 0-0 draws at Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke, combined with crucial, smash-and-grab wins over Ipswich and Wigan, saw Reading retain their divisional status.
Gomes hoped that a summer of preparation would help his side embrace the more exotic style he desired and assert more control on games but again, that backfired.
Wing-backs Andy Yiadom and Omar Richards pushed well into the opposing half, even in the embryonic stages of their build-up play.
With three centre-backs as well as an athletic but limited holding midfielder in Pelé occupying similar areas, they at times looked muddled in possession, thus encouraging opponents to squeeze them high up.
While August’s impressive 3-0 win over Cardiff offered some hope that Gomes’ vision could come to life, results were otherwise unfavourable.
Reading would currently be 5th if the season had started when Mark Bowen took the helm in October
What Mark Bowen inherited
Aspects of performances under Gomes had subtly hinted at some form of resurgence, due to the volume of shots they were having, but there had been a clear vulnerability about the Berkshire outfit, who readily gave up clear cut chances.
The predicament Bowen was handed was not in any way a Mission: Impossible, because he arrived in October, with the situation very much retrievable and he inherited a squad with plenty of individual talent.
They were, though, in the relegation zone with eight points from 11 games and some fans were retrospectively sceptical of Bowen’s reasoning for having taken the job as Technical Consultant in March.
Some thought, perhaps unfairly, that he might have had the intention of putting himself in a position to take the manager’s job while Gomes was still in charge, which is something that could have been used against him had the good start not been forthcoming.
A very nice comeback win for Reading makes today a favourable one to drag out the Championship table since Mark Bowen took over.— Marc Mayo (@ThatMarcMayo) March 7, 2020
Reading are fifth, with a +10 GD.
Talk of play-offs this year has always been too hopeful but big chance to build serious momentum for next year now.
An assistant throughout his post-playing career, Bowen had been part of Steve Bruce’s management team at Birmingham that achieved a 10th placed Premier League finish in 2003-04.
That side had been built on a core of tenacious, hardworking players who covered one another, augmented by one or two producing a moment of magic.
It was a similar story with Mark Hughes at Blackburn, who finished seventh in the Premier League in 2007-08 and Stoke, who managed three consecutive ninth-placed top flight finishes on a modest budget.
Although the teams Bowen has coached have played good football at the right moments, he fundamentally believes in establishing strong defensive foundations, which is what we are seeing in RG2.
Tightening the gaps
The first thing the former left-back did at Reading was tighten up gaps between units, especially the chasms separating full-backs from centre-backs and there has since been a valuable consistency about their organisation.
It has meant that, in games such as December’s trip to Stoke, in which the Royals could not get any of their attacking sequences going as hoped, they still denied their opponents a single shot on target and earnt a steady away point in a 0-0 draw.
In Saturday’s 3-1 win at Birmingham, Reading perhaps rode their luck in the first half but, after beginning the second with a five-minute double-salvo through Matt Miazga and Yakou Meite, they defended their lead superbly.
Richards, along with either Michael Olise or Garath McCleary, who replaced the teenager for the final quarter-hour, did a great job of stopping their opponents initiating any combination play down the right, their primary avenue of attack.
Well-structured setups are crucial to getting the best out of Michael Morrison, who is one of the best in the Championship at calmly organising his teammates and heading away simple high balls, but hates the more chaotic scenarios.
Morrison clearly feels at home under Bowen, whose side have conceded just 25 goals in 26 games, keeping eight clean sheets: Leeds have shipped the fewest goals in the Championship in that timeframe and they have only conceded two more.
Guiding mercurial talents
Structurally, Reading are still suffering from their mistakes, especially in terms of recruitment, during Ron Gourlay’s ill-fated 16-month stint as CEO, so they need to develop players with high sell-on values.
Luckily, the Royals possess a £9 million forward in George Pușcaș, a silky-footed maestro in Ovie Ejaria, a possible future France star in Michael Olise and a natural technician in John Swift.
The challenge for them is to turn Pușcaș into the striker that Premier League clubs crave, to help Ejaria replicate the promise that saw him join Liverpool’s first-team squad, to inspire Olise to international stardom and to convert Swift from an inconsistent technician into someone who can dictate terms with authority each week.
The question, though, is whether any of those things can be achieved under Bowen.
Because the 56-year-old is keen to keep full-backs in their own half until the team is well into the final third, often the only option for his sides in possession from deep is to go long.
That could change if Reading sign natural wingers in the summer, which they will need to if Bowen stays on, although high-quality, orthodox wingers are a touch out of fashion.
If they begin next season playing direct to Pușcaș, who is not an aerial specialist, they could be restricting some exciting players opportunities to show what they can do in possession.
Eh, I think this game told us so much about Reading and Bowen. Mainly the attacking limitations. Partly Bowen's conservative style, which isn't helped by the sqaud imbalance. Wingers needed so badly. But, I think Bowen has shown enough naivety to not warrant that overhaul https://t.co/suM4fsuHOi— Calum (@caldini4) February 22, 2020
Dip in performances
The Royals have won three of their last 12 league games.
Of those, the 3-0 victory at Sheffield Wednesday was catalysed by a red card, the 2-0 triumph over Barnsley came from them scoring from half their shots on target while their opponents failed to hit the net from 23 efforts – and although the second half at St Andrews was efficient, they were lucky to still be in the game at half-time after their hosts missed several chances including a gaping goal for Scott Hogan.
Over the last 16 games, which includes a four-game winning streak before the aforementioned 12-match sequence, Reading average 1.24 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.44 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 46.22% - the seventh-worst in the division.
Of course, xG does not always define a manager’s fate – Jaap Stam oversaw a Play-Off Final in 2016-17 without his side ever convincing in those metrics – but it is something to bear in mind.
Bowen has proved the perfect candidate to navigate Reading safely away from the drop zone – and if the team were to replicate their form under him to date next season, they would have an excellent year.
Still, there are valid concerns about the sustainability of their current performance levels as well as the style.
Whereas previous Reading managers like Steve Coppell and Brian McDermott got a lot of support from locals when results when awry - their legendary status was a factor in both cases - it feels as though that kind of support might not be there for Bowen if this season ends in poor form, or if next season starts unfavourably.
Bowen has been the man Reading needed, undoubtedly. The answer to the question, though, as to whether he is the man Reading need going forward, feels opaquer.