Reading: McCarthy, Kelly, Morrison, Pearce, Gunter; Robson-Kanu, Guthrie (Akpan), Baird, McCleary (McAnuff); Le Fondre (Sharp), Pogrebnyak
Should you be a betting man (such as me) 6th placed Reading visiting the Skybet Championship's bottom club would logically be a nailed on away win on the Ladbrokes Long List. Recent form had seen Reading travel to Oakwell in confident mood having won four of their last five league matches conceding only one goal along the way. Indifferent performances against Yeovil Town and Brighton & Hove Albion had turned into more comfortable performances resulting in wins against Leeds United, Derby County and Birmingham City although Leeds, of course, was a last second winner. Recent form at Oakwell would also be a contributory factor to the Long List selection, Reading having won on all four of their previous visits in our most recent 4-year Championship spell, form that shows that S71 is a happy hunting ground for recent Reading teams.
Both teams lined up with orthodox 4-4-2 formations, Reading's defence seeing Stephen Kelly replace Wayne Bridge for the only change from Saturday while Barnsley made three changes from the side that lost 2-1 at Leicester City, Peter Ramage, Jason Scotland and Jacob Mellis replacing Dale Jennings, Jean Yves Mvoto and Reuben Noble-Lazarus. Nigel Adkins presumably decided to match up man-for-man in an effort to win this game, in theory a ploy that should have worked given the favourable man-to-man match-ups but events transpired throughout the night that showed up Adkins somewhat. He had the gameplan incorrect from the off.
From feeling confident of gaining three points pre-match, it soon became apparent that the form book had seemingly exited the equation. A significant proportion of credit must go to Barnsley who played in a manner belying their current league status, putting in a performance that left Reading on the back foot for the majority of the game. The first half pattern was one of fairly simple repetition - quick Barnsley attacks being thwarted by a stretched Reading defence, clearances sent upfield for Pogrebnyak to challenge for and the second ball being lost by the Reading midfield resulting in more Barnsley pressure and attacks. Alex McCarthy was by far the busier of the two 'keepers, although the first half efforts in his direction were generally pretty comfortable to deal with. McCarthy was called into action on seven minutes when a Perkins shot was saved low to his left, while Jason Scotland's effort after a woeful attempt at playing out from the back was equally competently dealt with. David Fox had an effort on around 35 minutes from 18 yards which was directed straight at McCarthy when well placed to find one of the corners. Had he succeeded there is no doubt Reading would have been behind.
Reading, on the other hand, did not have a real chance of note in the first half despite occasionally getting into good positions mainly down the left flank and getting good crosses in. Garath McCleary clearly had the measure of his full back and outpaced him on more than one occasion, Robson-Kanu profligate from one McCleary surge forward and resultant low cross. The closest Reading came to scoring was from a set-piece which was headed wide by a Barnsley defender, a short sequence of play that summed up Reading's half. It should be said, however, that Chris Gunter would possibly (probably?) have had a clear goalscoring opportunity when brought down when his run was ended by Jacob Mellis. A yellow card was warranted, a red probably would have been produced had Mellis given Gunter the opportunity to control the pass as from our viewpoint he had an unimpeded run to goal. The fact that Gunter had not controlled it saved Mellis in my view.
Jason Scotland was also booked a minute after the Mellis booking for a lunge at Gunter, and that was it for refereeing card production, although there was an unusual incident around the 20-minute mark when a Barnsley player ended up over the advertising hoardings. The ball was kept in play by Reading who continued to attack, while the Barnsley defender stayed down off the pitch and over the hoardings for a good 10-15 seconds before getting up and running back onto the pitch. By this time the Barnsley physio had started sprinting around the pitch to treat any injury that may have occurred, however the referee decided that once the player had re-entered the pitch that was sufficient to stop the game and end a very promising Reading attack. The player then received treatment on the pitch however as far as I am concerned that player deliberately re-entered the field of play to force the referee's hand and stop the game. He clearly needed treatment and should not have re-entered the pitch without the referee's permission and so should have been booked for that reason. A strange decision from a referee who appeared to want to avoid controversy, regardless of the cost.
The second half saw both teams unchanged in terms of personnel, however Reading introduced a formation change. The diamond was introduced with Baird at the base, Robson-Kanu and Guthrie in the middle and McCleary at the top. Adkins had clearly noted that we had lost the midfield battle in the first half and selected the narrower formation in order to win more of the ball. This was the correct decision as Barnsley's attacks had stemmed from Reading's failure to deal remotely well enough with the second ball challenge. For a 25-minute period of time it worked, Reading were comfortable in the formation and started to create clear-cut opportunities. Firstly, the otherwise typically anonymous Le Fondre broke the offside trap on the left flank, cut inside, threw Peter Ramage a dummy which he bought hook, line and sinker and then struck his angled one-on-one effort from six yards straight at Butland. The rebound fell kindly to Le Fondre again but the striker uncharacteristically snatched at it and the ball sailed high and wide. Despite the miss just two minutes later Reading took the lead against the run of play. This time a move down the right flank was swept inside to Robson-Kanu 25 yards out whose low fizzing effort flew past Butland's left hand. A sweet strike, barely deserved given the first half performance but 1-0 up we were.
Straight from the kick off Paddy McCourt tested McCarthy from the left flank deep inside the penalty area forcing the Reading 'keeper to produce arguably his best save of the night but from then on Reading were comfortable if a little insecure until Adkins's changes. Barnsley's first half performance was now a distant memory and the goal had seemingly knocked the stuffing out of them. Reading went on to create two further glorious opportunities to probably seal the points, firstly a sweeping move from the left saw Le Fondre played in on goal 18 yards out, unfortunately his touch let him down, sending him wider than he would have liked instead of forward, however he still struck his shot superbly on target and forced Butland to dive high to his left to tip the ball out for a corner. From the resultant flag kick Butland was caught flapping (not for the first time) and Morrison somehow managed to find the crossbar from two yards out instead of the back of the net. Two let-offs for Barnsley and Reading were made to pay for their minute of profligacy. We did also create another chance when McAnuff's first involvement saw him played clean down the byline towards goal, his low centre to Robson-Kanu saw the latter's flick unluckily denied by a good block from his accompanying defender.
With 70 minutes gone Barnsley substitute Marcus Pederson turned nicely on the edge of the box and fired towards McCarthy who again competently dealt with the effort, Barnsley's most notable effort on goal for a good 20 minutes. Unfortunately Nigel Adkins was forced into a change on 72 minutes, Danny Guthrie apparently picking up a knock to be replaced by Hope Akpan. Guthrie was controlling the Barnsley left well enough to stifle the threat down that side. Akpan, however, was over-run and didn't really know what to do in the face of the same problem. It is a feature of the diamond that it is a very narrow formation, and when up against a team playing with natural width the central two players of the diamond are required to defensively become right/left midfielders in the face of opposition attacks down the flanks. The number of times Akpan was caught either ball watching, in no-man's land, or completely on the wrong side of his man was criminal and for me it led directly to a reversion to the first half pattern of play. Gunter was over-run on the right, the overload on that side too much for one man to handle alone and as a result, a mere matter of six minutes after the change, a six minute spell of pressure where Reading regularly failed to clear their lines the ball was played into the middle, 18 yards out, where Chris O'Grady finished well, low to McCarthy's left to even the score. A poor, poor goal for Reading to concede as for the spell since the Guthrie/Akpan substitution the defensive line was far too deep, continually pushing out only as far as the edge of the box, inviting pressure and we paid for it.
The goal spurred Barnsley on and from then on there was only going to be one winner, but luckily for Reading McCarthy was up to anything Barnsley threw his way. Tomas Cywka tried his luck with an effort that was deflected but McCarthy parried well low to his right.
The last action of the night saw Pogrebnyak given a foul on the half way line having beaten Paddy McCourt, the latter then suggesting in an angry manner Pogrebnyak had dived. My Barnsley source at the game who was well positioned to see the incident stated Pogrebnyak had raised his arms to McCourt's face. If that is the case Pogrebnyak can consider himself lucky not to be on the receiving end of a three match ban.
To sum this game up, Barnsley were excellent. Chris O'Grady was troublesome all night, Paddy McCourt had a lot of joy down the left with his direct running and their midfield dominance should have seen them win the game. Having said that, Reading created three gilt-edged chances in the second half, the three best chances of the game even taking into account the two goals that were scored, and on another day could, maybe should, have won themselves. If Barnsley play like that for the rest of the season they will find themselves clear of trouble in no time at all, however if Reading play like that then we will lose more games than we win. Nigel Adkins needs to shoulder a lot of the burden of blame for the pattern of play, his team set-up in the first half was overwhelmed, did not win any second ball and was under a lot of pressure as a result. He redeemed himself with the tactical change at half time which worked very well, but his redemption was undone with the Akpan substitution. Akpan did not carry out his role well at all, was defensively shambolic and an attacking anonymity (save for the pass for Le Fondre's second chance) and is looking increasingly out of his depth at this level and in this style of play. The defence also needs to take their share of the blame for not winning this game, not once in the last 20 minutes did our back line push up higher than around 20-25 yards out. Pushing your back line up pushes your midfield up and you then have more opportunity to engage the opposition further up the pitch. If you sit back your midfield sits back with you and the ball is then easily picked up by your opposition. We did not counteract this well at all and it ultimately led to the equaliser. O'Grady was left all alone on the edge, seemingly in his own postcode area considering the amount of space he was given. There is only one way to look at this result in the face of the performance, and that is that the draw is a point gained.