1) The Robson-Kanu franchise gets a reboot
One of the things that could easily get lost in the debacle that was Saturday's comfortable defeat at the hands of Derby was the performance of one Hal Robson-Kanu. He hardly took the game by the scruff of the neck, but he certainly showed enough of a threat to suggest that he's started to turn a corner. In the 17 months since his brace at Fulham, he's failed to kick on and hasn't really put in many impressive performances in that time. However, he showed flashes of improvement at the weekend - the highlight being a beautifully placed cross that Cox should have done better from. Throughout the first half, he looked bright and involved in the play, having a couple of half chances to get the Royals back into the game.
That said, his preference for moving inside as Reading attacked left Obita isolated when he had the ball out wide. Greater support for the left back could have helped us get in behind the Derby defence, so improving his positioning is something I'd like to see him work on in the future. But all in all, it was an encouraging performance from someone who hasn't had many of those over the last year or so.
2) Derby County show their class
As Will discussed in his stats review, the figures for Saturday's clash with the Rams suggested a tightly fought encounter that Reading had the edge in. Possession was evenly split, but Reading had more shots (including those on target) and better territorial advantage. For me, the winning factor is another aspect of the game that can easily get lost after that kind of defeat - Derby County are a class side. There aren't many teams who can bounce straight back from a Playoff Final defeat to come back stronger next time round (Brian McDermott, take a bow). And when you have the likes of Jordan Ibe, Will Hughes, Chris Martin and plenty more besides in your team, there's a lot of quality in there to win games at this level.
3-0 was probably harsher a defeat than the game suggested, but it reinforces the fact that we came up against a well-drilled side full of talent that plays attractive football, even when not at their best. It may be a bit early to start making predictions, but betting against them winning the league could be a very effective way of losing cash.
3) A sign of the times
It's interesting to note how views of players change over the course of a year. If I went back 12 months and told that younger version of myself that we would be begrudging the absence of Hope Akpan for tactical reasons rather than making up the numbers, and would have a relatively uninterested attitude towards Danny Guthrie, I'd have laughed at myself (before questioning my sanity). But it goes to show how those two players have gone in different directions during that period of time. Guthrie's quality has faded and he increasingly looks like an expensive accessory, whereas (as Jonny noted a short while ago) Akpan has cemented his status as a key player who performs a role that no other currently fit player can - the underrated yet hardworking defensive midfielder that adds balance to the whole side.
Throw in the rise of Nick Blackman, who has enjoyed a welcome upturn in form this season, and the changes become more evident. To continue the theme of ‘things that get lost after a depressing defeat', it'd be harsh to not give Nigel Adkins credit for their improvements. Both Akpan and Blackman were McDermott signings from the lower leagues who, at times last season, looked out of their depth - we now have two effective players that add something to the side.
4) Weakness in depth
You might not have heard this, but the Reading squad has picked up a fair few injuries over the last few months. Although we seem to be past the worst of our injury plague, Saturday's bench showed us how much it's still affecting us. The list of substitutes that Nigel Adkins named is as follows: Mikkel Andersen (GK), Sean Long (DF), Jake Cooper (DF), Aaron Kuhl (MF), Hope Akpan (MF, not fully fit), Nick Blackman (AM) and Pavel Pogrebnyak (ST). Looking at that set of players, I'd argue that the only one anywhere near capable of turning the course of a game is the aforementioned Nick Blackman, who hit a few dangerous shots on goal on Saturday following his introduction.
As I discussed in my previous 5 Things, the once mighty Pog has had a sharp decline this season, and his missing an open net at 0-2 against Derby did little to persuade me otherwise. With regards to the others, Hope Akpan wasn't at full fitness (due to his globe-trotting exploits with the Nigeria squad mid-week), and the likes of Long, Cooper and Kuhl are very much still learning the game. It goes without saying that McCleary, Williams and Karacan are much needed back in contention, but having players like Cummings, Kelly and Ferdinand back could go a long way to adding depth and competition for places to an under-performing side.
5) A tactical change may be needed
Looking at the players that have been the most impressive over the course of this season, they tend to fit roughly into a 4-2-3-1 formation - in particular, we've come to accept Akpan and Norwood providing the base, with Cox playing behind Murray. As Danny Guthrie said at the start of October, a five man midfield could go a long way towards stopping the current trend of Reading's midfield being overrun every time we play. What's more, despite the current lack of Messrs Williams and Karacan, we have the personnel to adopt that system, with Akpan, Norwood, Kuhl and Taylor all viable options. However, it leaves no obvious room for Cox, him being a player who has thrived playing off Murray in a more advanced role that can't really work in the more conservative 4-5-1 we may need.
That being said, we travel to Bournemouth on Tuesday night - hardly the best match in which to adopt a gung-ho formation. I for one am still psychologically scarred by last season's infamous 'Night of the Four Wingers' - there's nothing more harrowing than seeing your side trying to manage a midfield with Hal Robson-Kanu, Jordan Obita, Jobi McAnuff and Royston Drenthe the combination of men assigned the task.
What was your main talking point from Saturday's game? Do you disagree with anything I've said? Or did I miss out something glaringly obvious? Leave a comment below to have your say...