The ghost of defending past
I hadn't missed the old Reading at all, but they made a sudden reappearance in the second half at Craven Cottage. The Royals' momentum had slipped at the end of the first period, but stout defending had kept the away side in a comfortable position; no such luck after the break. All traces of concentration vanished, and Steve Clarke's side couldn't recover.
What made it all so surprising was that we were convinced that Reading had turned a corner. The hard work of Steve Clarke and his coaching set-up seemed to have paid off, not to mention the imperious form of new signing Paul McShane. In fact, this was only the second occasion on which the Royals have conceded four in a single game under Steve Clarke. The other match? A 4-1 hammering at soon to be promoted Watford, when a fixture against Bradford City forced Reading into playing a B team.
So what went wrong on Saturday? For me, there were at least two mistakes in the build-up to each goal. For the first, Sa and Williams are pulled towards the ball, leaving an empty space for Cairney to run into. Obita fluffs his lines with a poor clearance. Fulham then equalise after a cross comes in far too easily, is missed by Hector and McShane, another cross isn't blocked by Obita, and Dembele finds enough room for a tap-in.
The last two goals were a whole new level of incompetence. Fulham take the lead on 56 minutes when a simple layoff gives Kacaniklic a free run through on goal, and they even managed to repeat the process for their fourth. Straight from a long punt down the pitch by goalkeeper Lewis, McShane's lazy header gives the ball straight to Dembele, whose one-two with McCormack gives the Frenchman a free run in on goal after McShane is pulled out of place.
To be fair, Ali Al-Habsi wasn't at fault for any of the goals, and Chris Gunter can't take as much of the blame as his defensive colleagues. But, that being said, it's worrying to think that defensive frailties we all thought were gone are still very much in the system. Steve Clarke has a big job to do over the next week.
Player in focus: Matej Vydra
Although Orlando Sa got my vote for Reading's man of the match, Matej Vydra'a performance on Saturday provides some interesting food for thought. The Watford loanee played in a central position against Fulham, with Nick Blackman to his right and Lucas Piazon to his left. Although Orlando Sa played as the main striker for much of the game, Vydra didn't simply support him directly in a 'two up top' style system. Instead, he did this...
In that graphic, Reading are shooting from right to left, but Vydra spent so much time dropping deep to get involved in the game that you'd have a similar picture if I'd flipped it around. His stats are also impressive - with 36, he made more passes than any other Reading forward on the day, and of the whole front line only Nick Blackman (47) had more touches than Vydra (44).
From looking at that, it's clear that Reading have a player on their hands who's at his best when dropping back into the midfield to orchestrate the play, before himself getting forward. That worked to terrific effect in the first goal, when Vydra started the move from deep and provided the assist.
Gif made from official YouTube highlights.
After a defeat like that, Steve Clarke needs to ring the changes. You can't let a performance that bad go unpunished and, by and large, we've got good options in reserve to call on. As my fellow assistant editor Olly Allen said, "Now, if a player needs to be dropped, we know the replacement is just as good." That's certainly true at the back, where we've got the likes of Anton Ferdinand (fitness willing, fingers crossed) and Andrew Taylor to come in for Michael Hector and Jordan Obita respectively.
To be fair to both of them, Ferdinand and Taylor haven't really put a foot wrong this season. Up until his injury, Ferdinand was just as good as McShane, whereas Taylor has in my opinion been unlucky not to displace Jordan Obita at the back, having looked solid on each occasion he's played.
There's another player we're missing at the moment - Stephen Quinn. I doubt his presence on Saturday would have guaranteed a different outcome (the experienced McShane himself went missing after all) but, on a defensive level, his current replacement Lucas Piazon leaves much to be desired. So far this season, Quinn's proved himself to be a tenacious customer, currently being the third highest for average number of tackles per game. Piazon doesn't match that, meaning that Reading lack a degree of protection from the midfield when Quinn is absent.
It's a great source of comfort that, after a defeat of this manner, Reading have the players in reserve who can make a difference. But, then again, it's equally worrying that such a key player in Stephen Quinn is thought to be out until January due to injury. Nonetheless, it'll be very interesting to see what team Steve Clarke chooses to put out next Saturday when league leaders Brighton come to town.
All stats are taken from WhoScored.com