Reading are adapting well to a new style of play... or are they?
The biggest worry I had a few weeks ago, when Charlton came to the Madejski, was that we'd struggle to break down a side that sits back and invites us to attack. As it turned out, that was pretty much the case, although we eventually got the winner through Nick Blackman. Fast-forward to the Brighton game, and you could see a marked improvement in the Royals' ability to retain possession before creating chances. The basic stats indicate that pretty well - 21 shots to Brighton's 10, 14 dribbles to 5 and 55% possession are all good signs for a game in which Reading dominated the ball and managed to carve out opportunities.
That all being said, I'm not convinced that those opportunities are actually particularly good. Delving deeper into the shooting statistics, Reading seem to lack patience and opt for quite speculative shots from range rather than carving out anything more clear-cut. Of the 21 shots that Reading had on Saturday, 12 were from outside the box - only three of those hit the target.
Speaking of shots on target, the total figure of five is pretty discouraging. Considering that Reading only hit the target from inside the area once when you exclude the goal - an opportunistic tap-in - Steve Clarke has a lot of work to do on the Royals' attacking play. The policy of Reading's front line largely seems to be one of 'shoot on sight'. That's not always a bad thing - screamers from Blackman and Norwood this season being evidence to the contrary - but it's not a healthy way of approaching a game. If Reading want to unlock Huddersfield on Tuesday, and many more visitors to the Madejski, they'll need to rediscover some much-needed patience and ingenuity.
Player in focus: Oliver Norwood
Coming away from the game, Nick Blackman was my man of the match - the forward was at his dangerous best, threatening to win the game all by himself. That said, there was also a quietly impressive performance from Oliver Norwood that will go unnoticed in much of the post-match reaction. Earlier I talked about how Reading had got better at playing on the front foot - well, Norwood was instrumental in that.
The ex-Terrier performed his maestro-like role in the middle of the park with great efficiency. With 83, Norwood made more passes than anyone else on the pitch, and also had the most touches on the day with 94. In contrast, Brighton's best could only manage 61 (Bruno and Rosenior jointly) and 78 (Dunk) respectively. Looking at those stats, it's fair to say that Reading have a player that is naturally suited to orchestrating the play from a deep position in the midfield.
Another important aspect of that is that he has no false impressions of what his role in the team is. For an indication of that, take a look at his heat map (first graphic) in contrast to that of Danny Williams (second graphic).
In other words, Norwood knows that he's not a box-to-box midfielder. Against Brighton, in the same way as against plenty of other sides this season, he held back - rarely venturing into the final third. Williams allows him to do that by providing the muscle: his movement is far more expressive, with the American doing most of the hard running.
Reading continue their big match form
The Royals have shown on various occasions this season that they're up for a fight and can go toe-to-toe with the best in the division. Saturday's point against the league leaders was the latest positive result in that field, with victories already won courtesy of Burnley and Middlesbrough. As was pointed out by some on Twitter before the game, coming away unbeaten was crucial, but I think this was more for a psychological advantage than a points one.
Had Matej Vydra not popped up with the equaliser, Reading would have dropped to ninth in the table. Sure, that would have been a big blow to a side that had only recently graced an automatic spot, but it wasn't anything that couldn't have been rectified by an upturn in form later in the season.
In fact, Steve Clarke's side proved that they are themselves one of the best in the division - after all, you don't repeatedly pick up points against teams like Brighton, Middlesbrough and Burnley out of luck. Reading arguably deserved all three points against the Seagulls despite not really getting into top gear. That kind of assessment of the team last season would have been unheard of, wouldn't it?