Reading dropped back to earth on Tuesday night with a thud as Derby County ran out 0-1 winners at the Madejski, dashing the optimism that Friday night's win over Ipswich had conjured up. In truth, the scoreline was largely representative of a game in which neither side truly stood out. Two competent defences restricted their attacking counterparts to just two shots on target each. It was a far cry from the 5-1 rout of a few nights back, with Reading's offensive flair failing to spark into life.
Steve Clarke named an almost unchanged XI for the visit of the Rams, with Michael Hector replacing Anton Ferdinand in the heart of the defence, That meant the trios of Norwood, Quinn and Tshibola, and Sa, Blackman and Vydra taking to the field in midfield and attack respectively.
The Royals started the game pretty well in truth, and were certainly the team on top in the opening 45. Norwood and Quinn were especially tidy in possession, with the latter showcasing his trademark terrier-like aggression when the away side had the ball. That said, the front three didn't present much of a threat. Link-up play was decent enough, but the previously mentioned shooting stat tells you all you need to know about the inability to create good chances. Of those that Reading did manage, efforts from Nick Blackman and Oliver Norwood both stood out - each a dangerous effort from range that worked Scott Carson in the Derby goal.
What the match will undeniably be remembered for was a moment of recklessness from new signing Orlando Sa. Having used his head to good effect with finishes against Brentford and Ipswich, he used it to less good effect in a confrontation with Jason Shackell.
Reading had hardly been cruising up till that point (0-0 at half time being a fair enough scoreline), but the red card changed the game. Any attacking impetus that the home side had been able to muster up in the first half evaporated in the second. In Sa's absence, Matej Vydra tried (and failed) to lead the line effectively. Without the presence of his Portuguese team mate, the Watford loanee was isolated against Keogh and Shackell, and couldn't get Reading going on the front foot.
Despite Derby's numerical advantage, the game was still very much in the balance in the second half (and would for the most part stay that way until the full time whistle). To reuse an old cliche, the game looked likely to be decided by a unique moment - a defensive mistake, refereeing decision or moment of quality - in the end, it was the latter of those.
The visitors started the move on the right, before a low pass was fired into the feet of Chris Martin. The Scot flicked the ball through for Tom Ince, whose quick footwork took him past Paul McShane, before finishing low past Jonathan Bond. It was the kind of move that Reading had been trying before the red card, but were unable to replicate without a recognised target man on the field.
From then on in, Reading's attack looked lost and aimless. After Matej Vydra's withdrawal for Danny Williams, it was up to Nick Blackman to lead the line, but he had little success with the repeated hoofed balls forward from the back. The home side never looked like threatening Scott Carson's clean sheet in truth. All the ex-West Brom goalie had to do apart from comfortably collecting one shot from Nick Blackman was to watch poor efforts from Robson-Kanu and Gunter clear the crossbar.
It's debatable whether or not Reading were unlucky to come away with nothing to show from the game. Although the first half was tidy enough - Reading looking comfortable against a very good side in this division - end product was sorely lacking. Nonetheless, the performance would have given Steve Clarke plenty of food for thought, and the gaffer would surely have had a game plan to take the match to the opposition in the second 45.
That's what makes the Sa incident so frustrating. Admittedly I didn't see it (along with apparently most fans at the game, judging by Twitter at least), but the effects later on were clearly visible. In comparison to Sa, Vydra and Blackman are pretty lightweight strikers, and Derby's centre backs made that show when each player tried their luck up against them in the second half. With Sa on the pitch, the gameplan was simple enough - use him as a focal point in the final third, with Vydra and Blackman playing off him. That allows for some variation in attacks, but relies heavily on Sa actually being on the pitch.
Another point to pick out from this match is a pretty familiar one when you consider it. Against Ipswich, Reading were able to tear the opposition apart with some ruthless counter attacking football - the second and fourth goals particular evidence of that. On Tuesday? Not so much. To give credit to Paul Clement, Derby's tactics worked, as I can't really remember Reading having too much opportunities, if any, to run at the Rams' rearguard. Now, does Reading struggling to break down an opposition without the use of counter attacking football ring a bell? It was probably the biggest problem against Derby, and should be right at the front of Steve Clarke's mind ahead of Saturday's trip down the M4 to Bristol City.
Reading: Bond, Obita, Hector, McShane, Gunter, Tshibola (McCleary), Norwood, Quinn (Robson-Kanu), Blackman, Sa, Vydra (Williams)