My oh my. Having looked like a very capable side in the midweek draw at Derby County, Reading gave a thoroughly lifeless display in Buckinghamshire on Saturday afternoon. Yes, things are hardly dire at the moment for the Royals, but this was a great chance to get three points, and it wasn't taken. In the run-up to today's match, I'd mused that a win at Stadium MK would give Brian McDermott something of a springboard to get the side going for the rest of the season. Instead, we saw the Royals' first defeat of 2016.
Team wise, there were no changes to the Reading side that was unlucky not to win on Tuesday night. That meant a back four of Chris Gunter, Anton Ferdinand, Jake Cooper and Andrew Taylor, with Danny Williams and Oliver Norwood playing just ahead of them. Up top was Matej Vydra, supported by the attacking trio of Garath McCleary, Lucas Piazon and Hal Robson-Kanu.
The first half
Things actually started rather well for Reading. In the first 5-10 minutes at least, the away side took control of proceedings and moved the ball into dangerous areas, albeit without creating any clear-cut opportunities. Lucas Piazon looked influential in central areas, with Robson-Kanu, McCleary and Gunter lively on the wings. At the other end, the Dons were offering little, although one time Championship hot shot Nicky Maynard forced a good reflect save from Ali Al-Habsi.
As the half wore on, Reading became less and less effective, with passes increasingly sloppy. It's a sign of just how bad a defeat this was that, even when the home side started to get going, they still barely threatened. The relatively new centre back pairing of Anton Ferdinand and Jake Cooper was solid enough, but this wasn't the biggest challenge for them.
As for the attack, Reading simply didn't create enough chances. The Piazon-Vydra partnership is one that I think could eventually bear fruit, but the Czech was feeding off scraps. That said, the Watford loanee did spurn a great chance to put the away side in front. Garath McCleary led a counter attacking charge down the right wing, finding himself in a two-on-one scenario alongside Vydra. Rather than going alone, he squared the ball to Vydra whose right footed shot went just wide of the near post.
The second half
Just like the opening period, the second was initially dominated by the Royals - domination marked by a well-hit Oliver Norwood strike from distance that was parried out for a corner by Dons 'keeper Martin. Reading continued to push forward, particularly on the break, with Garath McCleary - who himself had an effort saved - the brightest spark.
Well into the second half came one of the game's key moments - an extremely controversial decision from the ref. A long ball was floated forward for Matej Vydra, running in behind the Dons defence, to get onto. About 30 yards out and clear through on goal, the Czech was hauled down by McFadzean - a foul by the last man preventing a clear goal-scoring opportunity as I saw it. Naturally, McFadzean got away with a yellow...
Just like in midweek, it was a corner that proved to be Reading's undoing. With the ball having been swung in from the right, Dons' player Joe Walsh eventually found space to lash home a volley past the helpless Al-Habsi. Apparently set piece marking is being rationed nowadays.
From then on in, the game pretty much petered out. Reading, so uncharacteristically of a Brian McDermott side, didn't look remotely like scoring a late goal. For all you Simon Cox fans out there (I'm one, as it happens), the academy graduate managed a few minutes of game time at the end of the match, with little effect.
Meh. My opinion of today's performance could easily be summed up by that one word, but I'll elaborate anyway. Reading's showing was flat and lazy. A lot of the basics were there - the defence for example, apart from the corner, looked very comfortable. However, as I'll say in my player ratings, few players deserved above a 6/10. That's the mark we at Tilehurst End Towers give for performances that are good enough, but add little extra.
If one of the first half chances had found its way into the net (an excellent shot from Piazon, and the narrow miss from Vydra on the counter spring to mind), things would have been very different, and we'd be able to write today off as a professional performance on the road. However, no goal came, and it never really looked like it would. Weirdly enough, Reading showed enough application at times to demonstrate that they could easily take apart the hosts if they really went for it.... but they never did. That thing - application - was noticeably lacking from the likes of Danny Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Lucas Piazon in particular, each of whom are far more talented than their opponents on the day.
On the whole, this demonstrates the scale of the problem facing Brian McDermott. It's as if the squad has completely forgotten how good it can be - the performances of September and October seem so long ago now. If the gaffer can get that positivity, that drive, back into the players, results will improve. At least I hope so.
As it happens...
For those of you that haven't noticed, I don't come from Berkshire. If anything, MK Dons should be my local club - my home town of Aylesbury being about 40 minutes drive away. So, for me personally, this was a pretty cool away day. Not only because I got to visit a new stadium in my home county, but also that my home town got a shout-out in the programme...
The reason I include the second photo is that there's a little reference in there to my old school - Aylesbury Grammar School - also where ex-Royal Scott Davies went. In fact, the picture at the top of the second photo is of the sports hall, where I embarrassed myself in many a game of five-a-side. I didn't think I'd ever manage to fit all of that into a match report...