Player in focus: Nick Blackman
Reading's eventual matchwinner had a poor game on Saturday - as Hoops mentioned in his player ratings, he actually did very little on the ball (besides the winner of course). For much of the game, Blackman didn't look to be much of a threat to the opposition - for me, this comes down to a very familiar issue.
The above graphic shows Nick Blackman's heatmap in September's trip to Ashton Gate, whereas the second one is for Saturday's match at the Madejski (Reading shooting right to left in the first image and left to right in the second). As you can see, there's a massive difference in where the forward played on each occasion. Blackman gave a much more dangerous performance in the first fixture, thanks to a large degree to his more central position. From there, he could get into more influential positions in front of City's defence.
In contrast, the touchline hugging that we saw on Saturday did Blackman's attacking game no favours. With Orlando Sa restored to the side, the ex-Sheffield United player was tasked with looking after the right wing - something he naturally doesn't enjoy. Indeed, as we can see from his second heatmap, Blackman spent far more time patrolling the flank than he did drifting into those influential spaces that I mentioned with regards to the away fixture. This showed in his statistics, with Blackman registering only 43 touches and 3 dribbles in the second game (those figures being 51 and 5 in the first match).
If you want extra proof of what I'm saying, consider the two goals that Blackman has scored against Bristol City this season. Both were, in fact, pretty similar - in each case, Blackman finds space to run into in the inside right channel, before pulling the trigger with his favoured left foot.
Reading's attack misfires... again
For me, the biggest concern that Brian McDermott has to address in the short term is goals - or Reading's lack thereof. In his first four games, the Royals have managed a paltry return of just three goals - pretty worrying when you consider that those have all been very winnable matches. What's interesting though is that, on the face of things, Reading aren't failing at all to get their shots off - in fact, during McDermott's brief time back at the club, the Royals have an average of 17.75 shots per game - a perfectly respectable figure.
The big stat that does show up Reading is the more important shooting statistic - shots on target. Although, just like shots in general, this is hardly a completely accurate way of assessing a team's attacking prowess, it is slightly better for determining how clinical your forward line is. And, as you're expecting me to say, the numbers aren't impressive - the average here being 4.25.
An average of, roughly speaking, 18 shots per game, with 4 of those hitting the target, isn't at all healthy. Obviously, if Reading want to shoot back up the table, they need to be far more effective in the final third.
But why exactly is this happening? Sat halfway up Y26 on Saturday, as I almost always am, I heard someone behind me point out Vydra's positioning, saying words to the effect of "he's having to drop so far back that he can't be effective in the final third." And that's a good point - the less supply the Czech gets from his midfielders, the more he's forced into becoming a midfielder himself in order to get the ball. The following graphics (heatmap and touches respectively) will show you what I mean...
As you can see from both, Matej Vydra had to play more as a midfielder than as an attacker against Bristol City, with so many of his touches coming in the middle third. The thing is though - that shouldn't be his job. On their day, Oliver Norwood and Danny Williams (often helped by Stephen Quinn) are more than capable of bossing a midfield. If they do that, and allow Vydra to push forward into the final third, the Czech can be very influential.
Despite what some have said elsewhere, Vydra is a very good player at this level - after all, he's been heavily involved in two of the three goals that Reading have scored under Brian McDermott. What the gaffer needs to do now is to make him into that key cog for the side that Gylfi Sigurdsson was a few years ago - put him in his favoured position (behind the striker) and give him the ball. He'll sort out the rest.
Wins are hard to come by nowadays
It's been almost exactly three months since our 2015/16 hot streak of form. On Saturday 3rd October, Reading ran out 2-0 winners over Middlesbrough at the Madejski, and looked like they could be a team that would go on to get automatic promotion. Fast forward to Saturday 2nd January, and Reading had just laboured to a 1-0 win over Bristol City. Whereas the first opposition team currently sits 1st, the latter is 22nd.
Strikingly, we've only managed four wins since the 'Boro game - all of which (Charlton, Bolton, Blackburn and Bristol City) have come against sides currently in the relegation zone - apart from Blackburn who occupy the dizzy heights of 17th. Ever since the confidence and momentum started to sap out of the side all those months ago, Reading have looked a pretty toothless side - one that, ironically, resembles the 2014/15 team that Steve Clarke described as being 'in decay'.
The important thing now is that, as the old cliche goes, Reading pick up points even when they're not playing well. Although the performance against Bristol City had the spark and dynamism of a courgette, the result speaks for itself - at the end of the season, we'll be happy enough with the three points and clean sheet.