In what many consider both the best performance and most significant result of the season so far, the Royals won 2-1 at Oakwell against Barnsley on Saturday.
Garath McCleary netted a penalty rebound after John Swift had been needlessly felled by the Barnsley keeper, before Swift himself doubled the advantage before thumping a rocket of a shot into the top corner, all inside the first half an hour.
At this point it looked like Reading would run their opponents ragged, before a moment of senseless stupidity by McCleary brought the hosts back into the match. The winger, angered by Conor Hourihane goading Danny Williams after the USA international had been injured in a tackle, shoved the Barnsley man forcefully to the ground and was shown a red card.
This meant the away side had to survive more than an hour with 10 men, but in possibly the best defensive performance this year (bearing in mind Barnsley had scored four times in about 25 minutes in their last match), they defended resolutely and limited the Tykes to few clear-cut chances.
Adam Armstrong did pull a goal back with a splendid volley, but apart from that the Reading rearguard stood firm, shutting out the match without giving the hardy away fans too many heart attacks.
@ETRCunningham looks back at the main talking points from the game, in chronological order:
Fastest out of the blocks
How refreshing it is to see a Royals side seize the initiative early on. From pretty much kick off Reading were quickest to the second balls, sharp in possession and making intelligent runs when teammates had the ball. This culminated in a lacklustre Barnsley being pushed back and back to the point where the back four were too deep - and this subsequently lead to the penalty with Swift able to receive the ball inside the box and win the spot kick.
It’s ok sometimes to play on the break
On paper, the front four/five of this team is perfectly set up to play counterattacking football. The pace and trickery of McCleary and Beerens was on show repeatedly in the first half, and led to plenty of chances for Reading. In fact, some of the link up play between those 2 and Kermorgant was frankly a joy to watch, as they jinked and jived around the edge of the Barnsley area.
John Swift and Danny Williams are of course vital in doing this properly, the former spraying passes around and setting attacks in motion after the latter makes a typically thunderous tackle, and/or drives forward from midfield. The first half was the best attacking performance I’ve seen from us this season, and the counter attack was vital in that.
McCleary’s teammates bailed him out after a moment of stupidity
What a terrible, terrible mistake this could have been. When McCleary flew in to protect Danny Williams after Conor Hourihane had wiped the latter out with a poor tackle, surely the game situation should have been foremost in his thoughts. With Reading 2-0 up and McCleary running riot, he should have, instead of running over and shoving the offender over hard, simply jogged over, kept control of his emotions and just helped Williams to his feet.
I understand the argument that it’s great to see Garath being prepared to go in and protect Williams, but in the end what he did was exactly what Hourihane wanted - lose his rag and get sent off, thus getting Barnsley back into a match they had hardly featured in up until then. There’s a difference between sticking up for your teammates and being reckless. Any more incidents like this and players will start going out of their way to get similar reactions from him.
Our defensive resilience was heartening to see
Against a side that had been dismantling opponents in the weeks beforehand, Reading coped admirably. The game plan in the second half was quite clear to see - congest the middle of the pitch, force Barnsley to the flanks and then double up to stop the crosses. Without getting too technical about how they did it (concentration, stamina and a tremendous worth ethic from the full backs and midfield), it was fantastic to see the Royals roll up their sleeves and put a serious shift in to deny Barnsley’s wide men and creative players much time on the ball.
A few nervy moments from set pieces aside (Barnsley’s freekicks and corners were brilliant all match), it was more comfortable than expected. McShane and Moore also had good games, heading and booting everything that was thrown at them.
Jaap Stam’s substitutions were vital
Without the subs, I believe Reading would have lost. The positions that are crucial when defending a lead with 10 men are the wide midfielders, as most sides look to exploit a man advantage down the flanks. With this in mind, Stephen Quinn and Jordan Obita were pretty much the ideal combination to bring on. Obita down the left and Quinn on the right assisted Gunter and Blackett superbly, with the result that I can’t remember more than a handful of occasions when Barnsley got down the sides and to the goalline in the penalty area.
Beerens and Swift are brilliant technical players who have already showed their quality on the ball this season - what they shouldn’t be expected to do is play as another set of full backs. Let’s not forget the third sub either - Joseph Mendes hasn’t set the Mad Stad alight since signing, but here in the final five minutes he held the ball up well, used up vital seconds in the corners, and gave the back five a breather.
Points change on this stage in 2015/16 (52): +2
Points change on this stage in 2005/06 (106): -3
Points change on this stage in 1997/98 (42): +10
Projected Points Total: 81