For 75 minutes yesterday watching Reading was, to use one of Arsene Wenger’s expressions, like watching a man with diarrhoea try and fail to take his trousers off (apologies if anyone’s reading this over a Sunday roast). Messy, disjointed and unpleasant to watch.
Mo Barrow came in to the starting eleven after that vital late goal against Leeds last weekend, as he formed a front three with Roy Beerens and Sone Aluko. There was no place in the squad for either Garath McCleary or Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, after both picked up niggles in the week. Tyler Blackett started as left wing back ahead of McCleary, with spots on the bench for youngsters Sam Smith and Omar Richards. John Swift and captain Paul McShane also returned to the first team fold as subs after injury lay-offs.
Frankly the first ten minutes showed the difference in form and confidence between the two sides. Reading were simply unable to find any way through what was a solid, high-pressing United side, while every time the hosts attacked they seemed to find vast gaps between the Royals’ midfield and defence. Beerens, Aluko and Barrow were all anonymous in this period as they failed to either come short and retain possession or stretch the game by running in behind, and although United created no clear cut opportunities it always looked merely a matter of time.
When the opener did come, it was a tremendous strike which gave the home side the lead. Following a barrage of pressure that Reading were unable to alleviate, the ball rolled out to midfielder Paul Coutts from a sliced clearance, just to the right hand side of the D. His first time strike whipped into the top left corner of Vito Mannone’s goal - a fantastic hit, but just like Millwall away there was no Reading player closing a shot down on the edge of the box.
A spell of measured possession did follow from Reading, but never leading to any actual chances or shots of note. Without either a bustling targetman or a nippy forward who wanted to run behind (Barrow tried once or twice but Aluko simply didn’t want to), the Royals simply had no good attacking options. Add to that our normal ineffectiveness from set pieces and pressing from the home side that was as good as anything I’ve seen this season, and the reasons for our toothlessness become obvious.
2-0 duly followed, and once again it was a combination of incisive attacking quality but shoddy defending. Played in down the right hand side of the area (Blackett was ball-watching), Marc Duffy simply rolled the ball across goal to where Billy Sharp had been left completely unmarked, between the posts, four yards out, to tap in. While Liam Moore, Chris Gunter and Tiago Ilori were all theoretically defending at the time, and in the area, in reality they simply stood stock still as Sharp strolled in between them.
United saw out the remainder of the first half in near-total control. Their pressing was constant, allowing neither Moore or Mannone any time on the ball to start attacks. In these situations going long would have been an alternative option - but again, without Kermorgant to hold the ball up and with our available forwards either unwilling or unable to run in behind, there was nowhere to go.
Reading’s sloppiness continued in the second period, with several players visibly wilting under the pressure. United should have scored a third when Sharp thundered a header from a free kick straight at Mannone (who somehow clawed it out), and the minutes ticked by with the home side still looking much the more threatening.
Jaap Stam at this point introduced Paul McShane and John Swift in quick succession, hoping that the former’s leadership qualities and the latter’s creativity would help see Reading back into the game - or at least put a bit of life into a dreadful performance. And Swift did make a difference, immediately showing a friendliness with and level of care towards the ball that had been missing so far.
McShane, who by this point was playing as a battering ram (it was that desperate), glanced a header off target, and Swift saw a mazy run snuffed out by an excellent last-ditch challenge in the penalty area, before incredibly Reading actually scored. Swift played the ball in to Barrow wide on the left of the area, and his ball slid across goal was tapped in by Beerens. Although pressure of sorts was now being applied, no real alarms came United’s way, and when the full time whistle went no Reading fan could possibly complain about the result. A defeat had been exactly what this flat, drab performance deserved - and the margin really should have been more emphatic.
It’s easy to see why Reading fans are getting seriously concerned about this season. In this case it’s not so much the defeat as the manner of the loss which concerns me the most. Sheffield United are probably the best side I’ve seen us play this year, and any team that turns them over at Bramall Lane will have played out of their skin. A defeat was always to be expected.
The real problem is that we never looked even remotely like scoring. With no targetman, we couldn’t clip balls into a forward to be held up. With no creative midfielder on the pitch until well into the second half (this is perhaps understandable, as Stam went for what looked like a more combative three in the middle), we couldn’t pass our way through the home side, or dictate play. And with no real, scorching pace down the wings, we couldn’t hit balls over the top for Beerens or Aluko to chase.
Even though I don’t think Stam necessarily got his selection or formation wrong - with the injuries to McCleary and JDB there wasn’t much else he could have done - with the benefit of hindsight some of the tactics were questionable. With neither Kelly or Swift starting, we never looked incisive going forward. With the reversal to a back four (again I’m presuming this is because of McCleary’s injury), we looked shaky and flimsy defending. And, perhaps most ominously of all, with his failure to introduce Sam Smith onto the end following chants of ‘Bring on a striker’, he may well have alienated yet more of the fanbase.
The next two home games now look absolutely vital.