Five and a half months ago, Yann Kermorgant walked off the Madejski Stadium pitch (via a mob of jubilant fans) having scored the goal that sent Reading to the Championship play-off final. Today, following a spell out through injury, he returned to the hallowed turf in RG2 for the first time, and the fortunes of the club and the feeling around the place couldn’t be more different. It must have been like walking into an Aldi that used to be a Waitrose.
Kermorgant’s inclusion in the 18 man squad brought about much celebration from the Royals fanbase when the team news was announced at 2pm, as did the news that Sam Smith would be starting a league game for the first time. The academy graduate was one of four changes that Jaap Stam made to the first XI, with Liam Kelly, John Swift and Paul McShane all coming into the side as Tyler Blackett, Leandro Bacuna, David Edwards and Mo Barrow all dropped out.
Reading started the first half brightly, with it becoming evident pretty quickly that Smith was very much playing the role of a target man as a number of balls were floated his way - the youngster worked hard to try to create opportunities for himself and his team-mates but Boro’s experienced centre-back of Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson held firm.
They could perhaps have given Joey van den Berg some tips in defending, who showed his reckless side a quarter of an hour into the game when his flailing arm caught Britt Assombalonga in the penalty area to give the visitors the opportunity to open the scoring from 12 yards. Grant Leadbitter took that opportunity, emphatically smashing the ball into the roof of the net giving Vito Mannone no chance.
Sone Aluko nearly gave the Royals an instant equaliser when he found space on the edge of the box, but his aim should have been better as his shot sailed over the bar. The rest of the half followed much of the same pattern - Reading getting themselves into positions to create decent opportunities but nothing coming of it due to poor decision making. Roy Beerens’ bizarre attempt to lob Darren Randolph when in acres of space on the left wing summing that up.
In fairness, it was difficult for either side to find any real rhythm as the half was littered with stoppages, the most concerning of these being the result of a clash of heads between Liam Moore and Tiago Ilori. Both players had to leave the field of play, but whilst Moore returned bandaged up and to a huge cheer, Ilori was rushed to hospital and replaced by Blackett. With growing concern over head injuries in the modern game, I hope it’s nothing too serious and wish the 24-year-old a speedy recovery.
Whilst it was promising to see Reading continue to go in search of an equaliser as Middlesbrough sat back in the second half, I was ultimately left frustrated as too often the wrong pass was played or a nice passage of play failed to end in an effort on goal. Smith continued to be the main, but still minimal, threat from the home side, as he forced a good save from Randolph before having a penalty appeal turned down with 20 minutes to play.
The visitors’ second goal came fifteen minutes from time as Jonny Howson got away from Blackett too easily on the right hand side before putting a perfect cross in for an unmarked Assombalonga to easily head past Mannone. Chris Gunter and Paul McShane were left looking at each other as if lost, the latter having struggled to deal with the former Nottingham Forest striker’s pace and power for most of the game.
That killed any chance Reading had of getting back into the game, but in truth if you fail to create shooting opportunities then any chance you have of winning any game is instantly gone, and that’s where Jaap Stam’s team let themselves down. Substitutes Barrow and Kermorgant brought a bit of life into the side, but even with the Gambian’s pace and the Frenchman’s hold up play, the Royals still struggled for chances apart from Aluko’s ambitious volley that Randolph tipped round the post with a minute of normal time to play.
Another day of frustrating, dull and unambitious football from Reading. Granted, it certainly wasn’t their worst performance of the campaign, but there wasn’t anything I saw today that made me think that they’ll get out of this rut anytime soon.
Too many mistakes are still being made in defence, which I find astonishing to say considering that the backline has been together since last summer and are coached by a former word class defender. Against a Middlesbrough side not in a poor run of form themselves (yes, this was their first win in seven games), or just against any side full of confidence, then we may have been punished heavily.
It’s not much better attacking wise. For all the complaints that we need to buy a striker, there’s no point forking out £10+ million for a Nelson Oliveira or Jordan Hugill if no one around them is going to create opportunities. We had just three shots on target today, one of which came in the 89th minute when the game as contest was over. That is unacceptable, and whilst a fair portion of blame must lie at the doors of the players who are clearly under performing, Jaap Stam’s approach must still be scrutinised. We were nowhere near direct enough, and with so many sloppy passes you have to question whether this possession based philosophy instils confidence in the squad as at the moment every player looks more intent on protecting themselves from making a mistake than on trying something that might drive the team forward and create a goalscoring opportunity.
We’ve won one of our last eight league games, haven’t scored more than one goal in a game for two months and sit just two points and two places above the Championship relegation zone. It’s looking increasingly bleak, and with Jaap Stam in charge I can’t see fortunes changing anytime soon. Tuesday’s game against Nottingham Forest could be one last chance for the Dutchman to save his job, as on the day he handed Sam Smith his full league debut, the 19-year-old’s namesake’s hit “Writing’s on the Wall” couldn’t be more apt.