The last time I wrote a match report for The Tilehurst End, Reading had just lost 2-1 to Millwall at the New Den. Apart from summing up the team’s performance as “lifeless”, I said the following:
“Football is a game of fine margins, and quite simply Reading aren’t getting on the right side of them at the moment.”
In short, the opposite was true against Nottingham Forest. Reading put on a mature, confident performance, and crucially they took the initiative in an attempt to win the game, doing so convincingly.
How did we manage it? To start off, Jaap Stam did himself a huge favour by picking a balanced team that actually made sense. The back four, with Leandro Bacuna (right) and Chris Gunter (left) either side of Paul McShane and Liam Moore was reminiscent of the defence which kept a clean sheet at Elland Road a few weeks ago (and bizarrely hadn’t been replicated until Tuesday night).
The midfield, with Joey van den Berg and Dave Edwards sitting relatively deep so that John Swift could push forwards, was not only balanced, but also got the best out of each of the trio individually - Swift putting on the best performance of his Reading career, and Edwards looking a shrewd buy.
Stam, to his credit, also kept faith in youngster Sam Smith after the 19 year-old had made his full league debut against Middlesbrough. It wasn’t an easy night for Smith, but he’ll learn a lot from playing twice in four days against well-drilled Championship defences.
Out wide, Sone Aluko and Modou Barrow is probably the most logical pairing, with Adrian Popa down the pecking order and Roy Beerens flattering to deceive of late.
All of the above may seem relatively basic, but isn’t that the point? I can talk through the starting XI without having any difficulty in explaining it, unlike what we’ve often seen from Jaap Stam’s selections in recent weeks. The Dutchman picked a straightforward, sensible team, and it paid off.
Contrast that to the previously-mentioned Millwall game, when the manager over-complicated things in the extreme. The formation that night looked like a 5-2-3 (although I can’t confirm that for certain), and didn’t contain a striker.
The lesson here? Simplicity pays off. It’s not always about picking an ingenious formation that bamboozles the opposition - just get the best out of the players you have.
The game itself
Reading were in control of the game against Forest, without being dominant, which is of course absolutely fine. In truth, the away side didn’t offer much until the second half at the earliest, but the Royals still took the initiative. In too many other games, a below-par opposition has been an excuse for a below-par Reading (we’re not very good, but they’re not very good either), but not last night.
Going forwards, confidence oozed from Swift, who benefited so, so much from playing in a balanced midfield. Not only were there two players covering his forward runs, but there was also no Liam Kelly who, as another attacking midfielder, doesn’t quite compliment Swift.
Similarly, Barrow and Aluko were happy to run at the defence to make things happen, whereas Gunter and Bacuna bombed forward from full-back. That kind of bold, enterprising play has been missing this season, with Reading too often content to play the safe option and keep the ball.
The home side’s third is perhaps the best indicator of that. Although the game was comfortably in Reading’s favour at 2-0, Aluko, on receiving the ball from Clement on the left side of the box, weaved his way into the box before getting a shot off. The deflection off the goalie was fortuitous, but ultimately Reading made their own luck - take the gamble, force the ball into dangerous positions and you just might score.
Reading were also, refreshingly, happy to hit Forest on the counter - which they did to lethal effect. For both the first and second goals, the home side blazed up the pitch and unlocked the visitors’ defence without needing more than two passes. For the opener, it was a charge forward from Bacuna; for the second, Swift set free Barrow with the pass of the match, before bursting onto the Gambian’s chip to squeeze the ball past Smith.
Simple, direct football done to devastating effect.
The defensive job on the other hand didn’t have to be anything too special, but the effective solidity of Bacuna, McShane, Moore and Gunter, shielded by van den Berg and Edwards, will be very encouraging for a side that’s leaked goals too easily this season.
Stam will of course be annoyed at the late consolation which besmirched what would have been a deserved clean sheet, particularly from the point of view of Vito Mannone, who pulled off two saves in the second half of which Gianluigi Buffon would have been proud.
The crown lies a little less heavy
Last night’s result has massively eased the pressure on Jaap Stam. Not only did Reading get the win, but they did it so convincingly that you’d be forgiven for forgetting what the fuss was in the first place. Stam has also managed to, inadvertently or not, stumble upon an effective system that can only be strengthened by players returning from injury.
Not just the result, but also the manner in which it was achieved, provide a springboard to propel Reading away from the relegation places. The question now though is whether or not Stam will stick with a system that’s made possible the best performance of the season so far.
It’s in his nature to tinker - I desperately hope he doesn’t.