If you were writing the ultimate frustrating ending to a Reading match, what we saw on Monday night would probably go close to what you’d come up with. An excellent first half display, capped off with two goals (albeit scrappy ones) had put the Royals in control at the break. What’s more, it came against a high-flying Cardiff City side managed by old foe Neil Warnock. Lovely stuff.
The late fightback from the visitors was inevitable - after all, sides don’t get to second in the division by meekly surrendering when they’re losing. Was it, however, inevitable that Reading blew the two goal lead they’ve worked so hard to get in the first place?
Much of the post-match debate seems to have focussed on Reading’s shortcomings - in particular the poor game management from the players, who perhaps should have cleared their lines with a little more gusto, and Jaap Stam’s own inability to make sure the Royals saw their lead out.
The Dutchman’s decision to wait until the 83rd minute before making a substitution has been criticised on social media - probably fairly, as an earlier switch could have helped to stem the Welsh tide that battered the Royals’ rearguard action in the closing stages.
Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t.
That neatly brings me on to my main point here - Stam’s options on the bench were so poor that he was unable to make a change that could have significantly impacted the match. In full, the substitutes were: Jaakkola, Ilori, Blackett, Clement, Beerens, Popa and Bodvarsson.
In the end, the last two on that list were introduced (for Aluko and Kelly, respectively). Taking out the timing of the substitutions, both of those alterations were spot on - a tired winger was removed in a like-for-like change to allow us to hit Cardiff on the counter, and swapping Kelly for Bodvarsson allowed Kermorgant to drop back into the midfield, thereby massively improving Reading’s ability to deal with an aerial barrage.
Apart from that though, what else could Stam do? The two defenders (Ilori and Blackett) have hardly been that convincing this season, so introducing either would have been a gamble, whilst the attacking-minded Beerens and Clement weren’t the right picks for seeing out a 2-0 lead.
The lack of a decent central midfielder on the bench (well, any central midfielder - creative utility man Clement doesn’t count) was a huge weakness for Reading on Monday night. When defending a lead, keeping your backline as it is, but bringing in another ‘stopper’ in the middle of the park is probably the most sensible thing to do in that circumstance. Except, we couldn’t do that.
George Evans, Stephen Quinn, John Swift and Andy Rinomhota are all injured, whilst the elusive Sandro Wieser and Danzell Gravenberch are both out on loan with KSV Roeselare. To be honest, any of them being fully fit and available from the bench on Monday night would have given Stam a much better chance of pulling the match back into Reading’s favour.
Relying on Dave Edwards, Liam Kelly and Joey van den Berg - in the hope that one or two of those unfit four might return to first team action - isn’t going to work out well. For whatever reason, Reading have a big fitness problem - my money is on Jaap Stam working the players a tad too hard on the training ground, although that’s just a guess - so a big squad is vital if we’re to compete properly this season.
Being cynical, I doubt we’ll see the injury list properly clear up and stay that way, so dipping into the market in January, even if it’s just the loan market, is an absolute no-brainer.