Before the Royals’ game at Portman Road against a solid Ipswich Town side, Jaap Stam made one change to the side that had come so close to a deserved victory against Cardiff last Tuesday. Tyler Blackett came in for Liam Kelly, with Blackett fitting in to the left-hand side of the back four, with a three man midfield and the normal front line of Aluko, Barrow and Bodvarsson.
Unfortunately, we never really got the chance to see how the Royals would compete early on, as within five or so minutes they were behind. Calum Connolly was allowed oceans of space to drive forward from midfield after Reading gave the ball away in sloppy fashion, and he casually meandered to the edge of the area completely unchallenged. His right foot shot was accurate and directed just inside the near post, but as a scuffed effort that rolled more than skimmed, Vito Mannone may be slightly unhappy at his failure to keep it out.
After going a goal down, Reading did actually rally pretty well, and created several very good chances. Yann Kermorgant saw a header cleared off the line, Sone Aluko shot just wide after a right-hand-side cut back, and Mo Barrow almost set up Kermorgant for a tap in but the Frenchman saw the ball cleared off his toes at the last minute. Dave Edwards also saw a shot cleared off the line, and in general the home side were being pegged back by wave after wave of attack. The Royals were playing with confidence, with Chris Gunter and Mo Barrow in particular impressing.
It was utterly frustrating and sickening therefore that the second Ipswich goal arrived just when the pressure seemed to be cranking up. Again, sloppy and carefree defending saw a corner conceded down the left, and when a ball came in to the near post it was flicked on by a completely unmarked attacker. Lurking eight yards out (and unchallenged) was Joe Garner, with the former Rangers man not going to miss an open goal from that distance.
To be completely honest, looking back at the game it was probably all over at this point. Even though the Royals dominated the ball from that point (just before the half hour mark) until the half-time whistle, they created little of substance. The second goal really did seem to have taken some serious wind out of their sails, and Ipswich could now sit back, confident in the knowledge that they’d done the hard work.
And the home side were still getting plenty of chances on the break, with the minutes after the second half started showing exactly how vulnerable Reading are to quick counter-attacks. Paul McShane and Liam Moore were being tested to their limits by the Ipswich forwards, who really should have made it 3-0 by the end of the game. Connolly had another good chance when he arrowed an effort straight at Mannone, and Bersant Celina should really have scored when clean through.
The Royals main chances in the second half amounted to very little, a Moore header having to be plucked out of the air after almost bouncing down and up over the Town keeper, and Barrow screwed a volley wide of the near post after a good move lead to him being in space following a cross from the right.
By the time the final whistle came, the game had been dead for some time and both sets of fans had started to leave early. The final 10/15 minutes were noteworthy only for a seemingly endless succession of Reading corners that came to nothing, and Town nearly getting in on the break several times.
A smattering of boos broke out into the cold East Anglian air amongst the away support when the game ended, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite actually controlling the game for almost the entire first half, Reading committed the cardinal sin of conceding early goals whilst on top, against a side they knew would sit back and play long balls anyway. The early strikes allowed Ipswich to kill the game completely. and made them look a far better side than they actually are, as the home forwards inevitably had much more time and space when on the break.
While the Royals’ passing was crisp and incisive during the first period (and should be praised for its confidence), in the second half against a packed defence that rarely came forward, they had few answers. While it’s hard to attach too much blame to any one individual for this, in general the ball needed to be transferred from defence to midfield quicker. That quick transition that is the Holy Grail of possession-based sides once again eluded us, meaning the only options were either crosses (Kermorgant was poor and failed to provide a target for most of these), or eventually long diagonals into a box full of hulking Ipswich defenders.
Having said all this, I think it’s important to remain as upbeat as possible about the last month or so in general. Portman Road is an extremely tough ground to win on and Ipswich are a very organised side, just like all Mick McCarthy teams. While the defensive naivety is obviously hugely frustrating, in general play the team once again clicked quite well. With a few minor adjustments, and continued work on the training pitch, I do feel confident these defensive mistakes, and the failure to move the ball from defense to midfield at a reasonable speed, can be properly addressed.