Just when you think Reading are headed for disaster, they sometimes find a way to surprise you. That hasn’t happened too often this season - when things have looked like turning out badly they usually have - but it did on Saturday. Going into half-time, it looked like The Royals were playing to the same old script: some promising moments let down by sloppy errors.
It’s credit to the players, and of course to an under-pressure Paul Clement, that they ripped that script up and threw it in the bin. Reading were far from at their best against Bristol City, but they did the most important thing: brushing off a frustrating first-half to edge themselves ahead in the second and not fluff their lines a third time. It wasn’t pretty, and we sure had to dig in, but we got there - just.
Sam Walker came back in for the injured Anssi Jaakkola (Vito Mannone is also out), with John O’Shea again partnering Liam Moore at the heart of the defence, flanked by Andy Yiadom and Tyler Blackett.
Clement changed things up in the middle of the park, a problem position for Reading in recent weeks. In an attempt at rebalancing the midfield, Andy Rinomhota was swapped in for John Swift, Liam Kelly pushed back to his old ‘quarterback’ role in front of the defence and Leandro Bacuna deployed further forward to play to his strengths.
Rounding out the team, Yakou Meite started as the target man up top, with Modou Barrow (his disagreements with the manager now brushed off) and Sam Baldock on the right and left flanks respectively.
Reading got off to the perfect start after just eight minutes. Bristol City cleared a free-kick that had been swung in from the right, but Liam Kelly’s ball back in found its way through to Yakou Meite who decisively slammed home with his left foot.
1-0 up, the home side looked confident and started to push forward well, even if they didn’t create anything clear-cut to double their advantage. Both Liam Kelly and Leandro Bacuna put shots just off target from outside the area, although perhaps the former was just finding his range? (More on that later...)
Nonetheless, it would be 1-1 on 23 minutes. A cross came over from Reading’s right which was headed out first by John O’Shea then Leandro Bacuna, but Sam Baldock’s rash challenge gave Jack Hunt acres of space to slide in Marlon Pack who converted with ease.
The visitors would go close to making it 2-1 later on in the half, Sam Walker saving from Niklas Eliasson at his near post, Famara Diedhiou firing just over (having again been given the freedom of the County of Berkshire to turn and shoot on the edge of the box) and Matty Taylor’s header blocked at point-blank range by Walker.
Down the other end there was more bad news for Reading. Yakou Meite had already gone down several times with an ankle injury, but was finally forced off on 37 minutes. That meant a rejig up front; Baldock going from left wing to striker, Barrow staying on the right and Garath McCleary lining up on the left (although the two wingers would swap side at various points in the match).
The first half wasn’t done for action just yet though. Liam Kelly did well to find space on the edge of the box before sumptuously curling the ball into the far corner - a goal of absolute beauty. It’s a huge shame that some of our best attacking play was almost immediately undone by some of the worst defending; a series of frustrating errors when Reading had several chances to clear the danger.
- Eliasson (allowed too much space by Yiadom) puts a cross in, headed away by Moore,
- Another deep cross from Walsh, lofted over the six-yard box from right to left,
- Eliasson wins the header (against Yiadom), putting the ball back into the six-yard box for Taylor to flick on (unchallenged by Moore),
- Brownhill beats Blackett to the ball and tucks home.
It was dire defending, but nothing we’re not used to by now. Considering at least three players are at fault for at least part of the build-up play, it can’t be pinned on any individual defender. Paul Clement rightly highlighted the problem in his post-match comments and correctly pointed out that we need to remove these errors if we’re to push up the table, but why hasn’t that happened already?
The visitors would push forward more in the second half, meaning Reading had to rely on the counter-attack if they were to edge themselves in front and Leandro Bacuna, bursting forward from midfield, had two bites of the cherry. Initially he robbed the ball off City just outside the area, giving Reading a two-on-one, but the Curacao international failed to slide in Baldock, the chance going begging.
However, 13 minutes later, he made amends for his error. On another counter, Bacuna played the ball out to Barrow on the left wing before finding space in the box. The Gambian cleverly pulled the ball back for Bacuna who slid it past Fielding. 3-2 Reading, against the run of play.
From there on in, Reading went into rearguard action mode. There were nervy moments when Brownhill hit the post, Diedhiou air-kicked after Walker flapped at a cross, and Weimann’s shot was strongly parried by Walker, but we just about held on. The team brushed off their previously dire defending to shut out the opposition, showing the same resilience they did against Millwall.
Credit should also go to the (diminished) home crowd who really got behind the team in the closing stages. Sensing a vital league win, the fans upped the volume and roared the team on, cheering every tackle won and corner gained as if they were a goal.
Credit where it’s due, Paul Clement got it right on Saturday. Some awful first-half defending will badly need rectifying ahead of Ipswich Town’s visit next weekend, but the under-pressure manager delivered when it counted.
Injuries to a number of players meant team selection would always be tough, but the calls he made paid off. In particular, his decision to rebalance the midfield by dropping Kelly back to a deeper position and deploying Bacuna and Rinomhota as an energetic, combative pair higher up the pitch gave the team more presence in central areas than it has previously had.
Elsewhere, the experience of John O’Shea at the back and Garath McCleary in advanced areas proved vital in ensuring Reading saw out their one-goal advantage. Their know-how was valuable, and has been missed when we’ve blown loads previously, like against Derby County at home, Blackburn Rovers and West Brom (both away).
Praise should also go out to Yakou Meite for scoring his fifth goal of the season - he’s now just two behind Jon Dadi Bodvarsson - so Reading will be praying the first-half injury that forced him off the pitch isn’t too serious. Another youngster, Andy Rinomhota, oozed class and composure in his first league start for the club and will be hoping for a run of starts.
But what has this match done for Paul Clement himself? He admitted/joked after the game that it’s bought him at least another week of employment at Reading but, whether that’s the case or not, the win - and the manner in which it came - has eased the pressure. Saturday’s game had been talked-up as a ‘must win’ and Clement ensured the team played to that occasion.
Next weekend’s visit of rock-bottom Ipswich Town is surely another vital game, with both struggling sides looking to it as a realistic source of three points. Reading haven’t won back-to-back league fixtures in quite some time and they won’t get a better opportunity than this.
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