The Madejski Stadium’s final game of 2018 ended just as half of the other 22 league games this calendar year in the Royal county have - in defeat, as Reading lost 1-0 Middlesbrough to slip to 21st in the Championship table.
In what was Scott Marshall’s final game as caretaker manager, four academy graduates featured in the starting line-up, with left-back Omar Richards making his first appearance since August and Gabriel Osho making his senior debut at centre-back.
In addition, Mo Barrow and Danny Loader came back into the starting line-up, whilst John O’Shea and Marc McNulty returned to the bench. Liam Kelly and Chris Gunter dropped out of the squad completely.
Middlesbrough dominate in the air
You know what you’re getting when a Tony Pulis team comes to town, and it was clear from the off that Middlesbrough were set to use their strength, power and aerial ability to try and claim a first win in six matches. Britt Assombalonga, although not that tall, is a brute of a player and was a handful in the opening exchanges as debutant Osho found his feet.
It’s easy to see why Boro don’t score many goals as they offered little threat from open play, instead proving the most dangerous through set-pieces, thanks to 6ft 5in Aden Flint and 6ft 4in Dael Fry coming up from the back. Fry won a quite magnificent eight aerial duels during the game, double anyone else on the pitch.
Indeed, the visitors had the ball in the back of the net midway through the first half as Ryan Shotton nodded home from a free-kick, but his celebrations were cut short as the assistant referee flagged for offside. To his credit, Anssi Jaakkola was commanding in the area and punched or caught a number of dangerous balls into the box.
At the other end of the pitch, Flint and Fry (a rather catchy double act name) also limited Reading’s threat with their aerial prowess, leaving poor old Sam Baldock, only 5ft 7in, without a hope in hell of getting into the game. The Royals’ attacking midfield trio, especially Loader, did try to play the ball to the former Brighton man’s feet, but all to often he found the chance go begging.
It was a surprise, then, that Jon Dadi Bodvarsson was not brought off the bench until the 85th minute, with the Icelander showing even in his short cameo that he could have provided the Royals with a focal point that they were desperately crying out for for most of the game.
Reading lack the quality required
Baldock’s struggles were illustrative of the whole team’s lack of firepower. Getting the ball up the pitch seemed no trouble at all, with all of the back four happy and comfortable bringing it out of defence, Rinomhota and Bacuna prepared to drive forward from midfield, and Barrow in his element terrorising Shotton.
It was what came next that was the problem. As much as Middlesbrough’s attack is unfruitful, their defence is the best in the league and Reading struggled to break them down. The Royals’ final ball was all too often lacking, Barrow’s crosses being particular unsuccessful. Even when they did get in positions to shoot, they lacked composure and a clinical nature in front of a goal. I can’t think of a time where Boro keeper Darren Randolph was seriously tested, bar perhaps Richards’ effort from outside the box in the first half.
Defensively, the Royals seemed to be improving but remained shaky at times and showed their naivety in conceding the winning goal. By both attempting to close down Jonny Howson, Barrow and Richards left acres of space on Boro’s right hand for Paddy McNair to run into and receive the ball. The Northern Irishman’s low cross was stabbed home by George Friend, somehow allowed to drift in from left-back unmarked and untracked.
Having won just three points from losing positions so far this season, Reading were always going to struggle to get back into the game, and they seemed to enter panic mode after conceding. Whilst they did push for an equaliser, passes went astray and shots went sailing over the crossbar - many seemed to lose their heads and all cohesion went out of the window. Middlesbrough should have even made it 2-0, but goalscorer Friend incredibly hit the crossbar from two yards out.
Something to build on?
Whilst new Royals boss Jose Gomes might not have necessarily been overly impressed with what he saw on his first time at the Madejski Stadium, he would have seen areas of promise that can be worked on. He undoubtedly has a big job on his hands to get the club out of the rut they’ve been stuck in for 18 months, but it’s not all doom and gloom.
Reading were far from outplayed by a Middlesbrough side who now sit fourth in the Championship, and may perhaps consider themselves a tad unlucky not to take a point from their final home game of 2018. As mentioned, with more quality in the final third, and more composure after they fall behind, there’s the makings of a team who could survive relegation.
The inclusion of four academy players in the starting line-up shows how the youth set-up continues to be a shining light. After a shaky start, debutant Gabriel Osho became more confident as the game progressed, whilst Andy Rinomhota was once again excellent in the midfield. Their continued involvement will be vital under Gomes and is really something to be optimistic about.
January is a huge month as it will not only allow Reading to trim their squad, but also hopefully mean they can add some of that much needed quality. The Chinese owners appear to have spent a fair bit of money on getting Gomes in, so one would hope that they are prepared to back him in the transfer window as well.
A dismal year is drawing to a close, but a new era is beginning in Berkshire. Let’s just hope it’s not a false dawn.