It’s easy - and understandable - to read a lot into a manager’s first game in charge. We all want to know how their spell at the club is going to pan out, and the opening match is (at the moment) our only evidence to work with. But it would be wrong - to a large degree, not completely - to do that with Jose Gomes and the 1-0 defeat at Millwall on Boxing Day.
As with Jaap Stam’s Dutch Revolution, the focus is not just on the short-term, but also on the long-term. Obviously there is now also the pressing concern of making sure Reading are in the Championship next season, but the principle of getting the Royals to play possession-based attractive football is the same.
That process started immediately on Boxing Day, with a brave/naive (take your pick) team selection and tactical set-up from Gomes. Reading kept the same 4-2-3-1 that Scott Marshall has used in the last two matches, but with a few tweaks.
In defence, Liam Moore was brought in for the less experienced Gabriel Osho, while Danny Loader moved from a central attacking area to the right wing, John Swift taking Loader’s previous central role, and Yakou Meite replacing Sam Baldock as the lone frontman. However, unlike in recent weeks, the wide men would not only stay quite narrow - leaving the full-backs to provide width - but also interchange with the striker, giving the Royals a fairly fluid front three.
In the early stages of the contest however, it looked like Reading had brought a knife to a gunfight. Millwall dominated the opening stages with an aggressive high press that penned the Royals back. Having won a free-kick just outside the area, Jed Wallace curled a beauty past the helpless Anssi Jaakkola, but it was a moment just later that truly defined the game to come.
Blackett, bringing the ball out from the back, overcooked his touch, leaving the ball loose just ahead of him. In a moment reminiscent of the hotheaded, rash Blackett of last season, he lunged in with a dangerous, uncontrolled challenge. Wallace on the other end made the most of the tackle, which may have been met with a yellow by another referee, but a red card it was.
With Reading moving to a makeshift back-four of Rinomhota-Yiadom-Moore-Richards - Swift and Bacuna ahead of them - Millwall continued to pile on the pressure. Although the hosts caused pressure with their direct aerial football - which impromptu centre half Yiadom did well to repel - it was Reading’s insistence on playing out from the back that really grated.
The problem was obvious - whenever Reading had a goal-kick, Jaakkola would always look to play the ball short to a defender or Bacuna, and Millwall knew it. On various occasions the Finn stuck to his manager’s instructions rather than booting it long (as sense dictated), putting his own side under avoidable pressure.
Down the other end, Reading would eventually grow into the game. Although they didn’t create any clear-cut chances, they’d done well to ride a rough spell in their third and start controlling the ball, with fewer men on the pitch than Millwall.
In atypical Reading fashion, they came out much stronger after the break. Gomes stuck to his guns in playing out from the back, and the Royals did well on a number of occasions to break the Millwall press before moving the ball upfield. Particular credit should go to centre-halves Moore and Yiadom, and Leandro Bacuna who was playing as the deepest midfielder on the day.
When they could, Reading would use the wide areas, Moore often carrying the ball out before laying it off to Richards on the left. Similarly, John Swift would play passes out from his pretty deep, central position, but if he were to be more effective Reading needed him higher up the pitch. Blackett’s red card prevented the Gomes from doing that though.
Despite their dominance of the ball in the second half, we couldn’t quite manage to carve Millwall open for a clear-cut opportunity. It was Swift who went closest to finding an equaliser, with his long-range free-kick smashing against the bar - agonisingly the underside of the bar - but not going in.
From open play, Danny Loader and Modou Barrow weren’t very effective, but Yakou Meite grew into the match. His mixture of strength and pace allowed him to both compete physically with Millwall’s bulky defenders and then cause them problems with runs in-behind. In the end though, he was withdrawn before he could conjure up a decisive moment, perhaps due to his recent lack of fitness.
Bacuna has impressed me this season with some noticeably maturer performances, but he threw that out of the window late on. In a show of his petulant side, he stood on a Millwall player in view of the linesman, and a straight red card was warranted.
The reaction I’ve seen on Twitter to the game (between full-time and the start of me writing this match report) is understandably downbeat. At the end of the day, losing to a relegation in whatever manner smacks of the same old rubbish performance and result. There’s no getting away from the fact that a 1-0 defeat to a relegation rival is a bad result - of course it is - but simply dismissing the match as another bad day for Reading misses out some key information, and nuance is important here.
Sure, Reading need to do a lot of work on creating chances - we knew that already - and getting used to Gomes’ style of play, but to bounce back from a seriously rough opening 20-25 minutes to dictate a lot of the rest of the game - while down to ten men - deserves credit. The team could quite easily have collapsed in the face of that early pressure, not reacted well and been comfortably beaten. I know that because I’ve seen it too many times before - we all have.
My immediate impressions of Gomes’ impact is that the players have responded well to his arrival. Not well enough for an opening win, of course, but they’re taking to his style of play, and the second-half improvement suggests he knows how to do a team talk. The task now is to continue working on that playing style on the training ground, identify who can adapt to it and who can’t. January’s going to be a big month.