After the encouraging 3-3 draw with Derby at the weekend, many people, such as myself, would have been forgiven for approaching last night’s fixture with Sheffield United with cautious hopefulness, especially considering that Chris Wilder’s side have been in inconsistent form of late and had lost their previous three away games.
What I should have taken into consideration is that not only will Reading always disappoint you, but that two of those defeats on the road for the Blades came against Premier League Leicester City and runaway Championship leaders Wolves. So, unsurprisingly, my optimistic bubble was burst within the opening ten minutes at the Madejski Stadium.
Not through a goal (not that it would be long before that happened), but through yet more calamitous defending from Reading’s backline. Both the usually reliable Liam Moore and the not-so-reliable Tiago Ilori made basic errors in possession, allowing Leon Clarke two golden opportunities to find the back of the net. For a man with 15 goals to his name already this season, the 33-year-old should arguably have scored both, and these missed chances should have proven a warning to the Royals.
I’ve said countless times before and I will continue to do so for as long as Jaap Stam is in charge, to play this possession-based style of football, you need to pass the ball with confidence and conviction and be calm whilst in possession of the ball. Reading currently do none of those things, and that’s why they continue to gift the opposition chance after chance. Especially against a side like Sheffield United, who had clearly done their homework on the Royals’ lack of self-belief and thus simply put them under constant pressure whenever they had the ball, you’re always going to be punished.
The opening goal came with 11 minutes on the clock as Clarke found far too much space on the left and crossed for Billy Sharp in the middle who was denied by Vito Mannone at first, but made no mistake at the second time of asking. For two players both in their thirties, Clarke and Sharp make quite a strike partnership.
The rest of the first half was a largely unentertaining affair, although the visitors continued to control the game with Reading erratic in possession and unable to muster virtually any sort of attacking threat. With Mo Barrow unjustifiably dropped to the bench and Garath McCleary forced off injured after just six minutes, they could not utilise the wings as they have done relatively successfully this season. To his credit, Liam Kelly did make some nice runs out wide, but as a result the Royals then lacked any composure in the middle. We had just six touches in Sheffield United’s box in the first half.
If we had been able to make it to half-time just the one goal down, it might not have been that disheartening, but Mark Duffy dashed those hopes in the 44th minute with a rocket of a shot that flew into the top corner, giving Mannone no chance at all. An unstoppable goal yes, but you have to question the fact that both Omar Richards and Leandro Bacuna failed to close the winger down. It’s an issue that has consistently been the case this season, and an even more frustrating one considering that Sheffield United proved throughout the game what a difference a bit of pressure on your opposition can do.
Opportunity to level
The first fifteen minutes of the second half was Reading’s brightest period of the game in which they came so close to drawing the contest level. Liam Kelly, who had clearly been targeted by Sheffield United and was fouled continuously throughout the game, was brought down 25 yards out. Leandro Bacuna took the resulting free-kick, and his dipping effort forced a good save from the Blades’ substitute goalkeeper Simon Moore (brother of former Reading academy keeper Stuart), but Omar Richards was in the right place at the right time to convert from a tight angle on the rebound. That’s two goals in three games now for the promising full-back, and it was another strike expertly driven into the back of the net.
Ten minutes later, and Kelly was fouled again, this time in the penalty box, meaning with an hour on the clock, Reading were given an opportunity to be level in a contest that they were probably luck to still be in. Bacuna was once again the man to take on the dead ball responsibility, but his spot-kick, aimed to the left of the goal, was at the perfect height for Moore to get two hands to and push away to safety.
The Royals would be punished for the miss just two minutes later in controversial circumstances. After Liam Moore went down with an injury, Chris Gunter allowed the ball to go out of play, with Sheffield United seemingly launching it back to Mannone upon the restart. But in an act of poor sportsmanship, Billy Sharp accepted the long kick towards the Reading goal as his own, volleying into the back of the net. Reading’s players were understandably furious, with Mannone booked for his protests, but ultimately the debate about whether the goal should have stood or not is largely pointless. Even if it was chalked off, Sheffield United had countless opportunities throughout the game that they should have scored, they deserved the win by a country mile. Clayton Donaldson could even have made it 4-1 late on, but his clipped effort bounced just wide.
It leads me on to my final ramblings on what was a hugely disappointing night at the Madejski Stadium (how many times have we said that this season?). Saturday’s encouraging result and performance could have been an opportunity for Reading to kick on and move clear of relegation worries, but last night we just reverted to type. The defence was nervous, the midfield was lacklustre and the attack was virtually non-existent.
Questions will continue to be asked about Jaap Stam’s job after this performance, and rightly so, as the problems highlighted above are in part down to his restricting philosophy that has quite clearly not survived a second season. But the squad are not blameless at all, as the majority of the players out on the pitch put in yet another abject performance. Some lack confidence, some lack motivation, some lack ability. If you’re Pelle Clement, you lack all three.
The soundbites from the squad about still believing in Jaap Stam can continue, but I won’t believe them for a second. You do not continue to put in dire performances and record just one win in 14 league games if you are still behind the manager. If the squad really wanted Stam to stay, they would buck up their ideas on the pitch and start putting in performances to proud of consistently.
As it stands, Reading Football Club are sleepwalking towards relegation. A likely defeat away to Wolves on Saturday could push us closer before a hugely vital encounter with Bolton Wanderers next Tuesday. I’m well aware that our issues lie deeper than simply the manager’s position, but letting Stam go and bringing in someone who can give the squad a confidence boost and motivation to start performing will hopefully at least start to solve the horrible mess we currently find ourselves in.