The more I look back at it, Saturday’s defeat to Norwich City just seems so inevitable - although Reading were always in with a chance of getting a result at Carrow Road, the same factors that have haunted this team all season meant that didn’t happen. Injuries, dire defending, little to no confidence and such samey tactics - we’ve seen it all before, and nothing changes.
Like us, the Canaries are going through a pretty miserable season after doing well last year (although they’re in mid-table obscurity rather than a relegation fight), and our Town End writer Connor Southwell labelled his team “painstakingly average” in the week. For all Reading’s faults and flaws, this was a game we had a real chance of winning. Wolves was always going to be a tall order, but a trip to a below-par mid-table side with nothing to play for? A great opportunity for three points.
The injury plague strikes again... sort of
Not having your best players available will hurt any team, but it’s particularly critical for Reading and the state they’re in. Jaap Stam’s system requires specialists, or at least capable players, all over the pitch - so it hardly helps when we’re lacking our:
- Two best left backs,
- Two most experienced centre halves,
- Two best strikers,
- Best attacking midfielder (although John Swift was able to come off the bench, he wasn’t fully fit),
- And any back-up wide players.
Reading have been forced into putting out a side that’s below full-strength for pretty much the entire season, and the same was true of Saturday’s team, which went thusly:
Jaakkola; Gunter, Ilori, Moore, Blackett; Edwards, Kelly, Clement; Aluko, Smith, Barrow.
Subs: Mannone, Holmes, Evans, Bacuna, van den Berg, Swift, Kermorgant.
That said, Stam really didn’t help himself with two really poor calls - starting flappy-hands Jaakkola over Mannone, despite the Finn putting in some embarrassing mistakes in recent weeks, and picking a midfield with all the bite and intensity of a boiled cabbage. Kelly and Clement can pass the ball well enough, but they need an enforcer alongside them to do the dirty work - Bacuna and Evans, heck even Joey are all valid options - Edwards, who hasn’t fit into this team all season, isn’t.
As they usually do, Reading started off pretty well, with the tenacity of Kelly in the midfield giving them some oomph, and Smith working hard up front to hold the ball up. In the end though, we held out for all of 14 minutes before a straightforward set-piece unlocked the door.
James Maddison’s outswinging corner was flicked on to the head of Mario Vrancic, who had the freedom of East Anglia to head home at the far post. Not only did the first Norwich man win his header, but Vrancic was allowed to get a header off too - with no-one on the back post to save Reading’s blushes.
Twelve minutes later, it was 2-0 - another corner, this time swung in from the left went straight to Grant Hanley who rose high, outmuscling Tiago Ilori as if he wasn’t there, and nodded home.
At that point, it looked like Reading were on course for another drubbing, but Liam Kelly’s strike on 32 minutes briefly defied the script. With the ball loose in the area after Modou Barrow’s blocked shot, the Irishman lashed home from a tight angle - it was the opposite of Reading’s performance thus far: spontaneous confidence to take advantage of the situation. It even gave the away end, who had started up chants of ‘we want Stam out’, something to cheer and get behind.
Normal service was resumed a few minutes later as a long ball in behind the defence left Chris Gunter stranded - Murphy racing away and getting a low cross in that Jaakkola punched away whilst taking out a Norwich player: penalty. Maddison stepped up to stroke home, sending Anssi the wrong way; 3-1.
Confidence, or a lack thereof
With the exception of their first half goal which came largely against the run of play, each Norwich goal seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of Reading. At 0-0, there was a palpable sense that the team knew they could get a win if they played well - if they just believed. With the opener (and goals two and three), that belief simply evaporated.
It’s a testament to Liam Kelly’s performance on the day that he defied the rest of the team’s lack of confidence not once, but twice. With 51 minutes on the clock, Basingstoke’s answer to David Silva found space on the left, and whipped in the most gorgeous of crosses to find Sam Smith who Latched onto the delivery to turn it home.
At that point, with the momentum behind them and the home team shaky, any previous Reading team would have taken heart from the knowledge that they were back in the game and could still save the day. Not this one.
Despite their second goal, Reading had no confidence that they could get something out of the game. Touches were sloppy, passes went astray, and movement off the ball was borderline non-existent as players hid rather than making themselves an option - all the signs of a team that has been defeated by its own self-doubt.
There was no late revival as the team desperately pushed for an equaliser, no concerted fight to get the ball into the net by whatever means necessary.
Such samey tactics
They weren’t helped in that fightback by an insistence on tediously, patiently building out from the back before getting an attack underway. During the bulk of the game, that’s absolutely fine - keep the ball and work an opening by all means - but in the closing minutes it was madness.
Reading had two big strikers on the pitch in Yann Kermorgant and Sam Smith - use them. When you’re 3-2 down away from home and pushing for an equaliser, for God’s sake whack it long into the box. I don’t blame the players for that - ultimately, they’re only doing what the manager tells them to. It certainly didn’t help that Stam put Kermorgant in midfield rather than up front.
Post-match debate will, quite rightly, focus on the manager and his role in Reading’s demise - a lot of the team’s problems are directly his fault, but even when those problems aren’t his fault, it’s still his responsibility to overcome any challenges the team comes up against.
Focusing all our frustrations on Stam is understandable, but it’s also an over-simplification. Reading are contending with a lot of problems at the moment, with injuries, poor recruitment, low morale and a lack of engagement with the fans among them.
I’m not convinced that sacking a manager is as effective a tool as it’s made out to be - particularly when a team is dealing with such a complicated mix of problems on and off the pitch - and I’ve thought that way all season.
That said, Reading have got eight games left in which to save their Championship status, and they’re in desperate need of a boost. Will giving Stam the boot provide that? Maybe, but don’t expect it to be a magic cure.
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