As I sat down to start writing this mid-Saturday morning, the euphoria of Reading actually getting a win for a change hasn’t quite worn off. The 1-0 victory over the Fakest of Hoops wasn’t pretty - arguably wasn’t deserved - but boy was it satisfying. In the end, it had everything: a wonder-goal, the frustration of going down to ten, mounting anxiety as the defence repelled wave upon wave of attacks, and late drama.
Vito Mannone and Sone Aluko won the plaudits for two magnificent moments that won Reading the game, whilst Liam Moore put in a heroic shift at centre half. Whilst those three players and their contributions were decisive, they were ultimately part of a Royals team that had a very different mood to it than it has in recent weeks.
A conservative team selection
Paul Clement set his team up in a fairly conservative 4-1-4-1 that saw Vito Mannone, Joey van den Berg, John Swift and Chris Martin restored to the team in place of Anssi Jaakkola, Liam Kelly, the other P. Clement and Sam Smith. Kelly was the one of the four to miss out through illness, whilst the other changes were tactical. Recalling Mannone after a rocky few games for Jaakkola was very much expected, whilst Joey restored some solidity to a midfield that had been lightweight with both Clement and Kelly in it. Martin, available again after illness, was understandably preferred to Smith due to his experience.
The team selection may not have been wildly different to what Jaap Stam would have put out - injuries restricted Clement’s options - but the tactics were. The difference was most noticeable off the ball where Reading chose to drop back deep into a low block rather than pressing high. It meant that QPR saw plenty of the ball for vast swathes of the game as Reading were starved of it. The system suited hard-working Dave Edwards well, whilst the creativity of John Swift and Modou Barrow was stifled by them both being kept deep.
In possession, Reading were a lot happier to get the ball forward quite quickly, particularly when the defence was under pressure. Besides a few jittery back passes in the first half on a drenched pitch, the defensive slips of recent weeks were no longer there - instead, Mannone, Moore and co. gave the ball a good ol’ hoof when they felt the need.
Stylistically, the players did on a few occasions seem to get caught between their two most recent systems. Joey van den Berg in particular was guilty several times of winning the ball before losing it due to dithering, as if he didn’t know whether to pass forward, go sideways or keep hold of it.
Where the Royals did stand up particularly well against QPR was in their mental resolve. The most obvious way of looking at that is in the general team performance which gave a resolute rearguard action and clean sheet. However, there were noticeable better individual performances too.
Simply put, Sone Aluko couldn’t have scored the goal he did a few weeks ago. His ability is undeniably there - hence why Reading shelled out all that cash for him in the summer - but too often he’s lacked the belief to get at a defender and the composure to pull off what he’s trying. In Clement’s first game, he seemed reinvigorated - as if a weight had been pulled off his shoulders and he could finally enjoy himself.
The turn ↪️— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) March 31, 2018
The strike @ReadingFC's @sonealuko... the @SkyBetChamp Goal of Good Friday. pic.twitter.com/uQ5Ta6kuyO
The oft-mentioned ‘new manager bounce’ also seemed to have a big effect on Tyler Blackett and Tiago Ilori - two defenders who have come in for plenty of flak this season from the fanbase, but went about their business on Friday with an assured resolve. Clement has form for developing defenders’ ability and confidence after improving Alfie Mawson last season, so it’s great to see an immediate, albeit small, boost for Ilori and Blackett.
The fans play their part
The atmosphere was noticeably better too - around 17,000 home fans turned up for Paul Clement’s debut and they played their part by roaring the team on when they knew the players needed a boost. Y26 is generally thought of as the hub of the home noise, but the really special atmospheres come out when you hear the support extend all the way down the East Stand to where I was in Y19, and even over into the Eamonn Dolan Stand. It might only be simply chants like clap clap, “blue army!” and “come on Urz!” but, when it reverberates around the typically quieter sections, the whole stadium feels alive.
It paid off on the pitch aswell. Too often this season at the Mad Stad we’ve seen the team start well but then draw the ire of the home support as they make mistakes. Negativity is infectious, and it creates a vicious circle - if the fans don’t believe the players can win, the players don’t either.
The fans were rewarded for that support by three magnificent moments - a stunning goal, a dramatic penalty save and one of the most relieving full-time whistles we’ve heard go at the Mad Stad in ages. The atmosphere in the ground when the match finished was one of euphoria. The team had left everything out there on that pitch as they defended for their lives, and the fans were with them every step of the way.
It genuinely felt as good as the play-off semi final win over Fulham last season: it wasn’t pretty, but Reading, roared on by a rejuvenated home crowd, scrapped like hell to get themselves over the line.
Long may it continue!
Now you’ve read this, read our player ratings from the win as Liam Moore and Vito Mannone star: