So often last season, I left a Reading away match just feeling dejected. We weren’t always that bad, but we rarely showed the basics: being organised and putting up a fight. Basic mistakes and a lack of desire to put them right was the cause of many of our shortcomings in 2017/18. Refreshingly, those basics did seem to be there at the City Ground.
Although it was a largely dull match with a scoreline that we ended up on the wrong side of, it was evident that Paul Clement is laying the building blocks of a team that can give a good account of itself in the Championship. However, what stopped Reading from turning that 1-0 reverse into a draw or victory, neither of which were out of reach on the day, was what is becoming the ongoing theme of the opening weeks of the 2018/19 season: quality in the final third.
How did Reading set up?
Perhaps surprisingly, Clement made three changes to the team which had looked promising against Derby County, bringing Tyler Blackett, Yakou Meite and Sam Baldock in for Omar Richards, Sone Aluko and John Swift respectively. There was also a slight tactical shift, with Reading moving from 4-4-1-1 to a more recognisable 4-4-2. Rather than having one player (Swift) playing off Jon Dadi Targetmansson, Bod had an out-and-out strike partner: Baldock.
Mannone; Yiadom, Ilori, McShane, Blackett; Meite, Meyler, Kelly, Barrow; Bodvarsson, Baldock.
The opening 45 was a tight contest, with not many chances falling to either side. Reading should have taken the lead through Yakou Meite - the Frenchman set through on goal by Barrow. However, the huge Costel Pantilimon spread himself well to deny him.
Despite missing that chance, Meite’s aerial threat was offering the team another outlet up the pitch on the right wing. In truth, he probably looked more adept at winning headers than Jon Dadi Bodvarsson who struggled to get into the game as he had done against Derby County.
On the whole, although Reading looked unconvincing in the final third, they were the opposite in their own. Forest looked to get in behind the away side on a few occasions with through balls to Lewis Grabban, but each time the former Royal challenged Tiago Ilori for the pace, the defender matched him expertly at every step.
Dadi had Reading’s first two opportunities of the second half, but couldn’t quite get enough on either to trouble Pantilimon. For the first, his header from Liam Kelly’s free-kick dropped agonisingly wide of the far post with the away fans behind the goal urging the ball into the net. Not long after, the Icelander latched onto a through ball down the inside left channel and had the run on goal but, short on time and space, he could only fire wide.
Quality in the final third was ultimately what did for Reading. Paul Clement’s post-match assessment that his team created better chances may have been fair, but Forest could call on a better striker to take a worse chance. Given half a sight of goal in the 68th minute, Hillal Soudani found space in the area to curl the ball past Mannone, lethally capitalising on an opening to edge Forest ahead.
Although Reading would have a few more sights of goal, with Bodvarsson’s header hurriedly knocked away from danger by a scrambling Pantilimon, they didn’t create any more clear-cut chances to bring the game level.
Could Clement have done more?
Although Reading were always going to be at a disadvantage in terms out outright quality on the day, I do feel Clement could have done more tactically to give the team a chance of coming away with at least a draw. I for one was expecting the Royals to go into the game with at least the same set-up, if not an identical XI, but the manager opted to change things around.
Baldock and Bodvarsson will likely go on to have a fruitful partnership, but pairing two strikers together in an away match for the first time left Reading’s attack feeling one-dimensional. Both were fairly anonymous in open play and controlled well by Forest’s defence, despite the few half-chances for Bodvarsson.
It’s a shame Clement didn’t try playing John Swift off a main striker - probably Bodvarsson - either from the start or as a tactical switch in the second half. Reading lacked creativity both generally throughout the match (which the playmaker would have provided) and specifically from any of their substitutions.
Marc McNulty, still a rookie at this level, had a quiet game as a direct replacement for Baldock, whilst post-goal subs Leandro Bacuna and Omar Richards did little to change the game.
Reading give themselves a chance defensively
Too often in 2017/18, Reading would look like making some degree of progress in a game only to undo their work with a sloppy error at the back. Just think of all the times in the second half of the campaign in which we conceded just before the break.
However, that wasn’t the case at the City Ground. Despite the team’s failure to find the net or create much in the way of bankable scoring chances, they were always in the game thanks to an organised rearguard action which was perhaps unlucky not to be rewarded with a clean sheet. Although Forest were below par for much of the match, they still had quality players Reading needed to contain - which they did.
It’s encouraging that Paul Clement is achieving that (it’s still a work in progress) mostly with the defenders that looked like they barely knew each other last season. Tiago Ilori stood out (and was my man of the match), while Paul McShane and even Tyler Blackett looked noticeably more comfortable than their horror shows of 2017/18.
Despite seemingly backing down on his transfer request, Liam Moore may very well find it difficult to break back into a defence that actually knows what it’s doing - a description we haven’t been able to give to Reading for far too long.
Now you’ve read this, see how we rated the players and vote for your man of the match: