When Sheffield Wednesday’s Lucas João curled a shot into the back of the net just 13 seconds into the second half at the Madejski Stadium before the international break, it was an all too familiar for Reading fans. Not just the feeling of letting in another goal, but the feeling of again conceding so soon after half-time.
It was the fifth time in six games this season that the Royals were picking the ball out of their net in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, and the seventh time in total under Paul Clement’s management (equating to once every two games). This team has many issues, but this is certainly one of the more glaring ones, made worse by the fact that the reaction to conceding after the break is just as abysmal, if not worse.
Liam Moore’s header in the 64th minute against the Owls was only the third time under Clement that Reading had scored a goal after letting one in - the others being Sam Baldock’s 93rd-minute penalty at Aston Villa the previous weekend and Yann Kermorgant’s 79th minute header at home to Sunderland in April. It means that the team has earned just two points from losing positions with Clement in charge, and are yet to record a second half win under him (six draws and eight defeats in 14 games).
It begs two questions - why on earth is this happening so often, and why is seemingly nothing happening to try and fix it? Speaking after the defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, Clement discussed the issue, saying:
“It’s very strange. Can I put my finger on it? It’s very difficult to answer that. I’d have to go back through all of them. I don’t think it’s because they’re coming out of the dressing room too pumped up, not pumped up enough or that the information is not there. The information is there.
“That was one long ball. We spoke a lot in the prep to this about the direct balls into Nuhiu and Joao and maybe you don’t win the first ball, but we actually did in that situation, but you’ve got to be there for the second one. And we weren’t there. That’s a detail. That’s not anything to do with what’s said at half-time.”
So, from Clement’s point of view, the problem lies with the nature of the goals being conceded rather than the timing. Whilst this is arguably a factor, many of the goals the team have let in this season have certainly been preventable, the timing is no coincidence. Whether you want to blame the half-time team talk or not, what is abundantly clear is that this group of players are just so weak mentally. Their heads drop the minute they concede a goal, and all confidence and belief starts to flow out of them.
When this continues to happen game after game, it becomes a bad habit and a rut starts to form that is incredibly hard to get out from. It’s when the leaders in the team, Messrs Moore, McShane and Meyler, need to step up and lift the side, and indeed Paul Clement does too. Simply put, that isn’t happening right now and the Royals just cannot find a way to give their confidence a boost.
Does this problem go further than Paul Clement?
For balance, it’s interesting to see whether conceding soon after half-time and reacting poorly to going behind is just a Paul Clement issue, or whether the team struggled in that area with Jaap Stam in charge too.
In 2016/17 they certainly didn’t, with Reading coming from behind to beat Bristol City, Brentford and Rotherham United, also getting a point against Brighton and Hove Albion, Derby County, QPR and Ipswich Town. However, it’s debatable how fair it is to compare this season to one when we finished third.
Analysing Stam’s 38 league games in 2017/18 would be fairer, in part because Clement then worked with the same group of players for the final eight matches of the campaign. But really there appears to be no semblance of a second half problem, at least not at an immediate glance.
Up until December 11 last season, Reading’s record in the second half was actually better than their first half record. They won just three out of 20 first halves compared to 10 out of 20 second halves, with goal difference after the break also significantly better (six scored and 11 conceded in first halves versus 20 scored and 13 conceded in second halves).
The significance of December 11 is that it is when Reading hosted Cardiff City and led the Bluebirds 2-0 at half-time, only for conceded goals in the 83rd and 91st minute to draw the game 2-2. Looking back, it was the biggest turning point of the season - not only was it the beginning of the run of one win in 19 that led to Jaap Stam’s sacking, but it also seems to be the game in which Reading’s problems after half-time began.
After and including that fixture, Stam’s Reading won just two second halves - when they got their league win at Burton and, rather ironically, the Dutchman’s final match in charge against Norwich City. They also netted just nine second half goals in 18 games (halving the ratio from before the Cardiff game) and conceded 18.
Whilst letting goals in straight after half-time wasn’t a huge issue (five goals conceded in the 46-60 minute period), reacting to conceding certainly was. The latest Reading scored a goal after and including December 11 was the 80th minute, but they let in six after that point, seeing Cardiff City, Barnsley and Nottingham Forest net late equalisers and Burton Albion a late winner.
Across Stam’s 38 games last season, the Royals picked up just five points from losing positions (0.13 per game), which is actually a worse record than Clement’s four points won from losing positions (0.29 per game). Both are incredibly poor statistics, and point to the fact that reacting to going behind is a long-standing issue.
Clement has actually improved some issues that Stam’s Reading had in 2017/18 in terms of the times they scored and conceded goals
Under the Dutchman, the Royals started games incredibly slowly - the last time they scored a goal in the opening 15 minutes of a match was against Derby County in November (when they did so twice), 23 games before Stam got the sack. In contrast, the two games that Reading have won so far under Clement, including his very first fixture in charge, have come courtesy of goals in the 13th minute (against QPR) and the 12th (against Preston North End).
Another notable weakness of Stam’s side was letting goals in just before half-time. In the 17 games after the meeting with Cardiff, the team let in eight goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half, making it the team’s most vulnerable period statistically. Again, this was something that Clement looked to amend, and his Reading team have conceded just once in the final 15 minutes of the first half of games.
But with Clement now having his own weakness, is it going to take another managerial switch to fix Reading’s problem of failing to perform after half-time, or indeed simply after just conceding a goal? It might take just one game in which the Royals come from behind to record a victory to boost confidence, but time is running out for that to happen.
All stats are taken from the Championship only and do not include cup competitions.