Reading’s nightmare start to the season continued on Saturday, as Sheffield Wednesday comfortably won 2-1 at the Madejski to ensure the Royals head into the two-week international break mired in the Championship relegation zone.
Paul Clement made wholesale changes from the home League Cup defeat to Watford, but only two from last weekend’s late draw at Villa Park - Yakou Meite replaced Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (mysterious abdominal pain earlier in the week) up front, and Chris Gunter came back into defence to replace Tyler Blackett as the Welshman overcame the injury that had kept him out all season until the Watford game. Gunter occupied his normal right back slot, and Andy Yiadom moved over to left back.
Having gone with the same central pairing of Meyler and Bacuna as against Villa in an effort to solidify the Royals’ midfield, the downside was a real lack of incisiveness and creativity in the early stages. This would have been acceptable if Meyler and Bacuna did indeed shield the back four and generally protect their defence from Wednesday’s marauding and attacking midfield - but they didn’t.
Neither player offered attacking thrust or defensive stability, which contributed greatly to Wednesday taking the lead after a mere 12 minutes. After failing to win the ball on the right hand side by their own area, Reading left Adam Reach in far too much space just outside the box, and paid for their sloppiness as he curled a neat first-time left-footed effort into the bottom right corner.
I’m getting sick and tired talking about it, Paul Clement’s probably tearing his hair out watching it happen time and time again, and the players are no doubt angry and frustrated letting it take place over and over - if you leave good players unmarked just outside the box, they will punish you.
The Royals huffed and puffed in reply to this early setback, but clear-cut chances were few and far between in the opening period. Baldock almost got free in the area via a neat turn but got shut down; Meyler glanced a Bacuna free kick just wide when he might have done better, and several threatening corners were whipped in which on another day would have received the finishing touch they deserved.
Having struggled to create a proper opening in the first 40 minutes, when Reading finally did engineer a one-on-one, we wasted the chance. We finally got Mo Barrow, who actually had a really disappointing game in general, through on goal - but the mercurial winger saw his left-footed effort hit the keeper. It was a good save, but Barrow should have scored.
When a team’s struggling to create golden opportunities, as the Royals are right now, missing one somehow feels like conceding in itself. No matter though - at least we were finishing the first half on a high and, with a bit of tactical tweaking at half time, would mount a real assault in the second period.
It was hard then to know whether to laugh or cry at Reading’s incompetence immediately after half time, as they conceded just 13 seconds after the restart. It was a shocker as well; Lucas Joao was left far too much space to move forward into down Reading’s right, and took advantage by cutting inside (under no pressure at all), and curling a wonderfully-placed effort beyond Mannone’s despairing dive and into the bottom left corner.
It was a well-placed hit, but again both centre midfielders will be unhappy at their own part in this; picked for their work rate and defensive solidity, to let an opposition forward casually wander forward behind them is criminal.
The goal also added to our miserable second half starts this year - Derby, Bolton, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Saturday all saw us completely shoot ourselves in the foot by conceding within 5/10 minutes of the restart. I honestly don’t know why it happens and don’t much care - this is a serious managerial requirement now, to isolate the reason and stop it.
Lack of confidence, laziness, mental fragility; they all surely play their part, and if we keep doing it game after game it will start to reflect very badly on Paul Clement bearing in mind the 15 minutes at half time are there mainly for him to shore things up, not destabilise us.
Our response to going two down initially was hardly worth mentioning, at least until Clement made three subs. Sims, Kelly and McNulty replaced Meyler (who had a nightmare of a game), Aluko and Barrow, and things did start to happen after this. Liam Moore pulled one back with a towering, well-placed header from a corner 25 minutes from time, and in the last few minutes the sheer weight of numbers we flung into the Wednesday box did see several anxious moments for the visitors.
Kelly almost snuck in down the right hand channel, there was a handball claim which looked a half-realistic shout after a Sims cross, and McNulty shot straight at the keeper when in space in stoppage time. That really was it in terms of clear-cut chances though, and for all our possession we really struggled to either get in behind the away side or play through them with short sharp passing.
One wonders if Swift would have made a difference in this respect - yes he’s lightweight at times, but given we conceded two soft goals yesterday with a supposedly defensive-minded midfield, how much worse could he possibly have been? Pelle Clement is also an option, the Dutchman hasn’t had much game time so far this season but we really are at the point where all avenues are worth exploring.
The away side survived until the final whistle without too many scares then, and that’s what was perhaps the most disappointing part of the whole miserable game for me - looking back on it, I never seriously thought we would equalise.
Liam Moore said after the game that the entire squad needs to look in the mirror and ask serious questions about their own performances, but what if this particular group has just hit a glass ceiling and can go no further? Coming away from the ground after another grim home defeat, it was hard to escape that sobering conclusion.
What did you make of Saturday’s defeat? Leave us a comment below. Otherwise, check out Euan’s player ratings