The idea of coming away from a defeat with a feeling of cautious optimism would have seemed silly to me a few months ago, or even a few weeks ago. But the nature of Reading’s 2-1 loss to Derby County suggests that progress is being made, even if it’s not coming as quickly as we’d like.
At the end of a poor first half, which saw the visitors trail 2-0 after goals from Duane Holmes and Harry Wilson, there seemed to be little way back. The Royals may have recovered from a nightmarish opening 15 minutes, but even during a better half hour they were still second best. Fast-forward to full time though, and the story was very different. A reinvigorated side, driven on by the mightily impressive Sone Aluko, had made play-off chasing Derby work hard for their win - and weren’t far away from an equaliser of their own.
The big news at 2pm was a surprise defensive reshuffle; Andys Rinomhota and Yiadom playing right and left back respectively, with Lewis Baker and Leandro Bacuna the midfield double pivot. Otherwise it was the same XI that beat Nottingham Forest - Anssi Jaakkola in goal, Liam Moore and Tiago Ilori at centre half, and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson supported by the trio of Modou Barrow, John Swift and Ovie Ejaria.
Whether due to that defensive change or not, the opening quarter of an hour were absolute carnage for Reading. Duane Holmes slipped in behind to slot home inside just a few minutes, and it didn’t get any prettier. Derby’s decision to press high and aggressively - Jose Gomes’ side insisting on playing out from the back - meant we could barely get out of our half. In truth, the hosts could have been several goals up by the 15th minute.
However, like at Millwall (where Reading made a similarly awful start), they eventually recovered and started to get a grip on the game. The possession rate gradually crept up, and my heart-rate went down. That said, we didn’t create enough in front of goal, bar a John Swift effort that went just wide of the post; a chance that was a carbon copy of his goal last week.
Down the other end, the nerves wouldn’t go completely. Reading gave the ball away far too cheaply, particularly in their own third, with Jaakkola and Ilori the main culprits. For me, both have the technical ability to play Gomes’ brand of possession football, but too often lack the composure and sense to adapt when the opposition pile on the pressure.
Derby seemed to have killed the game on 40 minutes, albeit due to a decent slice of fortune; Harry Wilson’s deflected effort flying past Jaakkola for 2-0. We’d been here before when, even after Reading had improved in a game, they’d still conceded a scrappy goal.
Jose Gomes sure knows how to do a half-time team talk. Reading came out from the break looking rejuvenated, positive, and full of belief that they could get something from the game. The introduction of Sone Aluko, who was brought into the attacking midfield three, added a spark and dynamism which we’d lacked till that point.
He immediately set about getting stuck into the Derby defence. Even when the Rams won the ball back, he got straight back at them, nipping at their heels to regain possession. Where has this Sone Aluko been?
The improvements weren’t limited to just him though. As a team, Reading bossed possession and started to put the home side on the back foot. Where we’d struggled for the opening 15 minutes of the first half, Derby did similar in the same time frame in the second half. Modou Barrow caused problems down the left and John Swift became increasingly influential in the middle of the park, playing a deeper role after Aluko had taken the ‘number ten’ spot.
Reading were knocking at the door, and finally forced their way in on 66 minutes. Ovie Ejaria, playing on the right wing, did well to muscle back possession before playing in Aluko, who slotted past Kelle Roos to halve the deficit. It was the finish of a man who wasn’t just working hard to get back into form, but also of someone that had belief in his own ability - something we’ve rarely been able to say about Aluko.
With a goal in the bank, Reading pushed on in search of another, but couldn’t quite manage it. A lack of creativity, ideas from the lone striker (first Bodvarsson then Loader) and solid game management from the side meant the Royals went home empty-handed.
On the whole though, the second half had been a seriously encouraging display, not only for the quality shown in bossing possession, but also the mental resilience to bounce back from a horrific opening 15 minutes and poor-to-average first half.
The away contingent, who had noisily got behind the side during that second-half fightback, made their approval of the team’s efforts known at full time. Almost all stayed behind to applaud the players (who went over to acknowledge the support) and manager, whose name was chanted - how often has that happened after a defeat in the last couple of years?
Side note - the away fans were also clapped by one G. Evans, who had come off the bench for the home sides. Despite being booed by a few idiots in the Reading end, he showed his appreciation to the Royals nonetheless.
Reading wouldn’t have managed this mini comeback under Paul Clement. What Jose Gomes has introduced is self-belief - the kind that keeps his team in the game even when they’re 2-0 down away from home to a talented Derby County side. We may talk favourably about the style of play he’s introducing, but without the required amount of confidence, that system can’t work. See 2017/18 for more.
Getting points on the board is the crucial thing though - we have to translate promising performances (whether over 45 minutes or the full 90) into actual wins. Doing that against Derby was perhaps always unlikely, but the next two matches have to be winnable - Bolton Wanderers away (January 29) and Aston Villa at home (February 2).