So Reading are out of the FA Cup, but it didn’t happen in the way many of us predicted. There were fears of a drubbing at Old Trafford, but the Royals did themselves justice on the day with a gutsy, confident performance that was let down by a lack of quality in the final third. For the hosts, goals from Juan Mata (penalty) and Romelu Lukaku were the difference.
Jose Gomes spoke before the match about keeping his usual positive style of possession football, and he was true to his word. Reading finished the game with 60% possession, 13 shots to United’s 8, and level on shots with target (5), showing how positive the side was prepared to be.
He started that off with a positive team selection, naming just four changes to the team that was battered 4-1 by Swansea City on New Year’s Day. Liam Moore, Liam Kelly, Callum Harriott and Danny Loader came in for John O’Shea, Sone Aluko, Modou Barrow and Yakou Meite; Reading keeping their 4-2-3-1 formation.
The Royals looked calm and confident in the opening stages, keeping the ball well and trying to play out from the back before playing through the lines. There were no signs of big match nerves as Moore, Ilori, Jaakkola and co. knocked the ball around United’s high press. However, there were few chances for either team; Yiadom blasting over in a Reading counter, with Sanchez arcing a ranged shot just over the bar for the hosts.
But United got the crucial first goal. Juan Mata played the ball through to Fred who slotted home from an offside position, but - after much deliberation with VAR - the referee gave a penalty for a foul on Mata. The Spaniard converted his spot-kick to make it 1-0.
Reading reacted well to going behind though, and weren’t deterred from their positive, possession-focussed style. They would even have some encouraging chances of their own as they grew into the game and started to worry United. Loader had the best of the bunch, going through on goal and taking the ball around the keeper, but failed to pull the trigger. Harriott would also try his luck with some efforts from distance, while Yiadom tested Romero from close range after smashing a shot straight at the ‘keeper.
The crucial second goal of the day went to United, well into time added onto the first half. John Swift gave the ball away haphazardly high up the pitch, Man U broke down the pitch, and Lukaku’s clever movement bamboozled Ilori before slotting home.
Gomes made another bold call at half-time, substituting Ilori (who’d fallen heavily under a challenge from Lukaku) for Sone Aluko. The Nigerian became another creative central midfielder alongside Swift, while Kelly stayed deep and Rinomhota pushed over to right-back and Yiadom to centre half.
From there on in, Reading would continue to see the bulk of possession without carving out much in the way of clear-cut chances. Swift and Kelly had pops from range, while the bright Aluko both played in Harriott, who could only fire straight at the ‘keeper, and had his own scuffed shot from the edge of the box saved.
Down the other end, Reading always had to be on their toes to prevent United from putting the game to bed. The home side were, for the large part, quite happy for Reading to keep the ball and attack on the counter themselves, so the back-four of Moore, Rinomhota, Yiadom and Richards had to be alive to the pace of Lukaku, Chong and Rashford.
The latter came closest to making it a 3-0 lead. Like Loader in the first half he was through on goal and rounded the goalie, but this time he fell over by the touchline, which to be fair he saw the funny side of. Andreas Pereira would also test Jaakkola, who agilely parried the midfielder’s effort around the post.
Jose Gomes played the occasion perfectly. Knowing that Reading would themselves be under no pressure to get a result, and United would likely try an experimental side, he threw caution to the wind with a positive, entertaining team selection and game plan. In the end, it’s not surprising that we lacked the quality to win (both defensively and in the final third), but our desire to keep the ball and create chances was refreshing - and potentially encouraging for the rest of the season.
The players themselves weren’t overawed by the occasion, instead displaying a level of composure and initiative that we’ve lacked far too often this season. But, given the embarrassing nature of the 4-1 battering by Swansea City (which came between two promising away performances), translating today’s promise to consistency at home will be easier said than done.