96 minutes: Reading are heading for a dull and unimpressive, albeit creditable 0-0 draw at home to third-placed Preston North End.
Full time: Reading have made the perfect start to the Mark Bowen era.
What a difference a goal makes. Matt Miazga’s last-gasp, close-range finish after Declan Rudd fumbled Jordan Obita’s piledriver put an awful lot of gloss on what had until then been an underwhelming afternoon. Although Reading showed the defensive composure they’d so often lacked under Jose Gomes, there was a distinct inability to work the ball through midfield and create chances - neither of which had really been problems under the last manager.
And yet, results are results. All of us would have taken any win available going into the match, and Reading duly came up with a scrappy 1-0 victory. As Tom noted in his latest Stats Corner column, that scoreline both eluded Gomes and has been a constant for Reading managers in their opening matches since we were last relegated from the Premier League.
It’s also a result that Reading were in dire need of - our third of the season and one that lifts us to the dizzying heights of 19th, two points above the bottom three. Losing to Preston would have put us on eight points - two places and one point above 24th-placed Barnsley.
On the face of it, Reading did all they needed to do: they got three points on the board to start off Bowen’s managerial spell in positive fashion. However, the result aside, the game left a lot to be desired, and gave Bowen plenty to ponder in the coming weeks.
Despite the previously mentioned defensive strengths - admittedly against a very poor Preston North End side - the rest of Reading’s game was very poor. The Royals struggled to get hold of the ball in midfield and either keep it well for extended periods or work it forward to create chances, with the front two of George Puscas and Yakou Meite starved of service in their 70 minutes on the pitch.
Normally, it’d only be fair to cut the new manager some slack. After all, it takes time for them to get their ideas across, and teaching a side how to build attacks and create clear-cut chances doesn’t happen overnight. Usually it’s just the result that matters for a new manager.
A great example of this is Paul Clement’s first match in charge: a 1-0 Good Friday home win over Queens Park Rangers. Reading were far from at their best, and offered little going forwards besides Sone Aluko’s first-half screamer, but nobody cared. The Royals were in dire need of three points by the time Clement arrived, and that’s exactly what he got at the first time of asking.
But this is a very different case. Reading may have needed a drastic change after Jaap Stam’s sacking to quickly get points on the board, but that wasn’t true after Gomes’ departure. Reading haven’t struggled to create chances this season - in fact we were one of the better sides for it in the division when the last manager was sacked - but we were consistently edged out by sloppy defending and an inability to convert opportunities.
To his credit, Bowen essentially solved both of those issues on Saturday - Reading kept a clean sheet and actually managed to put the ball in the back of the net. But, although there were some bright sparks in Ovie Ejaria (typically magical in the middle) and Andy Yiadom (a constant threat down the right), Reading badly lacked creativity going forwards.
To a large extent, this was down to a marked tactical change from Bowen. Particularly during the first half, Reading frequently played direct football, with Rafael and the back three often playing long passes up to the forwards to get them in more quickly. Although it relieved pressure on the defence, it also bypassed our most creative outlets in Ejaria and John Swift and meant the front two had little to work with.
In his defence, Bowen did admit after the game that such direct football wasn’t his intention, and he did ask his players at half time to get the ball down more and play it forwards on the deck. To be honest though, although Reading improved after the break, I didn’t see a huge improvement.
Given that Bowen himself said that his appointment was designed to minimise disruption to the team, I find the abrupt tactical change (whether deliberate or not) rather odd. Reading hadn’t struggled to make chances under Gomes, and Bowen needs to restore that creativity quickly. Finding the balance between that and staying solid at the back will of course be quite the conundrum, and one that perplexed his predecessor.
At the end of the day though, Matt Miazga’s last-minute poacher’s finish got the Bowen era off to a great start. Given the huge negativity levelled at him earlier in the week, which sometimes went into outright abuse, the value of that goal to the new manager can’t be understated. Indeed, despite the deeply flawed performance, we’ll look back on the game as a gritty victory that was won in the most dramatic of circumstances.
What a difference a goal makes.