The Royals travelled to QPR off the back of a victory for the first time since August. Rangers opted to line up in 4-4-2 with Ebere Eze and Ilias Chair occupying the wide roles, seemingly changing their system from their 4-2-3-1, while Reading kept their 3-5-2 with Sam Baldock, Andy Rinomhota and Omar Richards in for Yakou Meite, Pele and Jordan Obita.
Andy Yiadom and Omar Richards had fantastic games, perfectly epitomising the roles wing backs have in the modern game. As Jose Gomes pointed out before the game on Sky, the 3-5-2 only works when the wing backs press high, and they certainly did that. In possession, they would attack high up the field to support the forwards and/or John Swift/Ovie Ejaria. Noticeably now, throw-ins are taken by the centre backs, further pushing the wing backs forwards.
Where we thought that QPR may try to pin back Reading’s wing backs with an attacking trio behind the striker, very high forward runs from Yiadom continued to catch Ryan Manning out, proving to once again be one of Reading’s main attacking threats. Another top-class display from Yiadom (my personal man of the match), added to a steady performance on the left by the returning Omar Richards, showed just how strong the Royals are in this area of the pitch and how key these men are at both ends.
New threat up top
Baldock and George Puscas offered Reading a threat not seen for many years, constantly making runs in behind the defence in order to be picked out by through balls. Eight minutes in, Ejaria slipped through Baldock whose powerful shot was well saved by Rangers keeper Liam Kelly. This immediately showed Reading’s attacking intent and the versatility in attack, as not only did the midfield link up with the wing backs and forwards, but they could also go long with balls over the top or slipped through/bent round the defence into the channels.
Their link-up play was promising in the first half - a few tight offside calls putting an end to some nice moves - but you get the sense that if Reading persist with this combination up front then the goals and assists will flow for the front two.
Not only were Puscas and Baldock proving to be a threat up top but, along with Ejaria, they were continuing on from Preston North end in doing their job of pressing from the top. This led to a QPR side, well known for liking to dominate possession, going long to Jordan Hugill or overhitting a through ball to a midfield runner. The front two would even drop to back to help out defensively on the wings and relieve some of the pressure on the full backs. Not only did the work rate remain high, but some fantastic leaps from Puscas won him headers against the big Rangers centre backs.
Consistency at the back
Reading’s three centre backs had yet another solid game at the back. However, some confusion with Rafael from set plays, and a few poor passes out from the back did lead to some teething issues. The latter in particular led to QPR’s first goal - poor decision-making from Rafael to play it out to Morrison and a subsequent poor pass out for a throw in allowed QPR to push high up the pitch when Reading were in possession with Miazga’s ball back to Rafael perhaps not even necessary.
Puscas’ loss of the ball was the direct factor leading to the goal, trying to be a bit clever in attempting to nutmeg his man, but conceding possession so poorly at the back can have an effect on conceding despite it being a few sequences of play later (QPR would not have won it back from Puscas in his own half had he not had to drop back there for the Rangers throw in).
However, their no-nonsense attitude to danger (most of the time) took pressure off Rinomhota to come deep and receive the ball, focussing his efforts on nullifying the QPR counters and help to turn over the ball and continue attacks. Rinomhota also showed fantastic energy to help join in the attacking press when Ejaria was in need of a slight rest, and made a fantastic tackle to help set up the first goal, followed by a brilliant through ball from Ovie.
The back three were also continually getting their bodies in front of the ball, blocking many a QPR shot from knock downs (one leading to a deflection that gave the home side their second of the night).
A man who may have gone slightly under the radar but who has shown massive improvement under Bowen is Liam Moore. Winning loose balls and getting the ball forwards as quickly as possible, not to mention his long throws, Moore has become a key cog in the Reading side. Perhaps he opts to go long too often though, one such ball going straight to the keeper and leading to the second Rangers goal.
QPR moved Cameron back into centre back at half time, opting to match up with Reading’s three at the back, and changing the ageing Angel Rangel for Todd Kane at right back. For 15 or so minutes, Reading were primarily looking to go long and never quite got a hold of the game again, not being able to utilise Baldock and Puscas quite so much. Despite this, Rangers never controlled the game as it turned into a scrappy affair, with few clear-cut chances and a lot of second balls needing to be won. After Reading’s second goal only one team looked like winning it, but despite the ball hardly retuning into the Royals half, the most they could muster came from a flicked Baldock attempt from a Puscas cross over the crossbar and an effort hit just off target.
Bowen once more showed his tactical nous with substitutions, with McCleary returning to the side in place of the booked Rinomhota. Offering a threat on the right while also drifting inside, QPR were once more on the back foot and happy to take a point, not knowing how to counteract the Royals’ new threat. He was able to run in behind Ryan Manning who was consistently caught out in the second half, being pinned back and needing support to deal with both McCleary and Yiadom. With Reading’s strikers more than able to play in the channels, McCleary had the freedom to move into the centre and further confuse Manning.
This change also enabled Swift to play in the holding role, his defensive performance especially impressive while still able to offer an attacking threat with his comfort on the ball. Thanks to Reading’s versatility, Swift was able to still push forwards in attack, with Moore moving forwards into the holding position with the ball up the field – something that allowed Swift to deliver the cross for the second.
The second change saw Pele replace Ejaria to offer the side more solidity and once more he showed fantastic ball winning capabilities mixed in with an attacking threat, looking more dynamic on the ball than he had done previously this season.
As Bowen has desired, Reading have become a much ‘nastier’ side. This is quintessentially shown by Matt Miazga, a man who perhaps should have been sent off for an flailing arm sending Hugill to the ground off the ball, and Sam Baldock who enjoyed winding up Lesitner late on. Impressively, Reading managed to come from behind twice, reacting fantastically on both occasions, and will only improve as players continue to come back from injury and illness.