After a couple of good results to build on, Reading headed into their clash with Fulham relatively optimistic of getting only their third win of the season. Jose Gomes addressed the issue of width up front with both full backs and wingers - Omar Richards was recalled to the squad in place of Jordan Obita, while Yakou Meite and Josh Barrett came into the team in place of Lucas Boye and Tyler Blackett, the Royals matching up to Fulham’s 4-3-3:
Rafael; Yiadom, Moore, Morrison, Richards; Rinomhota, Swift, Ejaria; Meite, Puscas, Barrett
The early stages
It all started well enough, Meite running on to the end of a slipped ball through from Josh Barrett, Marcus Bettinelli rushing off his line to make the save. Reading’s promising early start soon unfolded as an early John Swift lunge right by the Fulham dugout earned him a yellow card, Fulham’s players crowding around the referee (something that would happen a few more times in the first half) in the hope that the referee would produce a red.
Despite spells of Fulham possession, Reading looked far more threatening in attack for the first 10 minutes, showing energy, making tackles in the middle of the park and playing it around well. However, when Fulham were in possession Reading seemed to have everyone behind the ball bar Puscas, looking to make an interception and launch a counter but with no real press.
For brief moments of the game when Reading did press it worked well, but the majority of the time they gave Fulham far too much room, something the visitors did not do in return with the Royals struggling to play out from the back and through the midfield.
With their first real effort of note, Fulham showed their quality in front of goal, Tom Cairney bending a shot into the top corner from the edge of the box after a one-two from Joe Bryan with Bobby Reid caught out Yiadom high up the Reading half, Michael Morrison rushing across as the ball was played infield to Harry Arter, who worked it out to Cairney. With Reading’s defence trying to shift over it was far too easy for Fulham to play across and get the shot away, a brilliant strike giving the visitors the lead.
It went from bad to worse soon after as John Swift was dismissed for a second yellow, a loose leg colliding with Bobby Decordova-Reid after a heavy chested touch.
It seemed as if Gomes recognised that this Fulham team had more quality on the ball and so set up to take advantage of poor passes or touches when, with home advantage, a more toe-to-toe approach could have perhaps worked better, especially as after going a goal behind a mentally fragile Reading side stopped doing what worked well for them early on.
However, with the red card occurring only seven minutes later, it’s hard to tell whether Reading would’ve continued their energetic approach throughout the whole game, the Fulham’s extra man in midfield sapping energy and confidence from the side.
Despite four at the back for Reading, Fulham’s wingers and full backs were doubling up on and isolating the full backs, with midfield runners Arter and Johansen moving into the spaces between full back and centre back, allowing Mitrovic to stay in between the posts.
Richards was struggling to deal with Knockaert, Yiadom faring slightly better against Bobby Reid, with most of Fulham’s attacks coming down Reading’s left. Cairney and Arter’s crossfield balls to Knockaert seemed to catch Richards out, with Knockaert able to use his skill and momentum to cut in and get shots away or whip in dangerous crosses, something he did to full effect moments later.
Aleksander Mitrovic took full advantage of Morrison’s slow reactions to sidefoot the ball home and doible The Cottagers’ lead in a goal not too dissimilar from Swansea’s at the weekend, despite both Barrett and Richards out wide on the left up against Knocakert, both men not getting tight enough to prevent him from cutting in onto his favoured left foot.
Within a few minutes, Fulham had a third after exploiting space on Reading’s right this time, a low cross to Mitrovic finished past a helpless Rafael; Bryan, Johansen and Reid all occupying positions very high up the field. Mitrovic was to be a nuisance all night, using his strength to hold the ball up well to bring others into play. With 10 men, Reading had to be solid from the back to build a foundation in which to bring the game to Fulham, Mitrovic’s two quick goals putting to bed any hopes of even a point.
Reading could not deal with Fulham’s movement and attacking threat with Bryan pushing high; Reid playing very wide to collect a crossfield ball before moving into the centre to try to get on the end of the cross; Johansen and Mitrovic high up and in the box; and Cairney and Arter hovering just outside, ready for any lose balls. Fulham didn’t even need to switch their wingers very much during the game as they were controlling the game so easily, Knockaert almost making it four after the restart with Rafael producing a big one handed save to deny him in the one on one.
As vulnerable as Fulham could be on the counter if Arter (playing with similarities to Fulham gaffer Scott Parker) could not regain possession, spaces left in behind the midfield and in the defence were not exploited by Reading, Puscas being pushed out wide and forced to take the ball down the line on one occasion before Fulham’s never-tiring full backs could track back to win possession, the Romanian international lacking support up front.
George Puscas had an improved game from the Swansea clash, showing a much better work rate while utilising his strength and pace with strong runs across the field and down the wing, holding off defenders well. However, simply getting into and being involved in the game is not enough for a star striker, and Reading fans will be desperate he can get in amongst the goals again to get his confidence back up.
Puscas had a good chance from a defensive lapse between keeper and defender and showed good hold up play up front, but also his lack of confidence, looking around for Meite before bending a shot straight into the defender. Although he struggled to link up with Barrett, Meite and the midfield, his driving runs were a cause for optimism, running the length of the pitch before firing over early into the second half.
There was no link-up play at all up front though, partly due to the service, as any semblance of a Reading attack came from long balls from the centre backs, constantly picking out Meite who would either get in behind before the move fizzled out, or would flick it on to nobody.
Moore and Morrison both struggled with playing the ball out, opting to go long when pressed, some poor balls often ending up in touch. The difference between the two sides in simply passing the ball and keeping it was very notable, something that would hopefully just be a one off due to the testing conditions. However, the fragility of the side in the first half was very worrying indeed.
Liam Moore did step up in the second half, while playing for his pride, racing forwards to win tackles and challenging Fulham’s dominance. Although he did have one poor moment, an underhit backpass to Rafael leading to Fulham’s fourth. After Rafael’s clearance had been closed down, Johansen had the composure to hold the ball up before laying it off to Cairney who managed to chip the Brazilian with a fantastic first time finish, Morrison once more static and a lack of communication meaning neither Royal racing back onto the goal line.
Another man who had an impressive second half was Andy Rinomhota. Arguably Reading’s man of the match, he constantly hassled the Fulham midfield and won the ball back countless times before doing his best to create attacks that never quite materialised. Ejaria however struggled a bit more.
Despite his ability on the ball to evade opposition players, this game highlighted how key John Swift really is, the midfield lacking so much creativity with Ejaria not one for crossfield passes or threaded through balls. In fairness to him, he had a more defensive role after the sending off, both he and Rinomhota needing to cover more space in midfield, an area in which Fulham dominated and Gomes did not address, Pele remaining on the bench.
All three substitutions were attacking in nature, Boye on for Barrett at half time was positive as Barrett giving up on a loose ball in the first half, much to the annoyance of the home fans, signalled a disappointing end to a game he began brightly; while Boye showed good signs of energy in the second half, winning balls in midfield and giving the side a bit more fight. Lucas Joao was next to enter the fray, replacing Puscas up front to give Reading some fresh legs and more physicality, while Olise coming on for a tiring Ejaria was more an opportunity to give some more first team minutes to the 17 year old.
Into the last few minutes of the game and two of the substitutes, Olise and Joao, combined to work the ball out wide to Meite who bent the ball into the far corner with a fantastic strike, the game finishing at 4-1. Despite it being only a consolation, it capped off a memorable week for the Ivorian, following the birth of his child and captaining the side at Wolves.
Ahead of the trip to Bristol City, if Gomes proceeds with the 4-3-3 you would expect Pele to come into the team in the place of the suspended Swift, offering some protection in front of the defence, with Rinomhota and Ejaria playing just ahead. It will be interesting to see whether this may balance the midfield out more, Gomes hopefully opting to play Rinomhota alongside Ejaria rather than back with Pele. This occurred against Hull earlier in the season and did not seem to work at all, dropping back too much and allowing Hull to have too much space in the midfield.
However, Gomes could opt for Barrett in a more central role, offering a lot more dynamism in midfield and the opportunity for him to drag the midfield out onto the left and switch positions with the wingers when on the attack.
Whoever Jose decides to play, he must figure out his strongest XI as this is now a team who need some consistency as they just cannot turn around a deficit and crumble after conceding first (made worse by the fact that they always concede first). Added to this, he needs to do it without his most creative player at the weekend. It will be a stern test against a talented Bristol City side, but a win would provide a benchmark to build upon, and more importantly some much needed confidence after the result on Tuesday night.
As we all know, anyone can beat anyone in the Championship.