When Mark Bowen was appointed as Reading manager the team trailed the rest league in terms of minutes in front. In his first game the team were ahead for less than a minute after Matt Miazga’s 98th-minute winner, then they twice pegged back QPR but never managed to go in front, before the washout at Nottingham Forest robbed them of any chance to lead at all. It must make the fact that his team deservedly led for eighty minutes against Millwall even sweeter.
If there were ever a goal to sum up the difference between the old regime and Bowen’s new age it would be Jordan Obita’s opener. Liam Moore’s long throw wasn’t dealt with, and it bounced invitingly out to Obita on the corner of the box. The academy grad lashed it across the keeper into the far corner for his first Madejski Stadium goal. He was coming onto the ball, rather than being played through, but it was very reminiscent of his goal against Fulham in the play-offs.
Reading were unrelenting before half-time. John Swift hit the bar with a free-kick from a tight angle, after he had himself won the free-kick. A tame Sam Baldock shot caused chaos when the goalkeeper cheaply spilt the ball with George Puscas looming, before Andy Yiadom’s follow-up was well blocked. From the resulting corner Miazga’s flick on produced a fine save from Białkowski.
The resilience was finally broken minutes later when Baldock outdid Obita’s effort with an absolutely incredible strike from 20 yards right into the top corner. After the game Bowen talked about doing a disservice to Baldock when people primarily talk about his work rate, and he has a point, because it may not have been Ejaria enchanting feet, but it was a beautiful piece of skill.
It was always unlikely that Millwall would continue to be quite so poor in the second half, and it was no surprise that there was much more play in Reading’s half after the restart. With that said, we looked fairly comfortable initially. Then Moore fell heavily and injured his shoulder. There was a lengthy break in play, and Tyler Blackett, who has had very little football this season, replaced him.
Five minutes later Jed Wallace danced past the Reading defence and thwacked the ball beyond Rafael. Baldock had tracked back, and cut across the Millwall man’s path a couple of times, but seemed to get mixed up with the defenders and Wallace capitalised. In many ways a frustrating goal to concede that shows there’s still work for Bowen to do.
From that point there was a belief from the away team that they could get something out of the game. Rafael helped boost that when he impersonated his opposite number and dropped a cross into the box, but Millwall couldn’t quite turn it home. Wallace popped up again, attacking the box, but a heavy touch allowed Miazga to clear before any real danger occurred.
Bowen changed things with 15 minutes to go, bringing off the strike pairing of Baldock and Puscas, replacing them with Yakou Meite - who went up front on his own - and Pelé to sit alongside Andy Rinomhota. That did leave us with four central midfielders on the pitch, and the manager did admit that he may have made a mistake after the game.
The plan was that Swift and Ejaria would push further forward to support Meite, but he ended up being isolated from the rest of the squad, and the ball just kept coming back. On the other hand, the midfield three were being overrun, so something needed to change. We still managed to get out of the game with a win; no harm, no foul.
There were a couple of hearts-in-mouth moments towards the end - Jon Dadi Bodvarsson attempted an overhead kick that only just went past the post, and Matt Smith headed straight at Rafael - but we managed to cling on for a second win in three.
On the whole a good performance. Cardiff City aside we haven’t seen many complete performances from this side for a couple of years now, but another good first half to file away. It’s no coincidence that Swift looked immense before half-time, but didn’t quite manage to hit the same high after the break. Ejaria had a couple of silky moments, but needs to convert that into chances. His only key pass was for Baldock’s goal - and the striker still had quite a lot to do from that position.
The defence, while put under pressure for the final half hour, always looked solid. Miazga gets a mention almost every week, but Morrison had a particularly good game. Rinomhota just in front of them broke up play well. His performance - as it so often is - was very reminiscent of James Harper. Not doing anything extravagant with the ball, but always in the right position.
Finally, Puscas, buoyed by a goal in the last game, didn’t really have any chances. He put himself about, but was always on the periphery of the game. In a game where we create so many clear-cut opportunities for others it’s not as much a cause for concern, but it will always be noted when he doesn’t perform given the standards that are expected from him.
With all that said Mark Bowen’s undefeated (permanent) managerial record goes on, and the signs are promising so far.