Reading have developed a pretty bizarre tendency against Wigan Athletic in 2019. Play badly, if not awfully, for the vast majority of the game, but score a few goals late on to win the match in dramatic fashion. Earlier this year it was Yakou Meite who struck late on at the Madejski Stadium to seal a 3-2 win after Modou Barrow had levelled the scores from range.
This time though, George Puscas did it all himself with a brilliant five-minute hat trick that, at the time of writing this match report on the train back home, I still can’t quite believe actually happened.
78 minutes: 1-0 Wigan
79 minutes: 1-1
80 minutes: 1-2 Reading
84 minutes: 1-3 Reading
It was a crazy end to a match that had, for at least the 45 minutes between Wigan’s opener and Puscas’ equaliser, looked like being a miserable day on the road. Reading struggled badly in the absence of John Swift and Ovie Ejaria, with replacements Pele and Garath McCleary unable to replicate their creativity in the midfield.
In truth, the lack of those two key playmakers deeply affected the whole team. Reading were pedestrian in possession and had few ideas how to get it forward at all, let alone unlock the hosts’ defence. We didn’t lack for dribblers - Yakou Meite, Andy Rinomhota and Garath McCleary are all dangerous in full flow - but no-one in the team could get on the ball and dictate the game from deep or offer any ingenuity in the final third.
Wigan were poor themselves, and were similarly unimpressive going forwards, but they didn’t have to do much to deny Reading after they took the lead in the 34th minute through Joe Garner. Before then the game had looked every inch a 0-0, neither side appearing to be capable of scoring.
So what changed? The first crucial thing was the change in formation on 61 minutes when Lucas Joao replaced Michael Morrison, allowing Reading to go 4-4-2 rather than 3-5-2. Having three centre backs is fine in many situations, but committing an extra body to the defence (as a third centre back) means fewer options higher up. Mark Bowen noted after the game that he’d considered going 4-4-2 as early as half time, which for me he should have done.
Reading gained more forward momentum from having Lucas Joao partnering Puscas, with Meite and McCleary out wide, and gained a bit more with the introduction of Lucas Boye on 66 minutes and Charlie Adam replacing the pedestrian Pele on 78. There was still much to be desired in Reading’s attacking performance as the chances didn’t suddenly start to flow, but we were at least more on the front foot.
When you’re on the front foot, you give yourself a chance, however unconvincing you’ve been in the final third until then. Boye provided essentially the game-changing moment in the 79th minute when taken out for a penalty, but from then on in it was well and truly The George Puscas Show.
The Romanian’s talent has never been in doubt, but his confidence certainly has. Stepping up to take a late spot kick in front of the away fans - who had jeered him not long before when he wasted a pull-back pass in the area - was a huge test of the confidence he still had in him.
Seeing the ball hit the net brought the self belief flowing back into Puscas, who duly added two more to his tally. The first of those, to put Reading 2-1 up, was the real highlight of his afternoon. Receiving the ball from Joao, he spun past a defender into space and found the far corner with deadly accuracy. To make the opportunity for himself and take it so decisively shows just what Puscas can do when the confidence is there.
The third was a different challenge. On the face of it, converting the low squared pass from McCleary was an easy opportunity, but Puscas has been there before and fluffed his lines. This time though he kept his cool, sealed his hat trick, and exorcised some goalscoring demons in the process.
Bowen deserves his fair share of credit too. Few of us would have thought it unfair to drop Puscas from the first team altogether before the game, or to bring him off during the match itself, but the new manager kept his faith in his player, and Puscas duly rewarded him.
After a week of two set backs - losing 1-0 to promotion-chasing Brentford and Leeds United - the 3-1 win at Wigan leaves both Reading in general and Puscas specifically looking up. For the team, upcoming games against mid-table Birmingham City and Derby County, in addition to taking on relegation-threatened Stoke City and Barnsley, are opportunities to build some form.
For Puscas, after months of frustration and doubt, the next few weeks could well be when he finally starts to come good.