Some games, much more so than others, make for great indicators of where a team is at. In Reading’s case, going to bottom-placed Barnsley in search of a much-needed win after three defeats in their last four is one such game.
It’s not just about the result. In fact, it’s equally about the performance - although outright quality doesn’t have to be there against the worst team in the league, you still need to show the right heart and aggression to see off a team fighting for their lives against relegation.
Reading didn’t rise to the challenge at Oakwell at all though, rather they shrunk from it. The Royals were pretty dire throughout the contest, with the exception of a brighter spell at the start of the second half and another one later on in the game. Mark Bowen will surely not only have been furious at full time, but also deeply worried given that the performance has followed some similarly poor showings against Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City.
He made five changes to the team that faced Birmingham City on Saturday. Chris Gunter, Jordan Obita, Ovie Ejaria, Charlie Adam and Lucas Joao came in for Andy Yiadom (injured and now out for six weeks), Omar Richards, Garath McCleary, Pele and Yakou Meite respectively.
On paper, those changes made sense and solved a few problems that we saw at the weekend. Gunter and Obita were fresher presences at wingback, Adam and Ejaria brought more creativity in the middle, and Joao makes for a decent target man, probably supporting George Puscas better than Meite.
However, things went wrong from the off. Reading were remarkably off the pace in the early stages, with a severe lack of concentration at the back and not enough urgency to build anything through the middle.
Indeed, the home side could have been a few goals up in the early portion of the game. Reading made silly defensive errors, such as Obita being robbed before a Barnsley cut-back was fired over, and the immobile Adam was offering little protection against a home side that moved the ball forward quickly and purposely.
No Reading game at the moment is complete without a Puscas miss though, and the Romanian obliged around 10 minutes in. Andy Rinomhota played him in over the top, but Puscas never really got the ball out from his feet despite having a good opportunity to do so, eventually taking it too far wide around the goalie and not finding Gunter with the pull-back.
Reading would improve later on - in that they started to get some shots away, a few of them via Adam from range. But Barnsley would threaten throughout the half, going in at the break with 12 shots to Reading’s three, which summed up the game to that point pretty well.
There was a reaction after the break though, with Reading getting the ball forward much better and putting the home side under pressure. Joao was more involved, finding the goalie’s gloves with a shot from range early on in the half and later playing in Obita who blazed his shot over the bar when he probably should have scored.
It was all undone just before the hour mark though, when Reading gifted the home side an opener. I didn’t see it in real time - iFollow had cut away to a highlight - but the replay laid bare a dire defensive error. Rafael played a short goal kick out to Morrison who, instead of booting the ball up the pitch while under pressure, seemingly tried to square it left. He was robbed in the process, and Cauley Woodrow duly converted the tap in.
Despite being an individual error, the manner of the goal should give Bowen food for thought too. Reading have been noticeably happier to play short goal kicks in recent weeks and knock the ball around the back to retain possession - a stark change from Bowen’s first few games when Reading went more direct.
But it doesn’t suit these players. Rafael and Morrison aren’t comfortable on the ball and have poor distribution when going long up the pitch, let alone when trying to play intricate passes while under pressure at the back. They were almost caught out a few times at Wigan in Reading’s last away match, which should have prompted Bowen to change course. Hopefully Morrison’s howler at Oakwell will belatedly do that.
Reading did react a bit to the opener, helped to an extent by Sam Baldock’s introduction and the later decision to swap 3-5-2 for 4-4-2, with Meite replacing Morrison. But it was from a set piece that we got a - probably undeserved - equaliser. Adam’s corner wasn’t cleared properly and fell to Joao who poked the ball home for 1-1.
We did get one more clear-cut chance; Baldock curling in a beautiful cross onto the head of Meite, but he headed just over. Otherwise, Reading faded badly in the closing stages, seemingly looking happier to play for a draw against a Barnsley side who were closer to winning the game - and probably should have done when Woodrow air-kicked a cross.
If Saturday’s defeat to Birmingham City wasn’t the wake-up call that Reading badly needed after the poor showing at Wigan, this game has to be. The recent absence of key players like Andy Yiadom, Ovie Ejaria, John Swift and Sam Baldock may well hold this side back, but others still need to step up to the challenge. On the evidence of the last few games, they’re not able to do that.
It feels like a long time since everything was going right for Reading. Bowen had an immediate impact to get his team working much harder and getting the ball forward more purposefully, but both those traits are on the wane now.
It’s easy to forget that he’s still very inexperienced in the dugout, but this period now - when Reading need to face up to the task in front of them despite the absence of key players - is Bowen’s first big test as manager.