The Madejski Stadium was not full. But it was full of Christmas cheer by the end of the match, as the Royals dispatched ten-man Derby Country with relative ease and saw some bright sparks and creative moments from their players to take three points back to the grotto.
Mark Bowen lined his men up in a 4-4-2 again, with Charlie Adam partnering Andy Rinomhota in midfield, presumably with the belief that Rinomhota’s energy would cover for Adam’s lack of mobility and pace. Ovie Ejaria started on the left but had license to drift infield and open up his box of tricks on whichever opponent dared come near him. Yakou Meite started on the right, but would often swap with Lucas Joao throughout the match; Sam Baldock was the focal point and man making runs in behind.
The tactics seemed to be harking back to the Steve Coppell/Brian McDermott days, with both men in the middle of the park spraying passes into wide areas of the pitch and hanging back rather than getting into the box. Chris Gunter offered more attacking thrust in the final third, while Tyler Blackett would cover for Ejaria and was solid if unspectacular.
Loose first half
The game barely had a chance to get going when Yakou Meite found himself through on goal after some slack Derby defending. He was lucky Scott Malone brought him down because it didn’t look like Meite was going to get the ball out from under his feet. A clear red, an obvious penalty, and Set Piece King Charlie Adam stepped up to dispatch the spot-kick with ease. Reading were 1-0 up in the fifth minute against ten men. Things could only get better from here, right?
Well, not quite. The remainder of the first half seemed to have both sides shell-shocked by the early drama. Reading had the majority of the ball and had some bright moments, some nice moments of interplay and intricate build-up, but never quite had that sharp incision needed to put Derby to the sword. Baldock should have done better when put through but hit the side netting, but otherwise, there wasn’t too much to WhatsApp home about.
On the other hand, The Rams, when they had the chance to attack, looked dangerous. It wasn’t a game that looked like 10 v 11, a fact that worried me as the half crept to a close, with Rafael making a smart save to stop a good effort from Waghorn (I will always find that surname funny). It looked like Bowen’s men had taken their foot off the gas, the question was whether Derby would punish their looseness on the ball, or could The Royals crank through the gears?
Second-half cutting edge
As it turned out, the Royals came out in the second half with much more purpose.
Ejaria made a fool of more people, Meite barrelled his way past men repeatedly, and Joao and his strike partner linked up nicely and pinned back Derby. Bowen made a brave decision to take off the energetic Rinomhota and bring on the more refined John Swift to turn the screw more, and it proved an inspired substitution as minutes later he played a brilliant ball across the box which Lucas Joao hammered home, giving The Royals a 2-0 lead.
From that point, Derby looked more likely to secure a second red card than a goal, Cocu’s men picking up bookings like they were mince pies and mulled wine being dished out around the office at Christmas time.
The Royals were chasing a third goal, which should have come sooner if substitute Lucas Boye bothered to get going. He was presented with multiple moments where he could pull the trigger and test the keeper, but repeatedly lost the ball and held onto the ball for too long, like a greedy child holding onto the pass the parcel, hoping the music stopped for him.
Fortunately, Lucas Joao was forced down by Craig Forsyth as the game edged closer to the final whistle, and Yakou Meite - who won the first penalty - stepped up and converted to give Reading a comfortable three-goal lead, and three points heading into Christmas. Fans celebrated that by cheering every pass Bowen’s men made in the final few minutes of the match, and Swift and Ejaria sprinkled some sparkle on the pitch with some fancy passes and skills to see the game out.
You know that mint shower gel that makes your bits tingly? Ejaria has the same effect. #readingfc— HOOPS (@RoyalHoops) December 21, 2019
A fun game, a comfortable game, and a much-improved performance compared to The Stoke Tragedy. It looks like Bowen has settled on a team and a style that suits his players, and if they maintain this form will finish comfortably mid-table. Now we need to hope the boys from Berkshire don’t overindulge on Wednesday and let their focus slip.