Ladies and gentleman, that’s the best away performance from Reading in years. Going into that daunting trip to Preston North End - the strongest team at home in the division - many of us were understandably hoping for a solid point with which to end the year. But, come 5pm, we were deserving winners.
Reading were excellent from back to front, showing not only the individual ability and touches of class that we all know these players are capable of, but also the spirit, doggedness and organisation that Mark Bowen has done so well to instil since succeeding Jose Gomes a few months ago. And it was Reading’s ability to show both those sides of their game that earned them the three points at Deepdale.
The afternoon started off with Bowen naming the same side that beat QPR 1-0 at the Madejski Stadium on Boxing Day. Rafael kept his place in goal, again protected by a back four of Chris Gunter, Michael Morrison, Liam Moore and Tyler Blackett. Pele was deepest in a three-man midfield that also consisted of John Swift and Charlie Adam playing further forwards, with Ovie Ejaria on the left and Yakou Meite out wide. Lucas Joao led the line.
That was on paper a 4-1-4-1, particularly when Reading were out of possession. But Swift could also push forwards while Adam stayed back, meaning the formation sometimes resembled more of a 4-2-3-1. Considering that Bowen has now used that system twice in consecutive games - and been rewarded for it - it’s probably safe to say that’s his favourite current setup.
It didn’t start well though, with Preston having more of the ball than Reading and pushing forwards for an opener, although the closest they came to that was when Brad Potts forced a smart save from Rafael at his near post.
With the Royals’ first clear chance though, we made it 1-0. Adam rolled back the years to dance upfield through the middle, pass to Ejaria who played in Blackett - he got in behind the Preston defence down the left before cutting the ball back with a low cross that Swift converted. A wonderful team goal that showed just how much quality Reading have to offer, even in tough away matches like this.
Not long later it was 2-0. Blackett again was the creator, surging through the middle before playing in Joao who slotted home. The second assist of the afternoon for Blackett, and the fourth goal in six appearances for Joao.
Before this run of form, I’d been unsure about what Joao offered Reading. He’d scored even fewer goals than George Puscas and wasn’t particularly reliable as a target man either, but he’s coming good in both areas at the moment and his performance at Deepdale was no exception. His work rate and hold-up play were again excellent - after a similar display against QPR.
Those qualities are so important for this side because, with an accomplished lone striker, they mean Reading can afford to play an extra man in midfield - therefore more freedom for Swift, Ejaria and Adam and more creativity. Credit to Bowen for getting that balance right, although the imminent return of Sam Baldock and Puscas may threaten Joao’s place.
Anyway, I digress. Reading were full of confidence at this point and had the home side where they wanted them. Preston had plenty of the ball but didn’t move it around quickly enough, meaning that not only were Reading pretty comfortable at the back, but they also had a few opportunities to break upfield in search of a third.
Swift, Adam and Ejaria were all key in that, with the first two keeping possession well when needed and moving it forwards purposefully when the opportunity arose. The latter provided more forward thrust, bursting forwards a few times from his position on the left to put Reading on the front foot, including one strong run up the pitch after he’d won the ball back that ended with him firing just over.
Reading thought they had a third around half an hour in when Ejaria struck the post from range, with Joao converting the rebound - but from an offside position. The linesman took his time raising his flag though, and the away end had a few seconds of celebrations before they realised it was still 2-0.
After the break, Reading had to show a very different side to their game. Preston had been poor in the first half, but penned the Royals back increasingly as the game went on, and started creating much closer. Rafael kept out a long-range shot bound for the top corner with an acrobatic save and later denied a close-range header, while Morrison put in a well-time challenge in the area before a Preston forward could pull the trigger.
However, despite the home side’s dominance, Reading frustrated them very well with an organised rearguard action that denied Preston too many clear-cut chances. As the half dragged on, the hosts started to run out of ideas, such was Reading’s resolute defence.
That included a few rejigs of the setup. Andy Rinomhota again replaced Adam to add more energy to the middle of the pitch and Garath McCleary did the same when he came on for Swift in the number ten role. When Jordan Obita replaced Meite, the 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 became a 5-4-1 with Ejaria and McCleary out wide in the four.
We all knew that Reading had this performance in them. Really, they’ve had it in them for ages, but actually doing it - let alone away to a team that had previously only lost once at home all season - is another thing entirely.
Until now, it’s been a case of steady improvement under Bowen. He’s made Reading harder to beat, upped the work rate and kept the attacking flair, but now all those elements are starting to come together into something really special. After the QPR game I kept thinking that Reading shouldn’t get ahead of themselves, but maybe we should start to get excited?
A confident, organised, hard-working, individually talented side with plenty of attacking flair can do an awful lot of damage in this division, and there’s still almost half the season left to play. Who knows how far it can go.