My biggest worry coming away from last week’s game at Wigan Athletic was that George Puscas’s’ late turnaround had glossed over a worrying underlying problem: that Reading relied far too heavily on John Swift and Ovie Ejaria. At the DW, the Royals badly lacked creativity in the absence of their two key playmakers, and were ultimately saved by Puscas’ brilliance.
Seven days later, and the same underlying flaw was there, but without the timely intervention of a one-man rescue act.
Reading were again without Swift and Ejaria against Birmingham City, not to mention the continued absence of Sam Baldock up front. It left Mark Bowen with a tricky conundrum: how to maintain the solidity and organisation we’ve grown used to from Reading in recent weeks while replacing lost creativity.
Last week he answered that by making minimal changes, swapping Ejaria and Swift out for players that were probably the most similar for their roles: Garath McCleary and Pele respectively. It didn’t work. Reading tried to replace Ejaria and Swift too literally - rather than playing around the attacking strengths of someone else. For the 61 minutes until Reading went 4-4-2, putting McCleary and Meite out wide, it simply didn’t work.
Starting XI (3-5-2): Rafael; Miazga, Morrison, Moore; Yiadom, Pele, Rinomhota, McCleary, Richards; Meite, Puscas
So Bowen’s decision to repeat the experiment exactly was bizarre. The first hour of football at the DW was a clear lesson in how not to set a team up offensively. Doing so in isolation is fine - all managers make mistakes - but not learning from those mistakes is a critical error and made the 3-2 defeat to Birmingham City all the more frustrating.
The first half at least played out pretty similarly to the first hour last week. Reading were pretty good at the back despite conceding a scrappy goal (a deflection off Michael Morrison this time rather than Joe Garner poking home from a corner), but badly lacked control of possession in midfield and the ability to work the ball forward through the lines .
It left the strikers isolated, not least George Puscas who will have been left deeply frustrated by the lack of chances to build on his hat trick at Wigan, and made Reading easy to play against. All too often, without the option to play the ball up the pitch on the deck through Swift and Ejaria, Reading lumped long balls up to Meite and Puscas, neither of whom are reliable enough target men to make that approach consistently effective.
When Reading were more patient in their play, they looked lost. The lack of movement, options and linkup play in the midfield was reminiscent of Jaap Stam’s second season when Reading looked so toothless playing through the centre without ball players to get in possession and make things happen.
In fact, the Royals looked more dangerous from set pieces - somewhat ironically given how much I’ve already bemoaned Swift’s absence. With his first corner of the afternoon, Pele flashed the ball across the penalty area, needing just a touch to knock the ball home, and later set up Matt Miazga who flicked a header agonisingly wide of the far post. His final one of the half was emphatically powered home by the head of Yakou Meite. I’m always frustrated by the Ivorian’s game in open play, but few head the ball as convincingly as he does.
At this point, I’m not sure how much credit or criticism to give Bowen. He changed Reading’s shape at half time in a creditable attempt to be tactically proactive, going 4-4-2 by replacing Matt Miazga with Lucas Boye. The Argentine partnered Puscas up front, Meite went over the right and McCleary to the left.
That should have given Reading more attacking impetus, but actually made the situation much worse. One fewer body in both the defence and midfield meant gaps started to open up more regularly in front of back line - gaps that a dynamic, positive Birmingham City side were all too willing to exploit.
Michael Morrison played an unwitting part in the decline too, on one occasion letting a City forward in after mistiming a challenge, and on another handing a goalscoring chance away on a platter with a pass out from the back that was intercepted too easily. Last week Bowen had sacrificed Morrison rather than Miazga, so his change of mind against Birmingham was unexpected. For me, Miazga would have played out from the back better and - thanks to his better mobility - covered for the formation change more effectively too.
Either way, at this point Reading looked lost, disjointed and frustrated at both ends of the pitch. Cheap free kicks were given away across the park - not helped by an inconsistent refereeing performance - and one of those gave Jeremie Bela the opportunity to power an exquisite free kick into the far top corner past Rafael. You can’t legislate for goals like that, but equally you can’t complain about them when they cap off a period of clear superiority for the opposition.
And that leaves me wondering if I’m being a bit too harsh here. The visitors did indeed play very well, defending solidly and being both positive and clever in attack, so was a Swift-and-Ejaria-less Reading simply outclassed? There’s a large element of that for sure, but then again Reading should have made life far harder for Birmingham City. There was more than enough quality on the pitch to cause problems in the away side’s defensive third, with Lucas Boye, Lucas Joao, George Puscas and others on the pitch all on the pitch for a significant portion of the second half.
In reality though, the forward player who came away with most credit was Charlie Adam. The veteran midfielder had a clear idea of what needed to be done in the situation: getting the ball forward quickly and purposefully, and played arguably the pass of the season with a lofted ball to play in Andy Yiadom who put it on a plate for Lucas Joao... who could only fire over. For all Puscas’ criticisms for not showing his potential yet, £5m-signing Joao similarly needs to repay the investment made in him.
To his credit though, he did belatedly add to this season’s account, poking home Adam’s free kick in the 95th minute as a consolation after the visitors had made it 3-1. Omar Richards was robbed on the left, Gimenez had a run at goal, and slotted the ball into the far corner after his first shot was blocked by Morrison. The kind of scrappy late goal that’s conceded by a team unsure of how to get back into the match.
All in all, the game should be a reality check for both Reading and Bowen. This side may well be capable of getting into the top six, but not without Swift and Ejaria, and certainly not without a clear idea of how to replace their creativity. Doing so will take a fair amount of ingenuity on Bowen’s part. He certainly can’t afford to be conservative. A clear direction that solves Reading’s problems is needed this week and going forwards - we can’t afford more of the same.
But that shouldn’t allow the players off too lightly either. Swift and Ejaria being absent should have been an invitation for Boye, Joao, McCleary, Meite and others to up their game and prove why they deserve to be in this team. They’ll have another opportunity to do so in midweek.
As for Bowen, the next two matches are crucial. Win both fairly comfortably and Reading’s upwards trajection since his appointment continues, but more faltering form on the back of a run of three defeats in four would leave the Royals looking nervously over their shoulders.