Reading Football Club really knows how to screw around with our emotions, doesn’t it? The Royals were in a glorious position on Saturday afternoon to make a big step towards securing Championship survival… and fluffed their lines. Of course we’ve been here plenty of times before - blowing a lead is nothing new to us this season - but this cock-up coming at such a crucial stage of the season is hard to take.
Pinning the result on any one player, moment or indeed the manager, wouldn’t be right. The decision to bring on John O’Shea into midfield will get plenty of stick, while various missed chances ultimately came back to haunt us, but in truth the draw was very much a team effort. Reading screwed up collectively - no single scapegoats today please.
That the game had started in such optimistic fashion makes the end result even harder to take. The home support were more than up for the occasion and, armed with those much-loved clap banners, made a racket in the build-up to the game and throughout the first half.
The team news boosted spirits too; Ovie Ejaria overcoming last weekend’s knock to partner Lewis Baker in midfield. Tyler Blackett came in for Omar Richards at left back, with Garath McCleary and Yakou Meite starting out wide.
Martinez; Yiadom, Miazga, Moore, Blackett; Ejaria, Baker; McCleary, Swift, Meite; Oliveira.
However, it didn’t have the immediate impact we needed. Reading have been particularly guilty under Jose Gomes of making slow starts, and that was again the case today, even if Rotherham United couldn’t punish us with an early goal. The home side tried to build out from the back and create chances, but looked most dangerous on the break, with Meite threatening down the right, cutting inside and using his pace well.
The game’s first big chance, coming half an hour into the contest, went our way. Garath McCleary was set free down the left wing after some composed play at the back, before cutting the ball back to the onrushing Ovie Ejaria, who fired past the ‘keeper to send the home support into jubilation.
Reading followed the goal up by pushing for another, although Ejaria, John Swift and Nelson Oliveira didn’t bring a save with their long-range shots. The latter was almost set through on goal towards the end of the half, only for the ball to hit a Rotherham hand - but no foul given, to the rage of those in the stands.
By half-time, Reading had done a decent if unspectacular job. We’d played some good football, albeit without creating anything clear-cut, and held firm at the back. However, Jose Gomes’ side didn’t have the level of match control that they would have wanted, with Rotherham showing some decent (if fruitless) spells.
The first key moment of the second half came from Liam Moore, who threw himself in the way of a goal-bound shot (in typical Moore) fashion to keep the score at 1-0. As the game wore on though, Reading’s lack of game management became increasingly apparent. We needed to keep the ball, frustrate and tire Rotherham, but we couldn’t manage that.
Primarily, the problem was Reading’s hesitation to win the ball back. We were capable of keeping it ourselves, but gave the away side far too much time and space to do the same. Although the Millers couldn’t create much in their own right, we were needlessly allowing them a platform to get back into the contest.
Jose Gomes’ first sub, coming just after 70 minutes, has got plenty of flak after the match. The gaffer had talked about a ‘plan B’ to be used late on in matches, and that turned out to be throwing John O’Shea into the midfield. He replaced the tiring Yakou Meite; meaning Reading still had a lanky player for an expected aerial barrage from Rotherham. It also meant Reading lacked energy and dynamism in midfield, with Ejaria pushed out wide after O’Shea’s arrival.
Rotherham soon bundled home their equaliser; the kind of scrappy goal that good sides don’t concede, but we do. All it takes is for one or two players to switch off or be a yard or so too slow, and the ball’s in the net. Reading are always going to be vulnerable to that sort of tricky ball into the box, so the contest had to be killed off earlier in the game.
There was still time for Reading to fluff their lines a few more times; Modou Barrow, Nelson Oliveira and Lewis Baker would all waste opportunities that needed a little more composure to be converted.
The gut-wrenching thing is that, on another day, one or two of those chances I’ve just mentioned go in and I’m sat here writing about a huge win that’s lifted us away from the bottom three. Instead, we’re left thinking about what might have been. That Reading created some good chances is encouraging to a degree, but doesn’t mean much you consider the two main failings of the afternoon that I touched on above: substitutions and winning the ball back.
For the first, the finger of blame has been pointed squarely at the choice to bring John O’Shea on - so much so that it feels a bit like a scapegoat for the result. But I’m really not convinced that his introduction made the equaliser more likely. Sure, it was a negative substitution from Gomes, but trying to shore your defence up aerially in the closing stages of a game makes a decent amount of sense.
The real problem was the timing of the other substitutions. Reading needed fresh ideas going forward to get themselves up the pitch and add a second goal, but in the end Callum Harriott and Modou Barrow were introduced on 86 minutes - about half an hour too late. Gomes should have brought an attacking player on between 50 and 60 minutes to make sure Reading had the momentum and we kept control of the game.
The second is more significant - Reading’s wariness towards winning the ball back. Under Gomes, the Royals seem to employ a fairly low block, inviting pressure onto themselves - presumably so that we can draw the opposition up the pitch before countering. That can work well - we certainly had some joy on the counter against Rotherham - but on the whole it meant the Millers were allowed to keep the ball for far too long, thereby preventing us from controlling possession and dictating the flow.
Contrast this with successful possession-based sides (at whatever level) - they aggressively try to win the ball back to prevent the opposition from gaining a foothold in the game. Controlling a match isn’t just about keeping the ball yourself, it’s also about stopping the opposition from doing it too.
Food for thought for Jose.