To work out how much progress Reading are making under Jose Gomes, it’s worth asking this simple question: would we have lost that game against Aston Villa under Paul Clement? Dean Smith’s Villans are a strong side with quality players throughout the team, so were always going to be a tough opponent. On the day itself they played pretty well, not at their best by any means - but had enough chances to win the game.
From a Reading perspective, I don’t think we’d have got close to a point in that match a few months ago. Team spirit, organisation, positivity in possession and even some moments of individual class, have all been absent this season - but Jose Gomes is slowly but surely starting to get those qualities out of his side, and the 0-0 draw against Villa was the latest example.
We’ve already seen encouraging (albeit flawed) performances - particularly against QPR, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Derby County - so it’s understandable to now be impatient for those displays to be turned into wins. But in some games, like Saturday’s, a point will not only have to do, but will also go down very well at the end of the season when relegation may be decided by fine margins. The added bonus of a clean sheet is welcome indeed.
How Reading set up
Emiliano Martinez started in goal, with a back four of Andy Yiadom, Matt Miazga, Liam Moore and Tyler Blackett. Further ahead though, there were only two clearly defined positions: Andy Rinomhota as a defensive midfielder and Nelson Oliveira leading the line.
From the start, John Swift lined up next to Rinomhota, with Ovie Ejaria (left) and Callum Harriott (right) flanking Lewis Baker in the number ten role. However, as the day went on, those four would rotate quite regularly, making their positions quite hard to pick up both for Aston Villa and people writing match reports - cheers guys.
On the whole, it meant Reading had a pretty good mixture of pace, technical skill and physicality throughout the side. However, there would be a few times as the afternoon went on when the Royals could have used that extra bit of pace and directness, particularly when they wanted to break. That was telling out wide (only Harriott is an orthodox winger in that side) and at full-back, where Yiadom has pace but Blackett does not.
The game itself
On the balance of play, I wouldn’t say Reading necessarily deserved to win. We didn’t play so well that a draw was an injustice, but we were perfectly good value for a hard-earned point.
Reading started the match, as they often seem to do under Gomes, pretty slowly. Aston Villa seemed to settle quicker, pressing us high up in a bid to force mistakes, and had the better of the early chances. Tammy Abraham and Anwar El Ghazi both missed decent opportunities, but former Royal Tommy Elphick came closest, rattling the woodwork with a head.
Side note: that game was the third time in around a year that Elphick has made his Mad Stad debut for a club; playing for us against Millwall, then coming back to the Madejski Stadium with Hull City and Aston Villa.
Later on in the half though, Reading got a much better control of the game and started to threaten down the other end. New arrivals Baker and Ejaria looked lively, with Oliveira getting on the ball well to link up the play. He tested Villa ‘keeper Lovre Kalinic from outside the box with a drive to the bottom corner, while Ejaria also saw a penalty shout waved away.
After the restart, the visitors started to boss proceedings, keeping the ball well and pushing Reading further back, even if they didn’t create too much in the way of clear-cut chances besides a powerful Abraham header that Martinez denied in spectacular fashion.
Jose Gomes would try to get Reading up the pitch with two tactical substitutions: Omar Richards for Callum Harriott and Sone Aluko for Lewis Baker. The second of those made sense - Aluko has been in good form recently and he did add some more guile and energy when he came on.
However, the first seemed a little odd. Granted, some extra cover for Blackett on the left wing wasn’t a bad idea, but introducing the attacking threat of Garath McCleary or Modou Barrow could have given Reading an outlet from Villa’s pressure. It also held us back somewhat late on when we pushed for a winner late on.
Was it a stamp?
What prompted the other substitution - the withdrawal of Nelson Oliveira - is attracting plenty of controversy post-match. The Portuguese striker went down under an innocuous challenge from Tyrone Mings who, while off balance, appeared to stamp on Oliveira’s face. The Villa defender has previous for this, having been banned for a similar act on Zlatan Ibrahimovic while playing for Bournemouth in the Premier League.
So was this incident intentional? Of course, only Mings will know, and to be fair to him he did try to help Oliveira as soon as the injury happened. But for me, when the Villa defender has his weight on his left foot, he then sees where Oliveira’s head is before putting his right foot down - enough time to have put his foot down somewhere else.
Did Mings made the conscious decision to hurt Oliveira? Almost certainly not, but seemingly making little effort to avoid the injury is not much better. At best it’s dangerously reckless.
So how did Reading manage their improvement?
Beyond the factor of ‘Jose Gomes has given the team a lift’, which I feel like I’ve mentioned every week since his arrival, it’s worth noting the makeup of the team itself. If you go through that starting XI, only three players can be said to have been first-team regulars during a disastrous 2018/19 campaign: Liam Moore, Tyler Blackett and John Swift.
Otherwise you’ve got the five loan signings (Martinez, Miazga, Ejaria, Baker, Oliveira), summer arrival Yiadom, and two others that were on the books last season without playing much if at all - Rinomhota and Harriott. Put that all together and you get a side that has a remarkably fresh look and feel to it. Even in comparison to the latter days of the Paul Clement era, this is a team with very different personnel - hence a seemingly much better attitude and confidence level.
Within that side there’s plenty of individual ability. Emiliano Martinez, Matt Miazga and Ovie Ejaria in particular looked a class above in their composure, reading of the game and technical ability. Reading will need those qualities in abundance if we’re to avoid the drop.
How can Reading improve further?
For me there are three main areas that Jose Gomes now needs to focus on: making his side more clinical in front of goal, adding more pace to the team, and improving their ability to respond to the opposition.
The first should come soon enough, particularly with the talented Oliveira playing up front, and the new signings bedding in fairly quickly. However, the attack would improve a fair amount if there were more outright pace going forwards - Reading had a few opportunities to break on Villa or get in behind, but couldn’t quite manage either. Harriott and Yiadom had speed and acceleration down the right, but Ejaria and Blackett lacked it on the left.
Finally, Gomes’ team must react to changes in the balance of play. There was a notable shift in how the game was going after half time, but it took until the 67th minute for Reading’s first substitution. This problem hopefully won’t come up too much against weaker opposition, but it’s still an area of improvement nonetheless.