When Jose Gomes came into the club at Christmas, we all wanted a quick and decisive burst up the table and out of relegation danger. Of course we did. But his first few months at the helm have shown how slow progress can be - although performances have generally improved and the club feels a much more positive place, we’re still hovering dangerously close to the bottom three.
A key part of that has been Reading’s inability to string wins together. Although we managed back-to-back victories against Ipswich Town and Wigan Athletic, other opportunities have gone begging - particularly frustrating draws against rivals Bolton Wanderers and Rotherham United.
But then again, the fact that we’re outside the bottom three at all is of course good reason for optimism. The simple fact is that Reading are currently set to stay up, but they weren’t when Gomes joined in December.
The steady progress we’re making has come off the back of what is, for me, an overlooked aspect to Jose Gomes’ Reading side. In short, we’re much harder to beat. Saturday’s 0-0 against Stoke City was a great example of that; Reading grinding out a solid point and clean sheet against a decent side. Although the Potters are stuck in midtable, they’ve still got the quality to beat us if we’re not careful.
We’ve seen the exact same on three other occasions under Gomes: QPR away, Aston Villa at home and Sheffield Wednesday away. Each time, the Royals ground out 0-0 draws against dangerous opposition, in matches Reading very probably would have lost under Paul Clement.
Add those clean-sheet draws together and you get an extra four points - nothing spectacular, but a huge plus in a relegation fight nonetheless, especially considering that we only stayed up by three points last season.
So why the turnaround?
For me, there are two factors behind Reading’s new-found ability to grind out results like these: defensive quality and team spirit. The first point is straightforward - we went into the January transfer window with error-prone Anssi Jaakkola and Tiago Ilori at the back, and came out of it with the superior Emiliano Martinez and Matt Miazga.
The upgrade in individual quality is clear, with both of those players having the ability to keep out waves of attacks more or less by themselves. But their influence on the rest of the side is important too. Having dominant, imposing players like Martinez and Miazga rubs off on the rest of the defence - typically Andy Yiadom, Liam Moore and Tyler Blackett.
All are capable defenders in their own right, but added leadership and confidence from those around them improves their own performances.
Secondly, team spirit. January additions have marshalled Reading defensively, but there’s been a notable turn-up across the whole side since Jose Gomes came in. There are clear examples of this in the late winners we’ve seen in recent weeks - Blackburn Rovers, Ipswich Town and Wigan Athletic - but it stands to reason that the spirit is there anyway, even when we don’t get eye-catching victories.
Sometimes a team just has to knuckle down and take a draw when it’s available. It takes a certain amount of grit to see that out - not just from the defence, but also from the rest of the team. That Reading were able to pluck out a 0-0 at Stoke City despite various key players to injury - including our main striker and two best central midfielders (in my opinion at least) shows how good the team spirit is across the board.
On the flipside, I wouldn’t put tactics down as a reason. Gomes’ predecessor Paul Clement tried to play a more cautious style - although that’s probably just a kinder way of saying that we weren’t any good going forwards. Either way, the current tactic of winning games by keeping the ball and scoring goals isn’t one you’d usually associate with grinding out a solid result on the road.
Whatever the reason, it's clear there has been an improvement under Jose Gomes for Reading in picking up points, and long may it continue.