Two first-half goals, added to a calm, cool approach to a second-half rearguard action, were enough for Reading to see off Preston North End 2-1 on Saturday and lift themselves four points clear of the relegation zone.
It’s arguable that one of the integral psychological factors behind the three points came before a ball had been kicked in anger. Jose Gomes was able to name two players - one starting and one on the bench - that had not featured in the last few weeks. Nelson Oliveira - somehow - was fit enough for a place amongst the substitutes, while Andy Rinomhota, the man who has made himself the first pick in the Royals’ midfield, regained his place in the starting XI after a number of weeks out.
Reading, aware that the visitors were unbeaten in 12 games and had won six on the bounce away from home, were very happy to wait for counter attacking opportunities in the early stages. Mo Barrow and Yakou Meite, clearly intended to be the main runners in behind, looked to receive early balls over the top at any opportunity, against a Preston back line slightly short on pace.
In terms of goalmouth action, there was little to write home about in the opening period - but it was already obvious there were gaps for the Royals to exploit if they could get the ball into Meite or Barrow’s feet early. The former skewed horribly wide after Ovie Ejaria, occupying theoretically from the left wing but really coming inside to overload the middle of the pitch when PNE had the ball, had done well to wriggle into the opposition penalty area, while there were also half chances from long range for Rinomhota and Meite.
At the other end, for all Preston’s possession they failed to trouble Martinez - a recurring theme of the afternoon.
Just past the half-hour mark, an incisive breakaway goal put the Royals in front. John Swift, who up until that point had been reasonably quiet, burst into life. He played an exquisite pass with the outside of his right boot down behind the right hand side of PNE’s centre back duo, weighted perfectly for Mo Barrow to run onto.
In one of those rare Reading FC moments where everything comes off exactly how it’s meant to, Barrow took the ball at speed into the box, looked up, saw Meite arriving at the far post with serious intent, and slid the ball across the six-yard box. Meite’s firm finish from on the run from a few yards out, having done well to win a battle of strength with a centre back who thought he might possibly get to the ball first, gave the move the ending it deserved.
The inevitable spell of PNE pressure followed the Royals’ opener, as the visitors poured forward like a side confident of quickly restoring the status quo. However, their job got a lot harder five minutes later, when Reading doubled their advantage in comical circumstances. Comical, that is, for everyone except Alex Neil or centre back Ben Davies.
Martinez, whose distribution was impressive all afternoon, pumped a long kick from the hand downfield. Meite won the initial header and flicked on in behind the visiting defence, but Davies seemed to have the situation covered; a simple, properly weighted pass back to Declan Rudd in goal all that was required. His subsequent mistake, of under-hitting his backpass, proved fatal. Barrow, alive to the opportunity, sprinted to chase down the opening, nipped the ball past Rudd and finished with his left into an empty net. The Royals had breathing space.
Ejaria could easily have made it three just before half time too, as Reading enjoyed their best spell of the game. After slaloming his way to the edge of the penalty area, his right foot shot on the turn looked destined for the bottom left corner, only for Rudd to fling out a hand and divert the ball onto the post.
Half time saw a double PNE change, but any momentum they thought to generate immediately after the interval was stopped in its tracks by a series of injury stoppages. Brandon Barker, who had been one of the two half time arrivals, had to go off a mere 13 minutes after coming on, while Ben Pearson also went down with an injury during that period before eventually staying on until five minutes before full time, when he could continue no longer. For the home side, Swift also received treatment on a couple of occasions, and eventually came off, in a period of the second half where very little actual football was played.
Being 2-0 up, this lack of flow to the game suited Reading. Although what play there was mostly revolved around PNE working the ball around Reading’s half without really ever getting a dangerous cross or shot away, Reading did have opportunities to break and score a third. Garath McCleary, on for Barrow, had several promising situations sprinting away behind the visiting defence, but could never quite find the final cross or finish. Meite (whose runs in the second half featured some truly outrageous pieces of skill), and Ejaria also had opportunities to extend the lead.
In the last 20 minutes Preston did push forward more, and did start to generate the occasional shot from inside the Royals box. Lewis Moult spooned a shot over from the penalty spot, veteran Paul Gallagher dragged wide, and battering ram forward Jaydon Stockley (who could do with having the L and E in his surname taken out) shot straight at Martinez.
As the clock ticked over into injury time, with PNE now down to ten men after Pearson had to hobble off (Preston by that point had already used their third and final substitution), Reading were holding them off fairly comfortably.
It will annoy therefore annoy Jose Gomes, and the defence, that the Royals allowed PNE to score with a couple of minutes of the four added as injury time gone. Eventually a long diagonal paid dividends for Preston - a ball got knocked down in the Royals’ box and eventually a shot came in that rattled the crossbar from a tight angle. It rebounded opportunely for Stockley to slam home, and thus make the last 90 seconds or so much more nerve-wracking than it should have been.
Eventually though the final whistle sounded, bringing to an end an impressively confident and mature victory.
In analysing the game, the main point that stands out is that Reading still looked a huge threat to Preston in both halves despite having significantly less of the ball. Barrow, Meite, Ejaria and then McCleary in the latter stages all looked like they could break away into huge swathes of space at any time if released with the right pass, and in truth there probably should have been a third goal at some point in the second half on the break, as enough half-chances were created to seal the three points.
For a manager whose philosophy so far has been based predominantly around retaining the ball and passing out from the back, this shows a willingness to adapt from Gomes that bodes well for future tough away games.
The defence and midfield deserve credit too, for the willingness to get stuck in to what became an aerial bombardment in the second half. Liam Moore and Matt Miazga were immovable from their command posts in the heart of defence, Yiadom and Tyler Blackett did their job simply but effectively in tracking wingers and stopping crosses, while Rinomhota and Lewis Baker in particular formed an effective midfield screen.
In fact, this was the sort of professional, confident performance and victory that I could really grow used to. More of the same for the rest of the season please.