Well, that was disappointing. After all the positivity heading into the season - and hopes of making a great start - Reading fluffed their lines. The title of this match report, Boys Against Men, may seem a little harsh at first, but it does sum up how Reading’s inexperience and naivety were starkly contrasted against the visitors’ experience and maturity - pretty much all over the pitch.
For all our optimism about Jose Gomes bringing through a big batch of youngsters this season, it’s clear that they need time to improve - and for us to be patient. The starting lineup against Sheffield Wednesday had an average age of 22.8 - including two teenagers (Danny Loader and Joao Virginia) and just one player over 26 (Andy Yiadom, 27).
That lineup in full:
Virginia; Yiadom, Moore, Miazga, Richards; Loader, Rinomhota, Swift, Barrett; Meite, Barrow.
Subs: Walker, McIntyre, Morrison, Adam, Olise, Novakovich, Baldock
As had been the case a few times in pre-season, Reading didn’t set up in any clear specific formation, instead largely switching between a 4-2-3-1 when out of possession and 4-2-2-2 in attack.
Reading started fairly brightly, roared on by a particularly vocal home crowd. That was certainly true in the South Stand, with Club 1871 making a racket before the game - and then unveiling an amusing David Brent banner, using a quote from The Office.
What do you lot know about football? pic.twitter.com/mTzVNmxjDy— Reading FC (@ReadingFC) August 3, 2019
On the pitch, Reading’s start was bright, but not as quick as we needed it to be. We moved the ball around fairly well and had a few opportunities through John Swift’s set pieces - a header from his corner and a direct free-kick of his own that sailed harmlessly over the bar. At the other end, a loose Danny Loader pass resulted in Wednesday’s first good opportunity, with Kadeem Harris forcing a save out of Virginia at his near post.
Reading really should have gone 1-0 up around 25 minutes into the game. Andy Yiadom, playing so high that his starting position was often halfway into Club 1871, controlled a long ball on the right, danced into the box, and saw his goalbound shot blocked on the line by a Wednesday arm. Modou Barrow was on hand to gobble up the rebound... but fluffed his lines.
Reading had been largely limiting Wednesday to possession in non-threatening areas, allowing Barry Bannan to loft speculative passes into the final third, but the away side showed all the cutting edge that both sides had lacked until that point for the opener. Liam Moore was beaten unusually easily by the pacey Harris on the left, with the winger cutting inside and firing past Virginia.
Moore should certainly have done better, but how much of a role did him being on the right of defence play? Ever since joining Reading he’s been a left centre back - with Miazga slotted in on the right last season. Upsetting that combination may well have followed on from Moore being on the left in pre-season, but it can also introduce those small doubts and hesitations that cause defensive errors.
The Royals would struggle in the final third for the rest of the first 45, with half-chances going to Josh Barrett and Yakou Meite. The latter looked particularly isolated as a lone forward, lacking the technical ability to hold the ball up and bring others into play.
To be fair though, he wasn’t helped by a lack of invention in the middle. Andy Rinomhota and John Swift - both capable of adding that spark in the centre - were restricted by both being in a defensive pairing. Barrow was shut out of the game (whether he was on the left or in the middle), Barrett wasn’t involved enough and Loader took the safe pass far too often rather than being positive and trying to put Reading on the front foot.
Meite may not be the best at hold-up play, but there are few more dangerous than him when an aerial cross comes into the box. Nine minutes after the restart, Barrett showed great composure on the edge of the box to hold the ball, pick his moment, and float in a pinpoint cross for the Ivorian - who duly guided his header over Kieran Westwood.
It was at this point that the two sides’ gulf in levels of experience really told. Reading needed to keep their heads and kickstart some momentum from their equaliser, but in depressing fashion the opposite happened. Wednesday would have gone back in front were it not for Matt Miazga’s acrobatic headed clearance, but Sam Hutchinson did restore their advantage from the resulting corner.
The next 10 minutes were a rough spell for the home side, with Steven Fletcher and Harris going desperately close to making it 3-1 - although Barrow blazed a shot over the bar at the other end. Reading needed a sub, and mad two: Charlie Adam and Michael Olise on for Josh Barrett and Danny Loader.
Somewhat surprisingly, Adam went into the number ten role - rather than sitting deep in front of the defence and allowing Swift to push on as most of us would have expected. To be fair, the former Stoke City man gave Reading a bit more momentum going forwards and was involved in a few attacking moves.
But it wasn’t enough. The Royals badly struggled to create chances in the final third, and Adam’s introduction wasn’t enough, although Michael Olise’s through ball for Barrow would have set the Gambian through on goal - were it for Westwood taking him out and being sent off as a result.
Again, experience was key. Despite their man advantage, Reading weren’t able to create clear-cut chances to draw level, with Wednesday’s game management - staying firm at the back, keeping the ball when possible and holding onto it in the corner - going a long way to sealing the win.
There was even an ironic twist of the knife in injury time. Lucas Joao, linked this week with a move to Reading, expertly controlled the ball on the edge of the box before spinning Miazga and firing past Virginia into the far corner. Exactly the sort of quality that the Royals had been lacking all afternoon - and will need this season.
Given the lack of experience and quality in our side - particularly in the final third - the Royals certainly didn’t embarrass themselves against Sheffield Wednesday. But the match showed just how ruthlessly you can be punished in this division, even by a side that isn’t at top gear but has the know-how to exploit weaknesses and shore up their own.
There’s an awful lot more work to be done on the training ground, but the main focus has to be on who we can bring in this week. Lucas Boye will come into the side next weekend, but he should be joined by a striker who can hold the ball up and a deep central midfielder that can screen the defence while Swift and Rinomhota push on.
Get those signings and we can put this match behind us.