Sitting down to write this match report on Sunday morning - I was too cheesed off to do it properly on Saturday evening - I still don’t really know how to feel about the 2-0 defeat to Charlton Athletic.
I do know that neither the result nor the performance are signs that this team is suddenly about to collapse. After all, this side is very much one in transition, and was bound to go through a few hiccups and setbacks before hitting its stride. Going up against a well-drilled, well-motivated promoted team like the Addicks was always going to be a very different challenge to, say, relegated sides like Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town that largely lacked those two qualities.
On the other hand though, the match exposed some problems with Reading that Jose Gomes will need to solve over the upcoming two-week international break: the new strikers haven’t properly found their feet, we rely too heavily on John Swift for creativity, and Reading need a more convincing plan B.
First up, a quick recap of how the game unfolded.
Reading started the game well on the day, looking the stronger of the two sides for the opening 20 minutes or so and having the better chances. After John Swift created our first two early on - via a well-taken corner that Joao flicked on for Morrison to miss, and a deflected free-kick - Lucas Joao’s overhead kick went over and George Puscas hit the crossbar.
Midway into the half, Charlton exerted some control over the game, stifling Reading well and forcing us back, with the Royals struggling to pick up much momentum going forwards. However, Puscas would have the best opportunity of the half, failing to take full advantage of a one-on-one just before the break.
The Addicks were well on top after the restart though, with Reading unable to match their energy and discipline. Lee Bowyer’s side did a very good job shutting down our passing options and denying space to us in the final third, although the Royals’ sloppiness on the ball and inability to take the initiative made Charlton’s job easier.
For the goals, Tom McIntyre perhaps could have done better for the first goal, with the ball deflected off him past Rafael, while Chuks Aneke slipped in behind our defence too easily before being brought down for the penalty. Lyle Taylor’s nonchalant walking-pace run-up to take the spot-kick was a microcosm of the confidence with which the Addicks have taken to Championship football this season - that’s now six games unbeaten for them in the league.
For all of the Royals’ problems on Saturday, you can’t say that we didn’t have the chances for the game to have turned out differently. That’s certainly encouraging - so many times in recent seasons we’ve been pathetically unable to properly trouble the opposition goalkeeper - but our inability to take those opportunities was of course frustrating.
Lucas Joao went close first of all, whacking an overhead kick just over the bar after around quarter of an hour. Good on him for having the audacity to try something like that. Strike partner George Puscas would have three opportunities for himself before the break though: hitting the bar, firing wide after working space in the area, and seeing his shot hit the goalkeeper went clean through on goal. More generally, Omar Richards looked dangerous down the left wing, and almost found Puscas on another occasion, only for the ball to just evade the Romanian before he could convert the chance.
Strikers can of course have off days, but Puscas in particular needs to cut those out of his game before too long. I make that at least three one-on-one chances that he’s missed since signing for Reading now: one at Wycombe Wanderers (although he bundled home the rebound), another against Cardiff City that would have sealed his hat-trick, and the third on Saturday.
This early in his spell at Reading, I’m willing to give him more time. Moving to England was a big point in his career, and he may well simply need time to adjust. For the time being though, when he’s missing good chances like that, we’ll find it more difficult to win games.
A lack of creativity
Going into the weekend’s game, John Swift’s creativity stats were eye-catching: the joint most assists in the Championship (4) and comfortably the most chances made (20). That’s not to be scoffed at, especially considering how inconsistent he’s been in recent seasons, but relying too heavily on him as the playmaker-in-chief could be Reading’s downfall.
Ask yourself this: if the opportunity is on for a defence-splitting pass or long-range crossfield ball, who of Reading’s players can at least attempt that? Last season we had an expert in those two (particularly the latter) in Lewis Baker, but now I’d say our only option is John Swift.
None of the back three are technically good enough to be reliably hitting crossfield passes to an attacker, the two strikers were out-and-out forwards rather than deeper-lying creators, and Swift’s fellow midfielders just don’t have the right range of passing, instead much preferring to go short, even when a man is free out wide so the play can be switched.
The unwillingness of Ovie Ejaria and Pele to try those passes stood out like a sore thumb on Saturday. Reading needed someone to dictate the tempo from midfield to get us up the pitch but, with those two only really happy to make short passes, we badly lacked that extra dimension to our play.
An unconvincing plan B
Jose Gomes identified the right question on Saturday (Reading didn’t have enough creativity going forwards in the second half) but, with his first two substitutions, came up with the wrong answer. He made two alterations to the Royals’ starting 3-5-2, bringing Omar Richards and Andy Yiadom off for Lucas Boye and Yakou Meite respectively in straight swaps.
However, swapping the wingbacks didn’t really change anything - Boye and Meite weren’t any more able to get into the game than the players they’d replaced. Bringing them on in principle wasn’t a bad decision, but putting them into positions to which they weren’t suited was.
Instead, Reading had needed a change in shape - not just a change in personnel. Up until the point of the subs (the 66th minute), Reading’s front two were too isolated, the midfield wasn’t creating enough and the spare centre back wasn’t needed. For me, the right option would have been replacing one of those centre backs with an extra forward or attacking midfielder, perhaps going 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2 or something similar.
In the end, it’s frustrating that two-goal cup star Josh Barrett was only given nine minutes of normal time at the end of the game, by which point the damage had already been done.
That match is an annoying sour note to end the first batch of 2019/20 league fixtures going into the international break. Even a gutsy score draw against in-form Charlton would have been enough to add to the momentum we’d been building up over the last few weeks.
Going forwards though, Reading need to make sure it’s an isolated incident - and one that we learn from. If Jose Gomes can come up with convincing solutions to the issues I’ve identified above - ensuring we take our chances, making us less reliant on Swift, and coming up with a better plan B - we’ll come out stronger from this experience.
The match also lays down a challenge to the players themselves: how will they respond after the international break to the disappointment of losing that game? This is a new group that’s still learning and getting to know each other, and this result - particularly the fact that they don’t have the opportunity for an immediate response - is a big test of character.