Will the real Reading please stand up? I’d tweeted before the game that this was one of the most unpredictable Reading teams I’d been watching in my 25 years of fandom and, once again, I’m left scratching my head trying to judge what the real potential and expectation towards this squad should be.
Let’s get the key things out of the way.
Firstly, Blackburn Rovers played very well. They worked hard, executed moves slickly and stayed organised for the vast majority of the 95 minutes of play. The work-rate witnessed in the first half was lovely to watch and the composure shown when 2-1 up away from home and leaving Reading chasing shadows in stoppage time was mesmerising and frustrating in equal measure.
Secondly, the officials will have better games but the chants of ‘2-1 to the referee’ from Club 1871 were a stretch Armstrong of a stretch. Yes, there was a decision or two that left you scratching your head, but anyone blaming the referee for that defeat is clutching at straws.
Yet most importantly, Jose Gomes has a lot of work to do if this team want to have any sort of play-off ambitions. The question is whether he’s earned the time to put that work in and I’ll save my verdict on that one for the end.
Despite back-to-back defeats it was easy to walk into a sun-kissed Madejski Stadium with a sense of optimism. Jordan Obita’s inclusion in the starting lineup after a two-year absence was a feel-good moment, while the restoration of £14m strike force Lucas Joao and George Puscas was widely seen as a necessary correction from last weekend’s defeat at Middlesbrough.
However, within minutes, the alarm bells were ringing and you got the sense a long afternoon lay ahead.
Reading looked woefully sluggish. They were seemingly second to every ball and struggled to get out of first gear against a Blackburn team who came to work. While Jose Gomes’ switch to three at the back initially seemed a masterstroke, teams have quickly figured out that there’s plenty of space to be had sticking the ball between the advanced wing-backs and the wider of the central defenders.
Inevitably this was the area where both goals started, with the first seeing Tom McIntyre unable to get to Stewart Downing and a lovely ball across the top of the box finding its way to Adam Armstrong to finish in some style past Rafael.
Reading’s record when going behind is far from stellar. In fact, only once under Jose Gomes’ management have we come from behind to win a game and few signs pointed to that stat changing. Blackburn continued to dictate the pace and, aside from a Puscas half chance and a couple of scrambles, Reading carved out very little.
Remember when we always used to concede straight after half-time? Well, hello again old friend! Despite ending the first 45 on a slight upswing, the momentum disappeared over the break and soon we found ourselves 2-0 down. This time it was Liam Moore left on his own, with the Reading captain ghosted past. Tom McIntyre played the attacking line onside and, following a goalmouth scramble, Bradley Dack squeezed home.
It’s hard to know where the fault lies. Is it the back three for being so hopeless when caught one-on-one or is it the wing-backs who need to do more defensive work? Only Jose Gomes really knows and he needs to quickly change something as it’s an uncertainty that’s costing us.
At 2-0 down, Gomes went to 4-3-3 as Yakou Meite came on for McIntyre and Reading did wake up a bit. John Swift, who’d had a woeful first 45, first hit the post before minutes later sweeping home to cut the deficit in half.
Blackburn briefly looked wobbly, but credit to Tony Mowbray’s side who quickly regained their composure to see out the game fairly comfortably. With five minutes of stoppage time on the board, I counted two Reading touches in the first four of those minutes and one of those was a save from Rafael. No complaints about the result and it’s now five defeats in eight, or three wins in the last 15 league games.
So the question that’s only getting more pertinent is whether it’s Jose Gomes that’s the problem or are his players letting him down?
In terms of Gomes, he’s not helped himself with some odd tactical moves and a lack of a proactive approach. Even with Blackburn all over us, Gomes waited until we were 2-0 down to switch things up, when it was too late to target all three points. Increasingly his team doesn’t look up for it and they don’t seem to have the spring in their step or the fight shown by teams like Charlton and Blackburn.
So is that a Gomes problem or a player problem?
Few players can walk away saying they’ve played well today and few could say they left every drop of sweat out on the turf. Is that down to players being unsure of their roles and responsibilities or is it an underlying arrogance and lack of bottle?
Much like Steve Clarke’s talented but ultimately failure-ridden squad of 2015/16, you now start to look a little closer into the past careers of some players who’ve arrived at the Madejski in the Gomes era. Pele wasn’t good enough for Nottingham Forest so why should he succeed here? Puscas and Joao both lacked consistency to thrive elsewhere so why should we expect them to suddenly discover that dependability in Berkshire?
You could ask the same with existing players including Swift, Tyler Blackett, Meite and Moore. If the team endured back-to-back relegation scraps with those men available previously, why shouldn’t we expect the same again? I’m not saying anyone is to blame but the culture of failure increasingly lingers over this club and those who’ve been part of it must have been tainted somewhat.
Just as importantly, are these even the players that Gomes wants? If not, this tactical jenga is more understandable, in order to find a system that works.
I realise I’ve posed plenty of questions in the past few paragraphs and ultimately I have precious few answers. My own opinion is that if this is a club whose recruitment is above and independent of the manager then you might as well sack him and see if someone can get more out of this group. On the other hand, if Gomes has everything he wants and these are simply growing pains, you give him the time needed to nail those plans down and give the squad the time to adapt.
I’m still confident we have the squad needed to stay in this division, yet I’m left once again questioning if the club has a blueprint that’s going to lead us to brighter things, rather than a place for underwhelming players to pick up exposure and a pay cheque before moving on. Still, a lot can change in 90 minutes and I’m very much hoping this is a blip rather than a rot.