Reading are increasingly left wing
An emerging trend from the last few weeks has been just how important the left flank is to Reading’s build-up play. Ovie Ejaria and Tyler Blackett have now both started there together for the fourth straight league game - a period in which both have been impressive individually, both in their all-round play and a haul of assists.
Saturday was yet another example, albeit a different one to what we saw at Preston North End and Fulham. In this case, Ejaria and Blackett were tasked with breaking down a deeper-lying defence, rather than being given the opportunity to hit Nottingham Forest on the break - something Blackett had capitalised on with assists at Deepdale and Craven Cottage.
The duo looked bright in the first half, but really stepped it up after the break. Although neither have that much outright pace, both are very good on the ball, and their sharp interplay was a joy to behold as they toyed with Forest, probed for weaknesses and almost exploited them.
Ejaria made a whopping 14 dribbles across the course of the match - several times his season-wide average of just over three per game (the highest rate in the division) - while Blackett was unlucky to finish without a goal and assist. He hit the post with one effort, and a teasing ball across the face of goal should have been converted.
It’s an impressive combination - now proven both at home and on the road. I don’t see it being broken up any time soon, despite the alternative options of Jordan Obita (who played on the left wing for the second straight game) and Omar Richards. If Blackett does agree to a new contract as hoped, it could be a long-lasting partnership.
Defence still giving up little
Reading have now gone up against three top-six sides in their last three league games - Preston North End, Fulham and Nottingham Forest - and conceded just twice across that period. It’s an impressive record and has, of course, played a vital role in the seven-match unbeaten run.
Quite simply, if Reading aren’t conceding more than one goal a game - which has happened only twice under Bowen (QPR away, Birmingham City at home) - then we only have to nick a goal down the other end to get a result. Whether that’s from a smart counter attack like against Preston or Fulham, or a more fortuitous goal as on Saturday, the players have the confidence that they can get a result because the defence is giving them a chance - week in, week out.
Next up are two more games against playoff-chasing sides: Millwall and Nottingham Forest, both away from home. A few months ago I’d have been worried about both
Puscas will probably stay up top
As I wrote in the post-match report and ratings, Sam Baldock isn’t a good fit as a lone striker. His work rate is faultness, but his lack of strength and height means he struggles to impose himself physically against defenders, particularly when it comes to winning headers and holding the ball up. Predecessor Lucas Joao didn’t have that problem, but his expected absence of around two months means he’ll be sorely missed.
It opens up an opportunity for George Puscas to get back into the side. The Romanian frontman may still have plenty of room for improvement - not least in his composure in front of goal - but he does have a more rounded skill set than Baldock, and that makes him a more natural fit to play up top on his own.
For me, he looked more comfortable when dropping deep to receive the ball and lay it off - even if he didn’t get it right every time. He’s also far more effective in the air, having won 1.4 aerial duels per game so far this season, some way ahead of Baldock’s 0.2. But he’s also got the right kind of movement to try to stretch defences and get in behind; he looked particularly annoyed at one point in the second half when he darted into space in the box and wasn’t played in.
Reading may well go after a new striker this month to replace Joao, but giving Puscas a run at the head of the current 4-2-3-1 formation is worth a shot. I’ve got a feeling that he might well enjoy being the focal point of both attacks and attention.