Nottingham Forest must be sick of the sight of Reading now. At the Madejski Stadium a week and a half ago, they thought they’d sealed all three points with a late goal - only to be denied by an equaliser. As the 808 travelling fans delighted in chanting after Sam Baldock struck to make it 1-1 at the City Ground on Wednesday night: “It’s happened again, it’s happened again, Nottingham Forest, it’s happened again.”
Besides the comedy factor of Reading spoiling the party for Forest in a pretty similar way to the reverse tie, there’s a serious point to be made here. The Royals have - twice - gone behind to a really strong Forest side that could well finish the season in the playoffs, and each time they’ve shown the character to drag themselves level.
Neither equalising goal was particularly easy on the eye. Jordan Obita set up both with crosses from out wide - the first from the left, the second from the right - and both times the ball seemed to bobble over the line. Reading didn’t need an own goal this time - on this occasion Sam Baldock slammed the ball at ‘keeper Brice Samba who couldn’t prevent it crossing the line (although the ref needed goal-line technology to make sure that had happened).
But they all count. Granted, they were relatively fortunate goals in both cases, but in each game Reading gave themselves a fighting chance by refusing to be cowed after going behind, and battling to get themselves level. It sounds basic, but it goes a long way in the grander scheme of things.
For me, it all boils down to this: not that long ago, we would have lost both of these matches against Nottingham Forest. Maybe not by playing badly, or by being comfortably beaten, but would we have had the character to get a point in the circumstances? Probably not. At the end of the day, that’s now two points gained against a good side.
Reading started the evening by making three changes to the side that was beaten in Bermondsey on Saturday. Mark Bowen stuck with the same 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 that’s now been in effect for some time now, but swapped Charlie Adam, Yakou Meite and Sam Baldock out for Obita, Michael Olise and George Puscas - the first time Bowen’s made a couple of unenforced alterations to his team in a while.
Meite’s absence though wasn’t for reasons of football or fitness. He tragically lost his father recently and understandably was out of contention for the trip to the City Ground. Our thoughts are with him at this difficult time. Bringing in Puscas and Obita though gave Reading a slightly different setup to what we’ve seen recently. Those changes meant a few things happened to Reading’s team:
- Obita was more of an orthodox winger on the left
- Ovie Ejaria came central to play behind Puscas
- In Puscas, Reading had someone more naturally suited to linking the play than Baldock
- John Swift dropped back into a deeper role alongside Pele
None of those tactical tweaks were particularly revolutionary. All make sense in their own right, not least restoring Ejaria to the number ten role in which he’s previously excelled, and trying out a different centre forward in the continued absence of Lucas “Reading’s only target man” Joao. But the lack of radical change is a key point in itself. As has been the case throughout Bowen’s time in charge at the Madejski Stadium, he prefers smaller alterations to ripping up a setup and starting from scratch.
The game itself played out as a fairly even contest. For the most part, Forest as the home side were naturally the ones taking the attacking initiative, but Reading contained them effectively throughout - and not ending the game with a clean sheet will be of huge frustration to Bowen. Besides Lewis Grabban’s close-range strike on the 80th minute, the hosts managed just three shots on target and didn’t overly trouble Rafael.
However, Reading had a similar problem down the other end of the pitch. We’d looked pretty aimless in attack without Joao as a target man in the two previous games, and again badly missed him against Forest on Wednesday night. He’s hugely useful as a focal point - not just being a threat in his own right, but also in allowing Ejaria, Swift and others to play off him.
Puscas tried hard to compensate for Joao’s absence by regularly dropping deep in search of the ball, but generally couldn’t get into the game enough. It’ll be a tricky challenge to change that in future - Puscas needs to know when to come deep for the ball and when to look for it in behind, and the injury he’s carrying (he’s playing through the pain according to Bowen after damaging his shoulder) only makes him less sharp.
However, special credit should go to one of the players behind him: Michael Olise. The 18 year-old surprisingly started at the City Ground in place of Meite - not to mention also leapfrogging Lucas Boye and Garath McCleary - and didn’t look at all out of place. In fact, he was composed, hard-working and bright in possession, showing a maturity beyond his years - even if the difficult nature of the match made it difficult for him to stamp his authority on the game.
He offered plenty tactically too. Olise is, in contrast to most of Reading’s other options out wide, really bright technically. Not just simply a dribbler, the young Frenchman delighted in drifting infield off the right to link up with teammates centrally, and had an eye for a cuter pass a few times when chipping the ball out wide to the opposite flank.
Mark Bowen was asked after the match if the last two games against Forest can be considered a “barometer” for where the team’s at. Personally, I think it can, as we’re now at a stage where those results - against a top-six side - should be seen as well deserved but not overly surprising. We shouldn’t get carried away with ourselves though, as Ben rightly stressed in his Reality Check piece a few days ago.
However, the signs of progress are real and consistent. As shown again at Forest on Wednesday night, this team is headed in the right direction.