A strong reaction to Millwall
Reading put in one of their worst performances under Mark Bowen at Millwall last Saturday - there’s little getting away from that, and the manager himself has been honest about how bad the display was, likening it after the game on Wednesday to the miserable 3-2 defeat at home to Birmingham City. We needed a reaction, badly, but that’s exacly what we got at the City Ground. The levels of effort and workrate off the ball, and positivity in possession, went up markedly in comparison to what we’d seen at the Den.
That’s best seen in how comfortable Reading were defensively. The Royals had allowed 22 shots at Millwall, 8 of them on target, but those numbers dropped to just 14 and 4 respectively at the City Ground. Organisation, energy and focus all paid off and gave Rafael a fairly quiet evening - and they’ll be frustrated to have not come away with a clean sheet.
Reading could still have done more offensively though. I won’t go back into the target man discussion that’s gone round in circles for the last few weeks since Lucas Joao’s been out injured. As importnat as it is, there’s another point here that’s just as important.
Bowen has talked a few times about “bravery” in possession - players being positive when they’ve got the ball and showing the initiative to build attacks properly, through the lines, rather than playing too many safe sideways passes or hoofing it. Working the ball forward intelligently, usually through Ovie Ejaria and John Swift, often making more use of the wings, is Reading’s alternative to playing the ball into a central focal point.
It’s difficult to do though, especially when playing away to play-off chasing sides, and showing “bravery” in those conditions is an apt way of describing the challenge. Reading didn’t face up to that challenge at the Den at all, but looked a lot more positive against Forest. However, it takes time to really develop that way of playing, so it could be a few more weeks before we really start to see Reading consistently doing that confidently.
The cup’s come at a bad time
I would have loved to see Reading get another chance to work on that attacking play - and indeed build on a positive result overall at the City Ground - by promptly taking on Bristol City at home on Saturday. Of course, due to our progression to the fourth round of the FA Cup, that clash against the Robins has been put back a few days to midweek, while Cardiff City come to town for a spot in the fifth round.
After that reaction against Forest, I really would have backed Reading to go one further in a follow-up home match, get three points and put our three-game winless run behind us. Annoyingly though, we won’t get the opportunity to do so. It’s not a critical problem, and Reading could well win their next two and make this section of this article look a little silly.
But momentum’s a key thing in football. Reading made the most of it in December and early January, have seen the wrong side of it in recent weeks, and must now focus on making it swing back in our favour.
Ejaria looked a little lost
I’m loathe to be too harsh, considering the high levels he’s set this season, but Ovie Ejaria looked a little out of place on Wednesday night. He wasn’t bad by any means - he always works hard and at least retains possession well - but he wasn’t involved in the game enough and didn’t pop up with the sparkly moments you associate him with nowadays.
It comes on the back of a similarly low-key performance at Millwall a few days ago. I don’t think it’s the sign of a major problem, but there are two things that Bowen should have in his mind at the moment when it comes to how effective Ejaria is.
Firstly, Millwall and Forest have denied him space really effectively. Without that room to play in, he’s not able to have an influence on games as he has previously. Expect to see other teams build on that plan even more in the near future.
Secondly, there’s a positional issue. Ejaria had been lining up on the left of an attacking three behind a lone striker, but recently he’s been pushed centrally as more of a number ten, probably with the express intention of getting him on the ball as much as possible so that he can cause more damage. That point is of course linked to the first one. The middle of the park is more congested, and Ejaria will have less room in which to find space and run at a defence.
At the moment, Ejaria seems to still be adjusting to his new role - or old role rather, as he’s played there earlier on this season - so if he’s going to stay there we need to be patient. But that adjustment has its benefits that aren’t confined just to Ejaria. For one, Jordan Obita comes onto the left wing as a more natural wide player, thereby stretching the pitch that bit more.
But playing Ejaria centrally means better support for the lone striker. He’s a stronger dribbler than alternative number ten Swift, and has better movement, so for me he’ll be more effective at getting closer to the lone frontman and making the kind of disruptive runs that opens up space in behind for them, which both Puscas and Baldock need in order to have an impact.
The writing’s on the wall for McCleary and Boye
Yakou Meite’s absence due to bereavement - he tragically lost his father this week - meant Reading needed a new right winger. Going by the recent pecking order, that should have meant a start for Garath McCleary, especially given that he came off the bench to play in that role at the Den.
It could alternatively have been Lucas Boye. The Argentine’s never really got going so far at Reading, but a recent goal at Blackpool in the third-round FA Cup replay may have given him the jolt of confidence needed.
But Bowen surprised a lot of us by, instead, going for Michael Olise. Besides the credit that Bowen deserves for showing faith in a youngster - it’s easy to forget that Olise is still only 18 years old - that selection demonstrates how little faith he has in McCleary and Boye. Both are experienced players, both would have slotted into Meite’s position well enough, but both were overlooked.
That’s understandable though. McCleary and Boye have each had enough chances to show what they can do in the first team, including starting in the FA Cup against Blackpool, but they’ve not made the most of those opportunities. Hence Olise jumping the queue on Wednesday night.
He signed a new contract last summer and will, hopefully, be a long-term prospect for the club. That could well start by him staying above McCleary and Boye and getting more regular football in the coming months, which would be a smart call for next season with McCleary’s contract due to expire in the summer and Boye heading back to Torino when his loan deal expires.
Sam Baldock continues to show his worth
Baldock’s late equaliser brought his tally for this campaign to three goals - after strikes against Queen’s Park Rangers and Millwall in the first few weeks of the Mark Bowen era. It also means he’s just one behind his 2018/19 tally for goal contributions in all competitions (four goals and one assist this season, five goals and one assist last season) - but in about half the number of minutes.
For a player that was mostly, albeit not completely, cast aside by previous manager Jose Gomes, that’s not a bad contribution at all. Baldock is experienced, professional and confident enough to dust down that period and get on with the job at hand.
I’ve got my doubts over just how useful he is as a lone forward in this system, with his lack of strength holding him back as a potential target man. In that role you’d naturally have Lucas Joao top of the pecking order, and I still think Puscas is the next best option in terms of how he fits.
But, considering he’s a square peg in a tactical round hole here, you can’t ask for much more from Baldock. His work rate shouldn’t be overlooked, and he’s got a habit of popping up with goals when we really need them.