Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Blackpool was always going to offer something very different to what we’ve been getting used to in recent weeks. Reading have been remarkably consistent of late in terms of team selections, performances and results, but all those naturally got temporarily shoved to one side.
Perhaps that may not have been the case if there were more riding on this third-round tie from Reading’s perspective - say, for example, if a playoff push were unrealistic or if the Royals had a more glamorous tie against Premier League opposition. But taking on a lower-league team at home gave Mark Bowen and Reading more flexibility in what approach they could take.
Most pertinently, it gave Bowen an excuse to ring the changes after the established first team had been racking up the minutes over a congested Christmas period. Although we were all expecting a much-altered side on Saturday afternoon, the extent of the rotation was extreme.
Bowen went the whole hog, making 11 changes to the team that beat Fulham on New Year’s Day; Tyler Blackett on the subs’ bench the only survivor. Otherwise, the lineup read (4-2-3-1):
Walker; Howe, Miazga, Burley, Richards; Rinomhota, Olise; McCleary, Boye, Obita; Baldock
Subs: Southwood, Blackett, Medford-Smith, East, Aluko, Barrett, Loader
Besides the obvious benefit of giving the first team a well-deserved break, it also gave numerous fringe players the opportunity to stake their claim to more action. That’s particularly true of Matt Miazga, Omar Richards and Andy Rinomhota - all of whom have played regularly this season and can count themselves unlucky to have not been starting recently.
But credit should also go to academy players Andre Burley, Ramarni Medford-Smith and Luke Southwood - none of whom had appeared for the first team before Saturday. The first two managed just that (Medford-Smith replacing Burley late on), although Southwood will have to wait his turn despite impressing recently on loan for Hamilton Academical.
Despite those changes, Reading started off pretty well and were comfortable for the first half an hour - dominating possession and barely allowing the visitors a sniff of goal. But failing to turn possession into clear-cut chances and goals is a lesson that we’ve been teaching opposition sides about recently and should have learned ourselves.
Reading knew they were going to have to break down a tightly packed Blackpool defence if they were to score goals. To do that we needed quick, sharp interplay in the final third that can only come from players getting close to each other to link up properly, but the system didn’t allow for that - and held Reading back throughout the game.
Bowen had put Reading out in a 4-2-3-1 but, in contrast to the fairly narrow 4-2-3-1 we’ve seen recently with Ovie Ejaria and Yakou Meite both capable of cutting inside from the wings, Jordan Obita and Garath McCleary on the left and right respectively typically stayed pretty wide - despite having both Omar Richards and Teddy Howe to overlap.
With Michael Olise (typically an attacking midfielder) also playing alongside Andy Rinomhota in the deep-lying two, it meant striker Sam Baldock - himself not suited to playing as a lone front man - and Lucas Boye were for the most part too isolated. Not enough bodies were getting near them in support to make possible the combination play we needed to unlock Blackpool, and much of our possession was in front or to the sides of the visitors - not in behind.
Blackpool made us pay for that just before the half-hour mark by capitalising on slack defending. A cross came over from the left, which Armand Gnanduillet won too easily and headed back across goal to find the unmarked Nathan Delfouneso - who himself tucked home. A far cry from the tight defending we’ve seen in recent weeks.
From there on in, Blackpool grew in confidence and Reading’s previous control of the game subsided. A particularly experimental, young side seemed to quickly lose a lot of the belief and optimism that it had shown for the opening 30 minutes or so, and in truth it didn’t regain that positivity over the rest of the match.
It did however show what it could do when the link-up play was done properly. On 56 minutes, Olise pushed up the pitch, played a one-two with Boye before sliding a through ball to Baldock, who powered a shot into the far side of the goal off the hand of the goalie. Sharp, clever play that we should have seen more of.
Parity on the scoreline didn’t last long though. Gnanduillet turned goalscorer this time, bullying Burley, charging forwards and smashing the ball into the top corner. A brutal lesson for Reading’s debutant defender in what a powerful forward can do when he’s given the opportunity.
That lead lasted for all of six minutes; Reading capping off a sudden flurry of second-half goals. Danny Loader’s had an interesting week - going on Twitter himself on New Year’s Day to shut down rumours of a January departure - but he put that behind him by deftly flicking McCleary’s cross home off the far post.
The scoring shouldn’t have ended there though. Gnanduillet was at the heart of the action again, going down in the area softly under a challenge from Teddy Howe before hitting the bar with a panenka penalty. A real let off for Reading who had - again - gone to sleep after getting themselves back into the game.
That was mostly that though, bar a strong close-range save from Walker to deny Delfouneso late on and keep Reading in the competition. The Royals though struggled to get going late on and barely troubled the visitors or threatened a winner, instead seeming more keen to maintain their position as shown by Medford-Smith replacing Burley who’d had a tough debut.
The worst thing about this result is almost certainly an upcoming cup replay at Blackpool in around 10 days’ time. It’s not at all what Mark Bowen would have wanted, especially with an already busy January coming up, even if he does have a pretty big squad to make the most of.
Based on Saturday’s showing, the fringe players in that squad won’t break into the first team - at least not yet. Baldock came out of the game pretty well after a hard-working if largely ineffective performance (bar the goal) in an unsuited lone striker role, but I wanted to see more initiative and impact from the likes of Boye and Rinomhota. But Reading will still need to use their squad wisely over the coming weeks, with another six games to come in January - five in the league plus the replay.
It’s those five league matches that we’ll focus on. A playoff push is still very much on the cards, so putting a disappointing afternoon against Blackpool behind us and getting back to business is very much the next thing on our to-do list.