An interesting form of FA Cup apathy
Over the last decade or so, Reading fans have rightly had a lot of fondness for the FA Cup - quite rightly too as we’ve done much better in the competition during that period than most other non-Premier League sides. When the league form has been especially bad - I’m thinking particularly of the miserable second halves of 2014/15 and 2015/16 - the FA Cup has been a welcome distraction.
So it’s striking that fans are so unanimous in their relative apathy for the competition this season. Everyone agrees that the FA Cup is secondary to the Championship, which we have a very real (albeit slim) chance of getting out of in May if the league form continues - and Bowen’s view is no different, as he made clear when explaining the team selection post-match.
“My focus is on what’s best for the club. Over the last few weeks we’ve put ourselves within touching distance of a play-off place and it’s put us in the race over the back end of the season. I have to protect that position.”
Normally, a 2-2 draw at home to a League One side - especially with a decent number of established players in the team - would bring a lot of frustration and disappointment out of the fans. As I’ll explain below, we should have done much better on Saturday - at least when looking at the match in isolation - but it says a lot that no one really seems to care that much about the game itself.
Apathy from the fans is usually a bad thing, but when it’s caused by real optimism that a playoff push could be on, it’s no problem at all.
Changes good, performance not
Much of the post-match chat has focused on whether or not Mark Bowen was right to make the changes he did. Reading’s starting lineup against Blackpool was completely different to the one that faced Fulham at Craven Cottage, with Tyler Blackett the only player left over from that victory - although he only made the bench.
With Reading in a 4-2-3-1, the teamsheet read: Walker; Howe, Miazga, Burley, Richards; Rinomhota, Olise; McCleary, Boye, Obita; Baldock. Subs: Southwood, Blackett, Medford-Smith, East, Barrett, Aluko, Loader.
A drastic set of changes to be sure. I agree that Bowen’s approach was correct - the focus has to be on the league - so giving the first team a proper break against Blackpool after a busy set of fixtures in the last few weeks was the right call. It makes continuing our Championship momentum over the course of January that bit more likely.
But Reading still should have done better against Blackpool. With the exception of a promising opening half an hour, the performance was well below par and in truth we couldn’t really have had too many complaints if the visitors had won on the day.
Yes, drastic changes to the starting XI meant that Reading weren’t going to be firing on all cylinders, and a few players can be excused for not being at their best. Teddy Howe and Michael Olise have barely featured for the first team since making their debuts last season, Andre Burley was making his debut and Sone Aluko hadn’t played football in months.
But, otherwise, we could have expected better performances from established players - even if they haven’t been starting recently. It was a great chance for Lucas Boye, Andy Rinomhota, Garath McCleary and others to step up and really show Bowen what he’s been missing, but they didn’t do enough to give the manager a selection dilemma.
Olise wasted in a deep midfield role
One of the questions I had going into Saturday was who would be playing in the middle of the park. Andy Rinomhota was a sure-fire starter after being kept out of the side by Pele recently, but his midfield partner was less easy to predict. In the end, Bowen opted to rest Charlie Adam, John Swift, Pele and Ovie Ejaria, picking Michael Olise over Ryan East.
It was a misuse of the playmaker’s strengths. Olise typically played deep alongside Rinomhota, with Obita (left wing), McCleary (right wing), Boye (ten) and Baldock (striker) further upfield. That was pretty surprising given Olise’s previous outings in a Reading shirt as an attacking midfielder or winger.
We sure could have used him in a more advanced role to break down a well-organised Blackpool defence. Olise has guile on the ball, looks to play forward with incisive passes - as shown by his assist for Baldock’s equaliser - and loves to run at defenders. He was able to use those assets a few times on Saturday, for example when spraying crossfield passes from deep, but on the whole it felt like he’d been shoehorned into an unfamiliar role as a deep-lying playmaker - in other words, the ‘Charlie Adam role’.
Olise would have been more effective if pushed further up the pitch - whether from the start or later on in the game - with Ryan East partnering Rinomhota. It’s a lesson that Bowen will hopefully learn for future occasions.
Patience required for Aluko
From one playmaker to another - Olise may have not been given a chance in the number ten role on Saturday, but the returning Sone Aluko was. He was brought on in the 68th minute in a straight swap for Lucas Boye, just after Danny Loader had made it 2-2, and had a minimal impact.
To be fair, that was pretty understandable. Although he’s been on loan at Beijing Renhe, Aluko hadn’t actually played a minute of competitive football since July, leaving him well off match sharpness. He’s unlikely to play regularly from here on in to boost his fitness - although he could well get game time with the under-23s - so an immediate improvement shouldn’t be expected.
Nonetheless, like him or loathe him, Aluko is an asset that Reading will have to work out how to make the most out of. His contract runs for another 18 months or so (thanks Ron!), and what other clubs would want to take on a 30 year-old with high wages and little recent match practice.
Bowen’s already made it clear that he won’t discard fringe players as Jose Gomes did - as seen with Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary this season - so expect to see Aluko in contention for the rest of the season. You never know, Aluko could surprise us yet.
The academy production line keeps on going
55: the number of players to have now graduated from Reading’s academy. The last two of those made their debuts on Saturday - Andre Burley started at centre half before being replaced by Ramarni Medford-Smith, normally a left back, late on in the game.
Although Burley had a tough afternoon, being outmuscled for Blackpool’s second by goalscorer Armand Gnanduillet, his first game in senior football for Reading will have taught him plenty. Not just what it’s like to play in front of an expectant home crowd, but also what an experienced striker can do if given the opportunity. Harsh lessons are worth it down the line.
He could well have been joined by Luke Southwood as number 56 if the goalie had come off the bench for Sam Walker, while a few other academy graduates who made their debuts last season were also involved. Teddy Howe and Michael Olise started and got the full 90 minutes, and Ryan East was an unused substitute.
All in all, it goes to show just how much talent Reading have coming through at the moment. The club have done a good job over the last 12 months or so of clearing out expensive fringe players, and while that process continues as it must, talent is at hand to take their places in the squad.
Hopefully, for both Burley and Medford-Smith, Saturday is just the start of a long, successful time at Reading.