You could be forgiven for thinking the Madejski Stadium had been moved into Tier Three, such has been the nature of Reading’s defensive displays in the opening six games - consistently shutting out the opposition’s attacks, bar one scrappy goal against Cardiff City.
As has been reported across social media, Reading’s five clean sheets in just six games beats last season’s effort by 15 games, while in 2018/19 and 2017/18, it took 30 and 27 games respectively to reach that tally. The defence is clearly the cornerstone of Reading’s early success, considering we have the lowest shots per game average in the whole division, but it is an anomaly.
Reading made history on Tuesday night in that slightly underwhelming 1-0 victory; it was the first time the Royals had ever kept five clean sheets from their opening six matches. That’s right, I trawled my way back through time, all the way back to the 1800s, and this is the first time in the club’s history this has happened.
Honourable recent mentions go out to seasons 2005/06, 2001/02 and 1994/95, which are the last three times Reading kept four clean sheets from their opening six games. Sidebar stat: those seasons all ended with Reading finishing in the top two or higher. I won’t tempt fate by saying any more but I’ll let you reach your own conclusions…
So, what about the last time a Championship side kept five clean sheets (or more) from their opening six matches? Well, fortunately for myself, you don’t have to go back as far as 1871, as Leeds United kept six clean sheets from their opening seven matches in 2017/18 after winning their opening game against Bolton Wanderers 3-2.
For the next best defensive start to the season you have to go a bit further back, to QPR in 2010, who kept clean sheets in eight of their opening nine matches - a Championship record and one to set our sights on. In fact, QPR’s defensive record at the beginning of that season a decade ago will take some beating.
The did not lose until their 20th match of the season and, in the 19 games that preceded that 3-1 defeat to Watford, only conceded nine goals, keeping 11 clean sheets in total, better even than the 05/06 Reading team at the same stage of the season in both clean sheets and goals conceded. However, with favourable fixtures in our next three games, there is no reason why we couldn’t better QPR’s record or at least level it.
What are the reasons behind these clean-sheet master classes then? On the face of things, Reading’s defence have not been battling to keep the ball out of their net, they haven’t even prohibited chances or shots on goal in the same way as other teams this season and Rafael has not had too many key saves to make. Reading are high in the table in fewest shots on target, a total of 14, which is only bested by QPR on 12.
We’re also fifth when it comes to overall shots taken by the opposition, with a total of 59. Clearly our style of play is limiting the opposition, and one interesting stat that I feel really highlights this is the strict level of consistency demonstrated across the six league games Paunovic has been in charge of: this is the difference between the least amount of shots conceded and most shots conceded.
So far, Reading have the lowest variable of any of the 23 teams at just four, the highest conceded being 12 (v Cardiff) and the lowest, 8 (v Middlesbrough). Reading also conceded 11 to Watford, 10 to Wycombe (the joint highest by the Chairboys all season) and 9 to each of Derby County and Barnsley.
For context, Watford, who are the next best defensive team in the league with just two goals conceded, have a much higher variable, with a low of 4 shots conceded versus Luton, but a mighty 19 versus Blackburn. The same can be said of Bristol City, who until Tuesday night were Reading’s closest league rival. Their highest shots conceded in a game is 20 versus Nottingham Forest and a low of 7 versus Sheffield Wednesday.
What this demonstrates is how ‘in control’ Reading have been in all six matches this season. Just from watching each game, it’s memorable how there have been no prolonged periods where we could have been seen to be hanging on. Paunovic is clearly still working things out when it comes to our forward play, but he’s instilled a consistency across the board which means we are stubborn to break down until things click up top for good. And I don’t see that defensive foundation going away any time soon based on this evidence.
Good news indeed.