It feels a bit odd to use the word “ugly” in the title of a match report when Reading have just won 3-0 at home - their biggest margin of victory all season - but it’s an appropriate word to use. Despite the scoreline, Reading were far from at their best.
In fact, particularly with regards to Reading’s control of possession and use of the ball, it was one of our worst performances under Veljko Paunovic. In the first half against Rotherham, the Royals managed just two touches in the final third and one shot: Yakou Meite’s 41st-minute opener after Ovie Ejaria found him at the back post. It would be more than half an hour until Andy Rinomhota doubled Reading’s shot tally, although another five were put on target before full time.
Much of that was down to how well Rotherham United negated Reading. The Millers were impressively well organised and difficult to play through, but were also more than happy to keep the ball for long periods to frustrate the home side. In the face of that, Reading needed to win the ball back more proactively and higher up the pitch (but didn’t) and use possession better when they had it (but gave it away too easily and struggled to play through the thirds).
To be fair, some key players were missing. John Swift will be injured for a while, whereas Michael Olise and Lucas Joao were wisely rested ahead of a difficult trip to Ewood Park in a few days’ time. Their absences meant Reading noticeably lacked, respectably, someone with a range of passing in midfield and a centre forward who could hold the ball up as a plan B.
Regardless, a lack of shots and general creativity isn’t new for Reading this season, and critics will point to that as a sign that our success is unsustainable. Without looking dangerous going forwards throughout the game, the Royals’ luck is destined to run out - or so the theory goes.
But what the 3-0 win over Rotherham United suggests (as opposed to proves, given how early we are in the season) is that Reading’s form is sustainable for a different reason. Regardless of our attacking output over the course of a game, particularly from open play, we know how to win matches in whatever fashion is required.
As we all know, that starts from the back. Reading have been reliably rock solid in defence this season, as Tom explained in his recent Stats Corner, and that was again true against the Millers. Although Rotherham dominated possession and had 10 shots overall, Reading allowed just two of those to be on target.
On a more subjective level, I never really felt like Reading would concede. Time and again in recent years, this team has given the impression that even if it can defend well for much of a game, it’ll eventually fall short, whether through a mistake or otherwise. That’s simply not true now. Michael Morrison and Liam Moore were again at their imperious best, Reading’s fourth right back of the season (Tomas Esteves) looked encouraging on his full debut, and Rafael barely had any work to do.
When you can defend like that, you give yourself a chance of winning the game. It doesn’t matter how poor you are going forwards if you only need one goal to get the three points, and as soon as Meite slotted the ball past Jamal Blackman a few minutes before the break, the result didn’t really seemed in doubt.
Meite removed any trace of doubt in the 79th minute - and in quite some style. We all know how much of a threat he is from set pieces, but this was something else. A Michael Olise corner was flicked onto him in a crowded box, Meite chested it to rise above his head, watched it dropped, and leapt into the air to slam the ball - left footed - over his right shoulder into the top corner. Jackie Chan, eat your heart out.
If you can have the ball drop to any Reading player in the area, are there any better picks than Meite?
There was time for Reading to make it three and gloss over the frustrations of what had largely been a poor attacking performance. Olise almost did that in spectacular fashion, hitting the bar with a quickly taken free kick that nearly caught Blackman off his line; the Rotherham goalie had been expecting an outswinger towards those waiting in the area.
Lucas Joao however was the one to add the cherry on top. He raced onto a goal kick from Rafael and was set to go clean through, but was hauled down in the area for a penalty and converted the spot kick.
That goal not only ensured Reading their biggest win of the season, but also meant the Royals have the best goal difference (+10) in the division. We go to Blackburn ‘+9’ Rovers in midweek, and that’ll likely be our biggest test of the season so far: the unstoppable force of the league’s top scorers versus the immovable object of the league’s best defence.
But we also go to Ewood Park as the league leaders - not just by a slim margin, but by five points. It’s incredible to see Reading in such a strong position at any point of the campaign, let alone after just seven matches of the season. No one could have predicted such a good start.
Long may it continue.