Reading’s success in the first seven games of the season had come with a caveat: it’s one thing to grind out results against worse sides, but taking things up a gear is another. After all, the Royals made difficult work of getting past Wycombe Wanderers, Rotherham United and Barnsley, while generally lacking quality going forwards, so there’s been a real question of whether Reading would regress to mid-table.
That question was decisively answered on Tuesday night at Ewood Park in Reading’s best match so far under Veljko Paunovic. Travelling to the league’s top scorers was probably the Royals’ biggest challenge so far, but quality all over the pitch - defensive resolve, midfield poise and offensive cutting edge - meant Reading were good value for all three points.
The outcome was decided within just 18 minutes. Yakou Meite opened the scoring in fortuitous fashion on around nine seconds after a defensive mix-up from the hosts, and although Adam Armstrong equalised, Reading restored - and then extended - their lead before long.
First came a delightful individual effort from Michael Olise, in which the Frenchman drove into space after a turnover high up, beat the last man and slotted home for 2-1. Besides being a key moment for the team, it was a sign of how the youngster is adding end product to his game after often lacking it last season.
Then Josh Laurent added his own entry for goal of the game. The ball broke to him after an Omar Richards cross couldn’t find Meite, and the former Shrewsbury Town man picked out the bottom corner in pinpoint fashion.
Blackburn weren’t done yet though, and looked dangerous throughout the rest of the game. However, although they did grow into the contest at various stages, it never really felt like Reading were on the ropes. Even when the hosts did pull a goal back through an excellent header from Armstrong in the 66th minute, a comeback wasn’t forthcoming.
Reading’s game management was commendable, and was rewarded in the 82nd minute. Lucas Joao was set free when Alfa Semedo played him in with the outside of his boot, the forward charged at goal, shimmied onto his right foot and guided the ball past both a defender and the goalkeeper for 4-2. For all we say of Joao’s physical presence and hold-up ability, his knack of getting in behind in that fashion really gives his game another dimension.
The stats may well suggest the away side were fortunate; just 34% possession and five shots (four on target) doesn’t compare favourably to Blackburn’s 13 efforts (six on target). But don’t be fooled: although Reading didn’t always get things their way in a difficult match that threatened to go another way a few times, Pauno’s side knew what they were doing.
That’s probably the key thing at the heart of Reading’s success on Tuesday night. We’ve seen this club show real quality and potential in part of a really difficult match on various occasions in recent years. Think of the excellent 45 minutes at West Bromwich Albion under Paul Clement, going 1-0 up in the first half before being thrashed 4-1, or the encouraging 2-0 lead at home to Cardiff City under Jaap Stam which the Royals threw away late on for 2-2.
However, having the intelligence and maturity to not only ride out the inevitable pressure, but also to restore a two-goal lead, is a mark of a side that’s a cut above. This isn’t Reading grinding out a win when they don’t deserve it, no. This is Reading exerting their quality when it really matters.
A lot’s been said in recent weeks about how impressive Reading’s spirit, work ethic and organisation are. They’d all been key in a run of form leading up to the Blackburn game in which the Royals had consistently come out on top through rock-solid defending and a clinical attack.
However, what really impressed me on Tuesday was how well those elements were blended with individual ability. Reading were well more than the sum of their parts at Ewood Park because they functioned so well as a team, whether in defence, winning the ball back in midfield or anything else. But there was still plenty of room for players to shine in their own right, and we saw that in goals that demonstrated real individual ability: those from Olise, Laurent and Joao.
In other words, everyone looked like they were enjoying their football. Reading’s game wasn’t just rigid organisation - it was an intelligently put-together structure from Pauno, yes, but still one in which everyone could have fun. Reading’s confidence and swagger were evident.
There’s just so much to love about this team. It feels a million miles from the lethargic, frustrating Reading sides of recent years that you always had a feeling would let you down in the end. But the scary thing for the rest of the division is that there’s no reason to believe this is the extent of its progress.
We know full well that this team has so much potential to kick on further, whether it’s in terms of Pauno developing the system or individuals like Tomas Esteves and Semedo showing more of what they can do.
These really are exciting times.