At every point in a season you come to a ‘cornerstone’ game - a match that defines the team in that particular season. In successful years it shows not only the team’s skill but also their tenacity and resilience. In poor ones, it’s the game that lays bare the group’s flaws; it might be a humbling defeat to a team that they should beat and instead end up producing a display so insipid that a cup of luke-warm tea would provide more of an attacking threat.
So far this season Reading have produced a string of efficient performances which have been enough to beat the team in front of them. There have been moments of brilliance - Michael Olise’s goal against Barnsley, Yakou Meite’s against Rotherham United - combined with some insipid displays - the first half against Wycombe Wanderers - and as is the way with football, some luck too.
In their efficiency they have shown excellent organisation, defensive stability and a clinical touch in front of goal. Experimental 361 shows just how clinical Reading have been as they lie 12th in their league table based on expected goals (xG), and on Tuesday night the Royals scored four despite an xG of 0.6.
The start to Reading’s season can’t necessarily be explained by data, not completely.
The time that Reading were promoted in 2005/2006, the game that I would consider the ‘cornerstone’ was the 3-2 victory against Crystal Palace in September 2005. It had a lot of similarities to Tuesday’s game against Blackburn: an autumnal evening game, a proper test of early-season promise, having to dig in and find a solution, and that feeling at the end of the game that maybe this team was onto something.
Just like against Crystal Palace, Reading showed against Blackburn a lot of the intangibles of football: togetherness, commitment and passion. They had to be united as a team, something which as football fans we place a huge emphasis on. In previous promotion campaigns, especially those from the Championship, a great deal has been made of the ‘team spirit’ and was clearly expressed in the title of Jon Keen’s book ‘Sum of the Parts’ about the 2005/06 promotion.
The 2011/2012 was different in so many ways to this campaign and 2005/06, and so games around Christmas against West Ham United, Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds United might be considered the ‘cornerstone’ moments for that side. What they do bear in similarity is the sense of togetherness and unity coming from the club.
If the game against Blackburn does prove to be a ‘cornerstone’ game and eight games in, with a difficult stretch of games on the horizon, there is obviously no guarantee that this will be the game that defines this collective. However, the start to the season has shifted the focus away from the disorganisation off the field and the disillusion of the previous campaign has quickly transformed into optimism for what is to come.
That optimism, at this stage, is embodied by the game against Blackburn. A lot has been made of how quickly Reading have reached 22 points, mainly by comparing this to how slowly we have reached the same number of points in the previous two campaigns. The fact that Reading have reached this point tally so quickly is important, but perhaps the way that they done so is also important.
All points are not created equal though, and the three earned on a wet Tuesday in Lancashire might prove to be some of the most important points Reading have earned for a rather long time.