Rafael; Holmes, Morrison, Moore, Richards; Rinomhota, Laurent; Meite, Aluko, Olise, Puscas
For the opening 20 minutes, it was clear that this clash with Watford would be the toughest of the season so far. With Watford applying a vicious press in midfield, Reading struggled without the obvious out ball to Lucas Joao available. Instead, with George Puscas up front, a fair amount of the early balls forwards to him resulted in the visitors regaining possession, Puscas struggling to win the aerial duels against the towering Watford centre halves.
This led to the Royals trying to pass their way through their opposition, at times being caught out by the press, but also creating space in attacking areas when the midfielders were able to put some nice moves together (and as we know, this hugely benefits our forward players). This was something that stumped the Royals last season, struggling to deal with a press while not having Joao as an alternate option.
When Reading were caught out, there were a few nervy moments courtesy of too many risks passes out the back, the home side fortunate to see an Omar Richards foul going unnoticed, winning back possession on one occasion. These instances came just after the goal (41st minute), and so the half-time whistle came at a perfect time for the Royals.
Throughout the whole game, we started to see the ‘long ball to Yakou Meite’ evolve and work wonders for Reading. One such kick from Rafael in the first half was taken down with ease, releasing Olise and almost leading to the opening goal. The usual aerial ball to Meite on the right flank would result in a flick on to the forward, but on Saturday afternoon the Ivorian was taking down almost every ball with ease, bullying Ben Wilmot and creating chances for both himself and his fellow attacking teammates.
Come the second period, Puscas also began to deal with Watford’s defenders more consistently, even jinking away from a man late on and dribbling a good 20/30 yards before firing narrowly wide. Taking the ball down, winning free kicks (and conceding far fewer) and carrying the ball forwards showed a subtle assertiveness and dominance that Reading began to show as the second half wore on, mixed in with the clear levels of commitment and physicality that also came to the fore. This was also, of course, on show throughout the whole squad once again.
The absence of Ovie Ejaria meant Michael Olise was played off the left, with Sone Aluko in the middle of the attacking three. With slightly more of Watford’s attacks coming down their right-hand side (Ismaila Sarr and wing back Jeremy Ngakia really utilising this area early on), coming up against a side in a 3-5-2 meant there were limited options for Reading’s full backs to push on and provide an overlap (not needed though, as Reading found alternate ways to attack), especially on the home side’s left wing (Omar Richards’ flank).
The young man though did a tremendous job defending Sarr, once again showing how he is developing into one of the best left backs in the league. Added to this, and the fact that Meite was always on option on the right, (like Watford) Reading also slightly favoured attacking down their right wing.
Behind Meite, Tom Holmes put in another fantastic display at right back. Getting the better of physically able Watford players, while playing out of position, at the age of 20 was very impressive. As well as this, he picked his opportunities to push forwards (especially impressive seeing as Watford never caught him out). Most of these occasions at the end of the second half were when Reading had the ball quite high up the pitch, but one ‘one-two’ saw him reach the edge of the opposition box before unleashing a shot not too far off target.
In the first period Holmes showed the confidence to move forwards with the ball, on a rare occasion where Reading had a sustained spell of possession in Watford’s half, and fire in a shot that Puscas trapped, before turning and firing past Ben Foster for the only goal of the game. This spell of pressure came after yet another well-worked set-play routine that saw Aluko and Laurent standing over the ball looking confused (while also standing the wrong sides of the ball – as if they were about to deliver it with their weaker foots), before quickly laying it off to Olise, whose clipped ball found Yakou Meite, working Foster at his near post.
Reading threatened from set pieces all game, Aluko delivering a ball into Holmes which saw Foster make a diving save another instance of this – young Toms Holmes and McIntyre being dominant in the air against a recently relegated Premier League side a very gratifying sight to see.
McIntyre himself came off the bench to replace Olise, dropping in behind Rinomhota and Laurent (in a 4-3-3) to mop up anything and everything Watford tried to throw at Reading – loose balls, knock downs, aerial duels – you name it, he won it. The space Watford left was exploited by Reading on the counter, McIntyre even joining in with the attacks at times, rarely losing the ball and helping Reading see out the tie.
Further, Liam Moore and Michael Morrison’s average positions were both very deep, as the side came under pressure in the second period. However, everything the visitors threw at Reading was propelled away, with Rafael barely getting himself muddy in between the sticks thanks to these two rocks at the back.
A key sign of Reading’s continued togetherness and battling qualities was that Rinomhota, Laurent, Aluko and Olise were all involved in the battle in the middle of the park (their average positions very close together – Olise’s and Aluko’s probably also explained by switching positions throughout the game and Aluko moving over to the left after the introduction of McIntyre). The team as a whole though probably gave away a few too many free kicks, especially as Watford primarily threatened from set plays.
Finally, Sone Aluko. Playing as a number 10, while dropping back to show some classy touches and also rarely losing possession, Aluko was arguably the man of the match. As he could also rotate with Olise, he was able to take his talents out onto the left, delivering in a dangerous cross that almost led to an own goal and, simply, not putting a foot wrong all game.
Another fantastic performance from every man in blue and white, and another subsequent three points (arguably the best of the lot), means Reading head into the first international break with their 100% record intact, keeping up their performance levels despite being without a number of star men – proving that not one man will define their team, nor their season.