At half time, I was starting to think about all the praise I’d lavish on Reading for their brilliant performance. Defensively solid and clinical going forwards, with some bright attacking play thrown in for good measure, we were deservedly in front in one of the toughest matches we’ll have all season. The second half would be difficult, of course, but surely we had enough to see the game out?
Not in the slightest. Reading’s collapse after the break was frustrating, depressingly avoidable, and the sign of a side that’s moving further and further away from the dogged, tough-as-nails team that stormed to the top of the table early on this season. That team probably wouldn’t have had the quality to go 2-0 up at the break in the way this one did, but it would have done a much more convincing job of seeing out the lead.
Make no mistake - doing so was always going to be difficult for Reading. Bournemouth’s first-half display was poor but, with the quality of players they have, they would have known that they were in with a big shout of turning the contest around if they upped their game.
But in the face of that, Reading had to match the Cherries’ quality with their own resolve, and simply weren’t able to. Bournemouth had Premier League class in David Brooks, Arnaut Danjuma and others, but when Reading players switch off at the back, they didn’t really need that level of quality.
It comes down to an issue of mentality. We all know that Reading had it in themselves to hold out for a win in the second half, or at least a point, but the turnaround after the break was rapid. The Royals switched off at the back for 1-2 but, unlike when Blackburn Rovers made it 2-3, Reading didn’t gather themselves and restore their hold over the game - they crumpled and conceded another.
Although there was a recovery at that point, helped by the double switch of Tom Holmes and Michael Olise replacing Tomas Esteves and Sone Aluko to replace Reading’s entire right flank, that soon went too. Lewis Cook’s screamer into the top corner was nigh-on unstoppable, but the limp attempts of a fight-back weren’t. At 3-2, it seemed Reading felt they were already beaten. That was confirmed late on when, as in other recent games, a defensive howler at the death made the loss even uglier.
Each goal seemed to compound the whole team’s misery. It appears very much as if the recent accumulation of errors and defeats has drained the Royals’ confidence so that each mistake feels like a hammer blow, not a temporary setback to be overcome.
It’s all the more frustrating because the hard work was done in the first half. Put in isolation, Reading deserve a lot of credit for a 45 minutes in which they allowed Bournemouth plenty of possession, but denied clear-cut opportunities and were ruthless with their own. There were great individual moments too: Alfa Semedo’s dazzling footwork to with the penalty, Ovie Ejaria’s through ball for Sone Aluko, and Aluko’s clever run and smart finish to convert that delivery.
It was the blueprint for how this Reading side should be playing in this kind of match, mixing the best of what we saw in the first eight games and the more progressive approach play of recent weeks. Pauno should be angry about the second half, absolutely, but he also needs to find a way of getting that first-half performance out of Reading on a regular basis.
That has to start on Wednesday. The lightning-quick start to the season bought Pauno and his team plenty of goodwill and breathing room, but they’re evaporating quickly; Reading are in a real rut at the moment - not just a blip.