After games like the defeat to Bournemouth, it’s understandable to be deeply troubled. Reading let a lead slip that they really should have held onto, lost for the fourth time in a row - the first time they’ve done so since 2016, and are now down to sixth. The worrying thing isn’t that this was just one really bad day at the office - it’s that it was the culmination of several weeks’ decline.
Right after full time, I felt pretty angry (which isn’t typical of me) about what had just happened. Unlike in previous weeks when specific errors from specific players had been the cause of defeat, this was a true team effort: the whole side was at fault to varying degrees for not only the conceded goals that constituted the second-half collapse, but also the broader inability to stop the bleeding and change the flow of the game.
Sure, the opposition’s quality couldn’t be denied. Bournemouth are a recently relegated Premier League team and can call on some of the best talent this division has ever had. Reading were always going to struggle to keep out David Brooks, Arnaut Danjuma and Lewis Cook, especially when the latter suddenly discovers how to thwack one into the top corner in stunning fashion.
But that doesn’t excuse the irresponsibility of Reading’s collapse. Any side, whether in 1st or 24th, should at the very least have made it harder for Bournemouth to mount a comeback. As soon as Dominic Solanke halved the deficit with an agonisingly avoidable tap-in, not only could you sense the Royals were crumbling, but the players could too. That’s inexcusable.
All of that is how I felt just after full time, and it’s still partially how I feel now. Seeing Reading sixth in the Championship - having spent weeks in first - really grates, so I’ll try not to think about it too much after writing this.
But we also need some context here, which brings me to the title of this piece. Despite the nature of the Bournemouth defeat, the losing run and the abysmal defensive record of late, Reading have not suddenly become a bad team. The last four games should be seen as growing pains while a young side under a new manager develops its style - not as the death throes of a team headed for disaster.
I wrote after the Watford game about Reading’s need to evolve. The Royals had raced to the top of the table with a particularly effective brand of football - rock-solid defending, clinical attacking and the resolve to see results out - but with lots of room for improvement in creating chances from open play and the system overall.
Despite recent results, there have been signs of progress on that front. Clear-cut chances have been created more regularly than when Reading were winning week in week out, and even in the toughest of the four fixtures - Bournemouth away - you could see Reading’s commitment to playing on the deck and through the lines in an attempt to fashion better-quality open-play opportunities. Jamie explained the positives to come out of the Bournemouth defeat in more detail here.
Improvements like those are the mark of a good side, and should give us a reason to be optimistic about the direction Reading are going in. At the same time however, we shouldn’t downplay what’s gone wrong recently - although we should be specific about where the problems lie and how extensive they are.
The issue for Reading in recent weeks has not been one of a broader slump in performances across the board, but of setbacks in specific areas. That’s particularly obvious at the back, where consistent individual errors (previously alien to this team) have been costly. Even when talking about generally slack defending at Bournemouth, this was confined to a collapse after the break due to lapses in concentration and an inability to deal with quality opposition. It’s worth remembering that Reading were at their best defensively in the first half against the Cherries.
That leaves me with an optimistic conclusion which, depending on how well Wednesday night’s trip to Millwall pans out, may instead prove to be naive. Despite shipping four goals at Bournemouth, in addition to three in each of the previous three matches, Reading aren’t far away from being a good defensive side - as they were before the losing streak began.
The quickest way to get there is to jolt the team into action with a few changes in personnel. After all, there’s no better way of keeping players on their toes than making it clear that their places are under constant threat. Healthy competition is key for any team that’s serious about improving.
Despite how threadbare the squad has looked at times this season, Pauno has plenty of options to call on. Tomas Esteves and Sone Aluko were both found wanting in the second half as Bournemouth hurt Reading down that flank, and each have a couple of teammates looking hungrily at their place in the team: Andy Yiadom and Tom Holmes for Esteves, Michael Olise and Yakou Meite for Aluko.
I would go as far as taking out Rafael, who has been directly at fault for three goals in recent weeks. He flapped at a long-range shot at Coventry City, gave away possession for Steven Fletcher to double Stoke City’s lead, and gifted Solanke a second on Saturday. If that run doesn’t open the door for Luke Southwood to finally get a chance in the Championship, I’m not sure what does.
These changes don’t have to be permanent; they’re about raising the standards of those dropping out of the side - not punishing them. From the team’s point of view, get these tweaks right and we can iron out avoidable errors that have undermined this team in the last four games. One hard-earned clean sheet may be all it takes to jolt Reading’s defence back into life and put recent woes in the rear-view mirror.
How Reading do in the next few games will tell us a lot about the trajectory this team is on. It’s all well and good me praising the positives that have been on show in the last four games, but if mistakes aren’t decisively ironed out, or the losing run grinds down confidence so much that the team starts to decline, recent improvements will be for nothing.
But at this stage, Reading aren’t a bad team. If the team starts to believe it is one though, it will be.