Rafael; Richards, Moore, Morrison, Esteves; Laurent, Rinomhota; Olise, Semedo, Aluko; Joao.
On Friday night, Reading were beaten for the first time in the league this season, at the hands of Coventry City. There were multiple reasons the Royals lost this game, after struggling for long periods of the game against City’s set-up.
Right from the off, Reading knew they would dominate the ball against a side happy to sit back in their 3-5-2. To allow both Tomas Esteves and Omar Richards to push forwards and overload the opposing wing back/closest centre back (pinning back the wing backs to great effect), Michael Olise and Josh Laurent both dropped into full-back positions when in possession (at times and usually not at the same time), to allow the corresponding young full back to push up the field.
A few nice passing moves involving these two (separately), Olise, Alfa Semedo and Sone Aluko managed to see the away side into dangerous areas in the first half, causing problems for Coventry that were just about dealt with. Richards in particular won many a free kick in the first period, another game in which he was able to bamboozle the opposition with his quick feet before being desperately mown down.
A couple of chances in particular were squandered by both Semedo and Lucas Joao, allowing Coventry to push forwards themselves and take the front foot. Movement from Jordan Shipley into the spaces between Esteves and Liam Moore dragged Andy Rinomhota out of possession – diligently tracking a runner – resulting in a ball back into the area Rinomhota should probably have been in, Gustavo Hamer finishing well from this position (Laurent not quite being able to get there first).
Coventry managed to find a way to break up ‘The Wall’, as the Rino/Laurent partnership is apparently known as, and (mixed in with fatigue) so Reading looked susceptible all throughout the second period. With Coventry pushing forwards more often, and Reading not looking the same side since the goal, extremely deep positions from Rino and Laurent allowed Sam McCallum to cut in from the right, charge forwards, and smash in a goal from 30 yards.
Added to a few soft free kicks eventually leading to a corner where Reading did not pick up their runners following a shot from outside the box pushed away by Rafael (perhaps assuming it’d be blocked/Rafael would hold it), Matt Godden finishing from the rebound, all three of Reading’s goals had a similar feel to them – coming from shots from outside the area, somewhere where Reading pride themselves on forcing opponents to shoot from.
In general play (in the first half), Reading continued their pressing game – Joao showing great energy from the front and Aluko almost nipping in to a silly Fankaty Dabo ball across his own box – and also showed their great physicality in attack once more. Semedo (as well as Joao) took balls down/flicked them on from Rafael’s kicks and so created/continued the momentum of potential attacks.
There were definitely positive signs to the game, but tiredness meant that the patience Reading usually show when breaking teams down was not properly utilised, thanks to a host of dreadful passes all throughout the second half. With 10 men behind the ball, all of Reading’s possession had zero penetration, the Royals struggling mentally as well as physically against the first side they’ve faced who have really sat off them this term.
A nifty pass from Laurent into Joao (in between the midfield and defensive lines and so catching Coventry out, three central midfielders pushing up to Laurent and so leaving Joao with space he was rarely afforded throughout the game; notably, even Esteves was in space, coming centrally to overload the opposition midfield) resulted in a fantastic finish for the Portuguese forwards (this coming at 1-1), but afterwards Reading did not kick on.
When they got into attacking areas, pressure from the Coventry men (a sort of sitting press involving blocking off passing lanes and pressurising the man on the ball) combined with a lack of attacking movement (Joao not being too involved up against three centre backs) meant that Reading struggled to keep hold of the ball and create too many more clear-cut chances.
The task for Veljko Paunovic will be to determine how to ensure that this opposition game plan does not get the better of them again, a lesson being learnt from a side dropping off and capitalising on the Royals’ errors (Rafael and Esteves having tough second halves), upcoming opponents undoubtedly looking at this game and realising how a previously unbeaten side could be beaten.
With key injured attackers still to come back, there were many a reason to look at for this defeat, but in the end the Royals were just not good enough on the evening. However, as the fixture schedule is unrelenting up until Christmas, bar the international break, a reflection on all the talk of a surprise Reading FC defeat and the knowledge that things won’t always go our way should hopefully put into perspective just how strong a start Reading have made and the standards that they have set, as well as the fact that points will be dropped and games will be lost (but hopefully still very rarely).
A response is needed with two home games coming up in quick succession, but George Puscas’ late goal on Friday night – as well a sharp burst of late pressure before the full time whistle – demonstrated Reading’s never-say-die attitude (and maybe even a hint to Paunovic of a Puscas + Joao partnership).