At the moment, Reading are their own biggest enemy. Twice in the last few days, the Royals have put in decent performances, at least for part of a match, but completely undermined their own ability to win a match through avoidable errors, losing 3-0 at home on each occasion.
Saturday lunchtime’s defeat to Stoke City, like the one in midweek to Preston North End, wasn’t one in which Reading were comfortably second best in general play. In fact, on the basis of those two matches, Reading have shown a lot more in possession and build-up than they have done in previous matches that have ended in a scrappy win - see the Rotherham United and Wycombe Wanderers games for example.
But Reading can have no complaints at all. How often you make individual errors, whether in terms of giving up sloppy goals at one end or missing good chances at the other, is key, and Reading have been far too guilty of those in the last week or so. Against Stoke, it was the turn of Tomas Esteves, Rafael and Lewis Gibson. Three painful conceded goals that all boiled down to one player’s error.
In the first case, Esteves’ defensive header should never have gone back into the danger zone. In the second, Rafael’s wayward kick as Reading attempted to play out put Stoke in on goal with the Royals’ defence out of position. In the third, Gibson didn’t deal well with a long ball and Jacob Brown was ultimately gifted with a great opportunity.
It’s ultimately the same issue in each case: Reading players simply needing to do the basics right. We all know that Rafael, Esteves and Gibson are talented players, but the outcome of games like this boils down to their composure and decision making in crucial moments.
Each of them deserve a degree of slack. Esteves is just 18 and hasn’t long been playing senior football, Gibson was making his debut after having not played for a while, and Rafael is being asked to play out from the back while under pressure, which isn’t his strength. Making mistakes in those circumstances is understandable from the players’ individual perspectives.
But if Reading are to play inexperienced players, and evolve the style of play to include playing out from the back, they need individuals to take responsibility in key moments. Making sure those three retain their confidence, rather than it being shot to pieces after another bad day at the office, will be a vital task for Pauno in the coming days and weeks.
Those mistakes are all the more frustrating for what they undermined. Up until the 23rd minute, when Campbell put Stoke in front, Reading had been dominant, putting together probably the most impressive spell in possession that they’ve managed under Pauno. The Royals dominated the ball, moved it through the thirds on the deck effectively, and carved out some really good chances.
That came largely from the fluid 3-5-2 set-up, which allowed Reading more dynamism in midfield than they’ve typically had this season. Andy Yiadom, Michael Morrison and Lewis Gibson were the back three, behind a midfield trio of Josh Laurent (deepest), Andy Rinomhota and Alfa Semedo (most advanced), flanked by wingbacks Tomas Esteves and Omar Richards, with George Puscas partnering Lucas Joao.
The system provided clear width, plenty of bodies in the middle of the park as passing options, and the fluidity for those options to drift around and be harder to pick up. In particular, Rinomhota (as a box-to-box midfielder) and Semedo (pushing up alongside the front two) were suited by Pauno’s fresh approach.
What it did not result in though was goals, and that comes down to two key things. I’ve already mentioned the first: an ability to take chances. Semedo should have scored with an early header and almost did with another headed effort, a really good cross from Richards at 1-0 wasn’t attacked by anyone in the box, and at 2-0 Gibson should have converted Esteves’ set-piece delivery.
As for the second, Reading couldn’t open up Stoke to create chances for their front two. If you want opportunities to fall to anyone in that XI, it’s Joao and Puscas rather than Semedo, but the duo barely had a sniff all game - let alone when the Royals were dominating possession and territory early on.
To rectify that, the partnership itself would need time to gel, given that Joao and Puscas hadn’t started together in around 11 months before Saturday. I’d have liked to see Joao as the one to drop off into space while Puscas looked for gaps in behind. It’ll also need better service: although there was promise with Yiadom putting in crosses from deep, really you need more accomplished playmakers attacking the box with the ball on the deck, but with none of John Swift, Ovie Ejaria or Michael Olise in the starting XI, Reading lacked the quality creativity to really make their dominance count.
Reading couldn’t repeat their impressive start to the first half after the break. The Royals were devoid of ideas in the second half and, somewhat worryingly, seemed to lack the spirit to make up for it. Perhaps there was a sense of frustration among the midfield and forward players that first-half defensive mistakes had undermined the team effort. Given that Reading had a half-time break to prepare for a comeback, and then 45 minutes in which to put that plan into action, the tepid performance after the break was surprising as well as frustrating.
Again, having some of the squad’s key attacking players in the side - Swift, Ejaria and Yakou Meite - may well have made the difference. Then again, it may have not done so; Reading haven’t convincingly shown this season (even with Ejaria and Meite) that they know how to break down a tightly packed defence, and that’s what Stoke presented. Credit where it’s due: Stoke made themselves hard to break down at 2-0 and managed their lead extremely well.
All in all, Pauno’s been left with plenty of food for thought over the next two weeks. There were aspects of real promise in Reading’s first-half performance, and they should be encouraged and built on over the international break, not discarded.
But some worrying trends have emerged in the big blip of the last three games: poor defending, avoidable errors, a failure to take chances and an inability to respond well psychologically after going behind. Those elements would have been unrecognisable in the Reading of the first eight games or so, but they’re starting to creep in.
The extent to which Pauno can cut them out will determine whether we look back on the last three matches as a blip or the start of a tumble down the table.