Rafael; Richards, Morrison, Moore, Holmes; Laurent, Rinomhota; Ejaria, Olise, Meite; Joao.
Reading began their lunchtime clash with Bristol City very much on the front foot, not really leaving it the entire game. With every man energetic and dynamic, the Royals were playing positive football, only really going backwards when necessary, and winning the ball back with ease and getting forwards in numbers - Omar Richards delivering a number of dangerous crosses into the box. Richards had another great display and showed fantastic dribbling once again, looking so confident and never seeming to lose the ball.
One thing that allowed the young man to push so high was Ovie Ejaria’s tendencies to cut in from the left wing - how he scored his goal even. Ejaria spent lot of the game in a central area, outnumbering the opposition in the middle of the park and adding to Reading’s dominance there, playing through City.
Reading were able to deliver a lot of balls into the City box, the visitors sort of half-pressing them and not forcing them backwards or into hasty decisions (think the opposite of Millwall) - giving them just enough time to make the quick decisions needed to continue the attack. However, many of these did not quite come off, the high-quality balls not quite being able to be met by the attacking players.
Off the ball, Reading restricted City to no shots in the first period. The home side were in a sort of 4-3-1-2 at times when the visitors were in possession, Yakou Meite pushing up and Ejaria moving infield once more. At first, this would seem to suit City’s five at the back as the pass to the wing backs was often open. However, these two men were usually isolated, being forced to deliver crosses that came straight back out, both Michael Morrison and Liam Moore back to being the defensive fortifications this side needed. The two full backs also had sterling games, solid defensively and also contributing to Reading’s high-energy performance, pressing very high at times and so affording others a slight break from pressurising the opposition.
Thanks to the bodies in the middle of the park (and more fantastic performances from the two holding men), City struggled to break through the middle and regularly lost possession, leading to numerous Reading attempts on the counter. A lone Callum O’Dowda run in between the space between the outstanding Tom Holmes and Andy Rinomhota led to a dangerous cross, but other than that Reading were untested for large parts of the game.
The two men in the middle were also very proactive at starting these Royals attacks. When on the ball, Josh Laurent would sometimes (when Reading in their own half usually) drop in deep next to/just in front of the centre backs to allow the full backs forwards in an almost temporary five at the back. Although (as mentioned in previous articles) Laurent dribbles forwards out of danger in order to start a counter, something striking about this game was just how high Rinomhota pushed forwards, making runs in behind and offering another body forwards, with Laurent as usual the deeper of the pairing. With so many runners in behind, a lofted ball over the top/ball through the lines could cause so much danger, and did so massively as Bristol City’s defence opened up in the second half - Meite having two one-on-ones himself.
A trademark of the Ivorian, when playing off the right wing, is to make diagonal runs across the full back and in between the centre back - as the defender runs the risk of playing the forward line onside if he drops too deep, he is forced to track the run or commit a foul - and due to the suddenness and sharpness of Meite’s movements, only an over-/under-hit ball can usually undo this move.
As City played five at the back, Meite was exploiting the spaces behind the left wing-back - Jay DaSilva, forcing him to either drop back or drag the centre back over. Although Meite can make these runs very far infield (goal vs Sheffield Wednesday away last season), he has started to also occupy the spaces just behind the opposing centre back, floating into dangerous positions (goal vs Rotherham at home this season). Thanks to Ejaria’s ability to cut in and pick him out, and also Rinomhota’s runs, Reading pushed forwards with a lot of movement but City managed to hold firm in the first half, keeping enough bodies behind the ball to prevent too many clear-cut chances.
The Reading front four were so fluid and silky, with Olise (controlling the play from his number 10 role) impressing with his touches, assist and defensive work and Lucas Joao’s hold-up play and dribbling much improved on last season – untouchable, as demonstrated by Reading’s first. The Portuguese forwards finds it so easy to drop in, take as many opposition players out as he needs, and create chances out of absolutely nothing, shown by his devilish footwork in teasing, before shifting his body away from, an opposition defender and firing a shot off.
In the end, it was quick Royals thinking from rare Bristol City opportunities that won the game - countering and then taking a quick throw from a Chris Martin missed header, followed by a quick goal kick from Rafael for the second. Reading’s off-the-ball shape massively contributed to their third, Sky’s commentator lauding the set-up and pressure (especially from Rinomhota, while Laurent sat back) moments before a Meite interception and fantastic industry on the right hand side, combined with some Joao magic, eventually made the scoreline reflect just how dominant the hosts were.
The main takeaway from this game was the sheer amount of positive, intelligent decision-making and passes throughout the game - the complete antithesis to Millwall, Wycombe Wanderers and other drab performances. With their next home clash coming in front of fans, the Madejski may start to become a fortress once again.