Rafael; Richards, Moore, Morrison, Holmes; Rinomhota, Laurent; Ejaria, Olise, Meite; Joao.
Before Birmingham took the lead, the first half panned out in a tactical, physical battle where both teams had to be patient. As in the last few games, Reading did not want to take too many unnecessary risks in possession and so looked to take their time in their attacks.
Birmingham, on the other hand, had specific cues of when to press and when not to – pushing onto the Royals midfielders as soon as they received the ball in the middle third of the pitch. This area was dominated by the Blues all game, with both Scott Hogan and Jon Toral also applying pressure to Liam Moore and Michael Morrison at times. Taking the creativity out of Reading’s midfield play meant it had to come from deeper, both Moore and Morrison forced to kick long and not really troubling the pacey Maxime Colin at right back, nor the powerful Kristian Pedersen on the left.
Although Birmingham were sometimes too tough in the tackle, giving away unnecessary free kicks which became Reading’s best bet to score, their bite and desire made any form of Reading shot on target look very unlikely. A lack of space, mixed in with each Reading man being outnumbered two/three to one moments after receiving the ball, resembled someone desperately trying to force their way through a barbed wire fence – an added danger being this fence could counter attack.
When the away side pressed, there was always a man a few yards away from the Royals’ player receiving the ball, wherever he was on the pitch. This meant that their four midfielders were working together to pick up the closest man in possession, with the central midfielders helping out (by outnumbering) the wide players and vice versa - the full back (if the ball was in a wide area) also helping to cause numerical advantages in these situations.
So with a midfield always shifting and following the play, while also swarming the men on the ball, Reading would need to find some inventiveness in order to drag these men out of position. However, with fatigue also a factor, the most Reading were relying on in the first half was a Birmingham mistake – Harlee Dean’s charge upfield resulting in a Michael Olise shot off target after a quick counter, the youngster being crowded out and not quite determining Lucas Joao to be in enough space for a pass to be slipped in. It should be noted that Reading’s softness in the tackle and inability to get near the Blues players most likely gave Dean the confidence to attempt such a run in the first place.
The pressure of the opposition players was not even relieved through attempts to drag them out of position – Maikel Kieftenbeld and Ivan Sunjic covering space across the midfield (and filling in at full back for the advancing Colin and Pedersen) but not venturing forwards too much, with the knowledge of Reading’s rapid counters and ability to play out under pressure just outside their own area (from the midfielders). This usually frees up space to move into and outnumber the opposition, however a disciplined Birmingham side executed a fantastic balance between pressing the defence and not committing bodies forwards and falling into traps.
This was best demonstrated by Olise’s attempts to drop deep and create, with zero pressure applied until he reached the halfway line – any long ball usually dealt with comfortably and very few sequences of tippy-tappy passing coming off. Despite this, and despite the game slightly opening up in the second period for Reading (due to the man advantage), any dangerous position they did get into often resulted in a blocked cross/headed clearance, the visitors winning almost everything in the air.
Reading themselves failed to pressurise Birmingham and, on the ball, even against 10 men, hardly created a chance that wasn’t from a set piece. One chance the Royals did create was from balls over the top, Morrison winning a header straight from a Blues goal kick, which Joao flicked on through to Meite to win a penalty.
For the goal, Lucas Joao dropped into midfield to pick up the ball and spread it into the space on the right for Rinomhota, who centred to Meite. By this point, Rinomhota had pushed out wide, with Meite effectively a second striker. The home side’s lack of wingers made this diamond-shaped 4-4-2 largely ineffective, Rinomhota’s lung-busting run offering the Royals a makeshift version of something we’d hoped to have been seeing from Rodrigo Riquelme this season. Joao himself again had a quiet game, not dropping into the midfield as often as usual but, when he did, becoming another player to be crowded out by the packs in the middle.
The physicality of Semedo and skill of Esteves and Aluko were changes much needed in order to freshen the side up but, apart from Alfa’s great physical presence and some exciting link up play between himself and Joao (who seem to be on a wavelength), was not enough to cause a change in scoreline.
A missed penalty and a potentially offside second away goal could have made things different on the night, but what isn’t up for debate is that this was a battle that Reading lost. After a few displays in which Reading’s dominance hasn’t been sated by the number of shots that actually ended up between the posts (65 total attempts in the last three games before Wednesday night), it’s clear that Reading still need to find a way to break teams down Norwich/Bournemouth-esque.
Intensity and urgency may well be hampered by fatigue, but this problem hasn’t been a one-off occurrence, and the Royals need to start responding to goals conceded, adding dimensions to their play and inflicting a fear factor into sides who are currently content in employing certain game plans against them.
Moreover, the apparent injuries to Yakou Meite and Lucas Joao will *hopefully* inspire other players to take their chances in the side – and will perhaps even afford some of the younger ones to get a run out. Either way, the return of John Swift cannot come soon enough.