That game felt a bit predictable in the end. As you could well have forecast before the game, Reading fought hard and showed plenty of spirit in the 2-1 defeat to Norwich City, who showed the individual attacking talent they have - in stark contrast to the Royals’ lack thereof. We all knew that not having Lucas Joao or Yakou Meite in the side would mean a distinct lack of cutting edge in the final third - as had been the case at Loftus Road.
With all that in mind, I’m not overly worried about that result. At the end of the day, a well below strength Reading side was beaten narrowly - albeit also somewhat tamely due to a lack of attacking quality - by a very good team who will likely get automatic promotion at the end of the season.
There’ll be big question marks over both goals - one for Reading themselves, the other for the officials. For the first, a sloppy pass from Andy Rinomhota when Reading were playing out from the back early on was seized on by the visitors and converted. It’s the exact kind of sloppy loss of concentration that you never need, let alone against a pressing team with the quality to ruthlessly punish you. For the second, it looked very much like Max Aarons dived and got no contact from Liam Moore for the penalty, so Reading can feel hard done by for the nature of the winner.
Then again, the number of quality chances the Canaries created - seemingly without ever really getting into full flow - underlines the fact that they were deserved winners. When you have players with the individual quality and top-end Championship experience of Emi Buendia and Teemu Pukki, not to mention bringing Todd Cantwell off the bench, you’ll always pose a threat.
To our credit, we didn’t try to negate that by playing a low block. I was half suspecting before the game that we’d try to sit in, soak up pressure and hit City on the break, but Reading instead tried to push the game higher up the pitch, probably in an attempt to win the ball back higher and prevent the lone forward from being too isolated.
That ultimately didn’t work. Our first-half equaliser, an Ovie Ejaria effort that was bizarrely deflected off one or two teammates, was one of only a few opportunities created all evening, with our front four (whether it was the starting version or a later installment after substitutions) not really clicking. There was some promising movement from Michael Olise, Sone Aluko and Ejaria in the first half, but you could tell that they needed a focal point to work off.
There were few attacking ideas from Reading after the break - due primarily to a lack of the right personnel, but I also felt Pauno’s approach was somewhat scattergun.
The last player in Reading’s attacking four from the start, Alfa Semedo, offered little in his role of leading the line. It’s painfully obvious that he’s a defensive midfielder being played out of position, and there was no sense that he’d be able to affect the game in the air, linking the play or making runs in behind.
Pauno should really have taken him off for Sam Baldock a lot earlier, accordingly asking Reading to press higher and try to play Baldock in behind. However, the manager opted to keep Semedo that bit longer, instead sacrificing Aluko in the second half. Tomas Esteves and Jayden Onen were also given run-outs as part of the attacking trident behind Baldock as the Royals chased the game, but - like Baldock up top - couldn’t affect the flow of the match.
It felt more like Paunovic was giving specific individuals a chance to to impact the contest rather than trying out different tactical ideas. At various points in the second half: see if Baldock can do anything up front, see if Esteves will work some magic on the right wing, see if Onen can conjure something on his debut. It’s very difficult for Pauno to get Reading creating chances when key players are out, but a more cohesive tactical answer than ‘try some different players’ was needed in the second half.
Again though, we shouldn’t overlook the quality of the opposition. Although Norwich City didn’t overtly dominate the game in terms of possession in the second half, you could still tell that this was a side that knew how to frustrate Reading and prevent us from building dangerous attacks through the lines. Reading have ground out results this season from a similar approach, and came up short against a quality, experienced side using it on Wednesday night.
At the end of the day, I’m somewhat annoyed that we couldn’t give Norwich a really good game due to our injury list, but not too let down by the nature of the result. We gave a decent account of ourselves and, were it not for a defensive mistake and a dive, we may well have nabbed a point.