Three points are three points, however they come. Reading picked up a big win on Boxing Day by beating Luton Town in a poor match that was badly short on quality, but we don’t have to care. Getting the job done was all that mattered.
Doing so was all the more impressive given the potential for things to go wrong. Reading’s first team is still battered by injuries to key players - Liam Moore the latest to be sidelined after getting a stress fracture on his metatarsal. The Royals’ attack was again missing Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite, while Michael Olise had a slight hamstring problem that prevented him from starting. The playing surface threatened to be a spanner in the works too, with the poor quality of the pitch making free-flowing football difficult, so Reading had to adapt their approach.
Reading have shown in other matches this season that they have the character to grind out three points in difficult conditions though, and they did so again today. It took character to make a bright start and get the lead after back-to-back defeats, character for two typically ineffective attacking players to combine for a well-worked second goal, and character for the defence to see the game out. The spirit this team has really is so great to see and plays a big part in Reading keeping the results ticking over when key first-team players are out.
The first goal was a particularly special moment though, with Tom McIntyre scoring for the very first time in his career. He was operating as a left back in Richards’ absence, having previously played as a centre back, defensive midfielder and number 10 this season, but the way he found space in the area and guided the ball home from Sone Aluko’s corner suggests he could do a great job as a centre forward too.
The second was a true Christmas miracle. Sam Baldock and Alfa Semedo have offered little to a Reading side that’s struggled to create quality chances from open play in recent games, but the attacking duo came up with exactly that to double the Royals’ lead on 41 minutes. Semedo charged forward from deep to feed Baldock, who in turn played the midfielder in behind, leaving the simple task of slotting the ball home.
I’ve criticised a lack of impact from both of them in the final third all season really, particularly in the recent absence of Joao and Meite, but they deserve credit for a really well-worked team goal. They carved Luton open with that move and made it look easy; more of the same in the future please guys!
That moment stood out in a scrappy first half as neither side got into any real flow, both teams struggling to put passing moves together. Reading did have a few more opportunities in the final third but lacked the precision to capitalise on them. Ovie Ejaria couldn’t work an effort when set through by Sone Aluko and later wasted a chance when he won the ball back in the area, while Tomas Esteves misplayed a pass when he could have set Baldock through.
Down the other end, Reading didn’t have much to deal with. The visitors offered didn’t manage a shot before the break, although they should have had a penalty when McIntyre brought a Luton player down in the area. Fortunately the ref judged it to be outside the box.
Reading were similarly untroubled after the break. Although Luton took more control of possession in the second half and there was little action in their third, they struggled to create anything of note going forwards. Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent were at their stubborn best in front of a somewhat makeshift back four that performed similarly well; Rafael had no saves of any difficulty to make.
The afternoon should have ended with a clean sheet, which would have been a deserved morale-booster given recent defensive shakiness, but Rafael was tamely beaten by a long-range Lua Lua effort. It’s the latest error from a goalkeeper that had been so good at avoiding them in his impressive debut season, so you have to wonder what’s going on to damage his concentration.
It may well cost Rafael his place in the side (I’d give Luke Southwood a chance at Swansea in midweek), but that goal shouldn’t knock the shine off an important victory that keeps Reading in the play-off mix. The Royals need to keep the points tally ticking up while key players are injured, avoiding a Steve Clarke 2015-esque drop-off in results, and with two wins in four since Joao and Meite were injured against Birmingham City, you have to say the Royals are doing just that.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t say we learned anything particularly new about Reading today, but there were some nice positives from individual performances. Aluko put in a bright performance on the right wing and knitted the play together nicely, coming up with his first Reading assist since September 2018. Having also scored at Brentford last weekend, hopefully he can now go on a bit of a run.
Centre-back pairing Michael Morrison and Tom Holmes were in slightly unfamiliar positions today - the former is used to playing on the right side but was on the left against Luton, while Holmes has been playing as a right back this season - but neither looked out of place. Although I’m unsure that Morrison is a long-term option for Reading, Holmes very much is, so it’s time to extend his contract that is set to expire in 2022.
Looking forwards, Reading have a tricky away game at second-placed Swansea City to round off 2020. There’s a slightly poetic symmetry here, given that we finished last season with a match against the same club. A loss there wouldn’t derail our play-off hopes thanks to how well we’ve picked up points on days like this.