You’d be forgiven for forgetting that, prior to Saturday’s 3-0 win at Hillsborough, Reading hadn’t won in the league since New Year’s Day. Such was the comfortable nature of the Royals’ victory that, by full time, it felt like the kind of routine Championship three points that only good sides are capable of.
Reading weren’t at their very best - they didn’t need to be - but all the elements of a comfortable win were there: a show of attacking quality to break the deadlock (thanks to Ovie Ejaria’s defence-splitting pass for Yakou Meite), the home side going down to 10 men after Ejaria proved too hot to handle, an opportunistic second to shore up the lead, and a third to round off the win.
Given that worsening performances had both increased worries about the direction Reading are heading in, and prompted doubts from some over Mark Bowen’s new contract, the comprehensive nature of Saturday’s result was hugely valuable. Not just a scrappy, lucky 1-0 win to paper over the cracks, but the kind of day that does an awful lot to expel those worries and doubts.
What’s more, it was a reminder of just what this side is capable of. The way Reading mixed it up against an admittedly poor Sheffield Wednesday side was reminiscent of how the Royals won games during the December surge: happy to absorb pressure and do the scrappy work at times, but also keen to express ourselves on the ball through chief creators Ejaria and John Swift.
Reading’s system felt familiar too; although there were personnel differences between the December side and the one that beat Sheffield Wednesday, the overall shape was pretty much the same. In both cases, a 4-2-3-1 with a ball-player dictating from deep (Swift/Charlie Adam), Ejaria and Yakou Meite coming infield from their wide positions to support the striker, and a strong focal point. George Puscas did a much better job of replicating the ‘Lucas Joao role’ than he has done previously, and the creative players behind him benefitted as a result.
It’s somewhat ironic that, given how much Bowen has experimented tactically over the last month or so, it was (more or less) a return to a previous system that paid off.
Reading took their time to get into their stride. Sights of the Sheffield Wednesday goal were scarce in the first 20 minutes, with Andy Rinomhota having the first really good one, collecting Puscas’ lay off and - instead of shooting from just outside the area - dallying and squaring the ball to his right into empty space, apparently assuming Meite was there when he wasn’t.
Shortly after that was the Royals’ first proper show of quality, and of course it came from Ejaria. The loanee charged upfield through the middle, confident as you like, and threaded a through ball into the path of the onrushing Meite, who’d drifted in off the right into goalpoacher territory before slotting the ball home.
That goal pushed Reading up a few gears, and they started to take express themselves more and more thanks to their fluid, dynamic midfield. Michael Olise had license to move away from his number-ten role in search of the ball, which he could use well thanks to his sharp passing ability, Swift put Reading on the counter a few times by driving upfield from his deep position, and Ejaria drifted in off the left to support attacks.
When Reading had momentum behind them, that midfield looked bright and positive. But my worry with it going forwards would be that, against better opposition, a lack of steel and presence could be exploited. Indeed, the scrappier the game became - which Garry Monk’s Wednesday were all too keen to make happen - the less convincing the midfield looked. To be fair, that was in large part due to an injury to Pele - who has the strength and clout to impose himself on a scrappy match.
His absence meant Reading got to half time fairly comfortably, but not as comfortably as they would have liked. However, we should have had a penalty around half an hour in when Olise was felled in the area - bizarrely waved away by the referee.
The next key moment in the match came early in the second half, and it was again thanks to Ejaria. Bursting down the left wing, he was brought down before he could get into the box, earning Osaze Urhoghide a second yellow card and the proverbial early shower that comes with it - although Storm Dennis’ battering of Hillsborough meant that probably wasn’t necessary.
Although Reading couldn’t immediately make the most of their man advantage, that red card knocked the stuffing out of an already frustrated Hillsborough crowd. Wednesday have, like Reading, been on poor form recently, and the sending-off was just one a series of refereeing decisions that riled up the Owls faithful and shot the belief of the home team. Even when they started to build a bit of momentum before the Royals’ second, it was easily repelled and came to little.
In fact, it dissipated entirely when Puscas touched the ball home for 2-0. The ball came out to Andy Yiadom after Charlie Adam’s corner, and the Ghanaian lashed a shot at goal from range. To me in the away end, it looked like his effort had somehow snuck into the net, but replays showed that Puscas had added a decisive touch. It should have been 3-0 not too long later, when the ball fell to Ejaria with only the goalie to beat, but he lacked the composure to finish.
Nonetheless, the closing 20 minutes or so were comfortable for Reading. The away end were in fine voice and took their chance to enjoy an impending win on the road - including singing the praises of goalscorer for Puscas when he went off, Ayub Timbe came on for his debut, and fellow substitute Sam Baldock made it 3-0 from the spot after Rinomhota was brought down in the area. All in all, they were the finishing touches that nicely rounded the victory off.
For the time being, this match keeps Reading ticking over nicely. Had the Royals lost to Sheffield Wednesday, the pressure on both the team and manager would have built up that little bit more, but the manner in which the winless run has been decisively ended feels like it’s calmed a lot of nerves. Reading are still capable of winning comfortably, and repeating this result a few more times - even if we don’t fully rediscover our consistency - means we’ll have enough to stay wedged in mid-table.
But a lot of the positives to come out will count for little if they’re not built on. Besides the obvious point of Reading needing to now string a few wins together if they’re to push up the table, a few players had good afternoons after being under pressure individually, and must now show they can put that behind them. Swift and Ejaria had lost form in January in tandem with Reading’s mini slide, but were much improved on Saturday, while Puscas put in a strong goalscoring shift as a lone striker to buy himself some goodwill after his inconsistent season.
We could well look back on this game at the end of the season as one that was the springboard for a revival, or as a good day in an up-and-down finale.