Before Saturday, playing Leeds United away felt like it would be a pretty unique challenge for Reading in the context of the rest of the season. Marcelo Bielsa’s side are one of the best in the league and playing them at Elland Road only made the task more daunting - but it’s an occasion that Reading won’t have for the rest of the season. Besides Brentford’s upcoming visit to the Madejski Stadium, we won’t have to go up against one of the main promotion contenders again before the summer.
So, how much to read into a hard-fought, narrow defeat to Leeds? Some basic points jump out: Reading were organised and compact defensively, which will have pleased Mark Bowen a lot, but they lacked a proper spark in the final third to open up United on the counter attack.
But how much can those aspects of Reading’s performance be applied elsewhere? The Royals’ remaining opponents are, by and large, mid-table or lower-mid-table teams that will pose a different challenge to United. There’ll be less onus to defend, which Bowen’s side did admirably at Elland Road, and more emphasis on opening the opposition up, which Reading understandably struggled to do.
The only real conclusion we can safely come to, on the basis of Saturday afternoon, is that Reading aren’t good enough to properly trouble a side as good as Leeds United on their own patch. But we knew that already. We wouldn’t be in mid-table otherwise.
Reading made just one change to the side that comfortably won 3-0 at Sheffield Wednesday a week earlier, although it was different to the alteration that was announced in the team news at 2pm. Michael Olise was due to replaced by Pele, in an attempt at shoring up the midfield, but an injury to Ovie Ejaria in the warm-up meant Olise came back in at the last minute.
That left the Royals in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Andy Yiadom, Michael Morrison, Liam Moore and Omar Richards were again the back four in front of Rafael, while Pele and John Swift were the two midfielders tasked with screening that defence. Interestingly though, Andy Rinomhota was kept in the side, but as more of a number ten. Although it’s not his natural position, he did it before at Bristol City in Jose Gomes’ last game, with his mixture of energy and strength allowing him to press and harry United higher up than he would normally.
Otherwise, Yakou Meite and George Puscas again played down the right and up top respectively, while Michael Olise took on a new position. He’s already filled in as a deep-lying playmaker, right winger and number ten this season, and completed the set by taking Ejaria’s spot on the left of the attacking midfield trio.
For the first 45 minutes, that system worked well. In the reverse fixture, Reading had been guilty of not being proactive enough, for the most part staying too deep to trouble Leeds. But on this occasion, the Royals won the ball back in midfield better and transitioned into counter attacks more quickly.
United committed bodies forward throughout the first half, meaning that when Reading did win the ball back - whether in a deep position or higher up the pitch - there was space to attack. Reading probably would have made better use of that with more out and out pace in the side, but the two furthest-forward players (Puscas and Meite) lacked that pace and didn’t really manage to get in behind the home defence to cause problems.
However, credit for Reading’s transitions should go to Pele and Rinomhota. Neither are purely ‘ball winners’; they’re both strong in the tackle, but also have the composure to control the ball and drive up the pitch with it to put Reading on the attack - a ploy that worked well on a number of occasions before the break.
Olise stood out too though. Not one to be fazed by a particularly tough away match or a raucous home crowd, he had all the composure and maturity of someone far older than an 18 year-old. He does still have more to learn about the importance of decisiveness in the final third; a few times he lacked an option to pass to on a counter attack and, instead of having a shot himself, allowed the move to burn out. Again though, as mentioned higher up, his creative quality will be better judged in other games when there’s more onus on Reading to attack.
Down the other end, Reading were for the most part well organised and restricted the home side effectively; conceding just two shots on target in the first half says it all. The whole back four did well individually, but the player I most want to praise is Michael Morrison.
The former Birmingham City captain isn’t one of the flashier players on the pitch - indeed, if you’ll allow me a tired cliche, even by centre-back standards he’s very old school and no-nonsense. But he makes up for that with experience and leadership - two qualities that don’t stand out as much, even in a very defensive away match, and qualities that Reading have lacked at the back in the last few years.
For all Reading’s quality in the first half, Leeds had been well below par and it was inevitable that the home side would improve after the break. They did just that, and took an increasingly firm stranglehold over proceedings as the game wore on, although Reading’s tiredness from chasing the ball will have played a part too.
Because of that, the danger that Reading had shown on the counter in the first half wasn’t replicated in the second. Creative players Olise and Swift were less influential, Puscas was more isolated up top, and there were fewer cases of Rinomhota and Pele breaking the play up to put the Royals on the front foot.
It’s frustrating though that the game was decided by more or less one moment. After a loose pass from Richards, the ball eventually found its way to Pablo Hernandez, who shimmied past Moore before slamming home. It was annoyingly slack defending from Reading, and indeed from Pele who probably should have tracked Hernandez, but also a sign of the home side’s quality.
From there on in, Reading’s heads dropped, Leeds were comfortable with their one-goal lead, and it felt like the Royals were very much kept at arm’s length for the rest of the match. Although the silver lining is that a narrow lead for United didn’t become a wider one, the real issue was that Reading weren’t able to change the game from that point.
Bowen’s taken some flak for only making one sub - Swift for Charlie Adam - which made some sense, with Adam being a source of creativity in place of someone that hadn’t had much joy earlier in the match. Should Sam Baldock have come on too? The away end chanted for Bowen to make that exact change, but I’m not convinced it would have made much difference. Baldock’s energy is a useful asset, but against a well-drilled Leeds side protecting their lead he wouldn’t have had much impact.
The lack of other creative players on the bench left Bowen with no other obvious alterations. None of Sone Aluko, Lucas Boye, Ayub Timbe, Garath McCleary or Ovie Ejaria were available, and all would have at least in theory offered a different element on the day.
It says just as much though that Reading’s options on the pitch in the first place weren’t able to change the game. For that to happen, we needed more from Swift, Puscas and Meite, but none could find that extra gear to alter the flow of the game. In the end, bar a late flurry in which Moore could have had a penalty, Puscas appealed in vain for a couple of handballs and Richards blazed a shot over the bar, Reading didn’t look much like getting back on level terms.
On the whole, Reading gave a decent enough account of themselves at Elland Road, even if it didn’t end in a positive result. But the real mark of how good this side is will come in the next two matches: home ties against Wigan Athletic and Barnsley. Both are very winnable games, and the onus will be on the Royals to offer a lot more going forwards and get the maximum six points. Do that, and this result won’t matter all that much.