Plenty has been said about how viable Reading’s push for the top six really is. All the way back on New Year’s Day, after an impressive away win at Fulham extended a fine run of form in the league, the chances of that push being successful looked increasingly healthy. But the last few weeks have gradually eroded that possibility, culminating in a painful 1-1 home draw with Hull City that seems to have pretty much killed them off entirely.
On the face of it, an 11-point gap between Reading and the top six in early February is huge but hardly insurmountable. Indeed, that gap looks negligible when you’re on the back of a three- or four-match winning streak, but it becomes a gaping chasm when you’re without a league win in over a month.
Simply put, if Reading are to make ground on the play-off places, they have to win games like Hull City at home. The Tigers are a fellow mid-table side that will almost certainly stay in mid-table by the end of the season, and the opportunity was there on Saturday for Reading to seize the initiative, take the game by the scruff of the neck and win it convincingly.
But, for a number of reasons, that never really looked like happening, probably not even when Reading were 1-0 up against a Hull side offering little going forwards. Even in the drab 1-0 home defeat to Bristol City, there was a last-ditch push to rescue a point in the closing stages - but late on at home to Hull, with the scores level, that late rally wasn’t replicated. Instead, Reading looked deflated by the equaliser, and the visitors could well have snatched victory.
In truth through, Reading’s performance throughout the match was tame, lifeless, lacking in concentration, aggression and drive. It’d probably be unfair to say that Reading were specifically bad - we’ve all seen far more inept performance in recent years after which the Royals have been beaten convincingly. It was more that there was a distinct absence of anything good, as if the spirit had been sucked out of them.
On the whole, the performance seemed very much to suggest that this group of players has accepted it will finish the season in mid-table. As mentioned above, there’s now a healthy gap between Reading and both ends of the Championship, and it’s perhaps understandable that the squad are seemingly both: a) relieved to not be in another relegation scrap, and b) not convinced they’re able to get to the top six.
Although the above faults with the players had a big part in Reading’s poor performance, there are two other main things worth highlighting - one that Mark Bowen has offered as an explanation himself, and another that he’s firmly denied.
The first of those: fatigue. Reading have had an intense run of games recently, having played weekend-midweek-weekend constantly throughout 2020 - with the exception of one clear midweek between the home games against Blackpool and Nottingham Forest in early January. More pertinently, on Tuesday they had a second away game at Cardiff, which lasted for all of 120 minutes (excluding added time and of course penalties).
Add that all up, and it does explain the lifeless nature of Reading’s performance. A good portion of the team that started against Hull had had done the same in South Wales: Chris Gunter, Michael Morrison, Tyler Blackett, Pele, John Swift and Yakou Meite.
But I’m unconvinced how much this should be used as an excuse. If Bowen knew that fatigue would be a big problem against Hull, then more changes could and indeed should have been made for the game at the Madejski Stadium. None of Andy Rinomhota, Garath McCleary, Sone Aluko, Michael Olise and Felipe Araruna started either of the two matches, and although that group isn’t as good as Reading’s first team, they could well have offered more than the tired unit of Swift, Pele, Meite and co.
Onto the point to which Bowen would object: tactics. Reading again started the game with a back three, using the same 3-4-1-2 formation that they used early on under the current manager, and indeed in the two matches at Cardiff City. In away games like those, it’s a decent set-up, with Reading essentially able to fall back into a back five protected by three midfielders.
But when playing at home, in a game where Reading really need to take the initiative and be on the front foot as much as possible, that formation isn’t a good fit. Bowen takes a very different view though, which he explained like so after the match:
“Anyone who says that [a back three is too negative] doesn’t know what we do and how it works. If you look at stats of teams who play three and four at the back it makes absolutely no difference. It’s not a negative thing. If you play three at the back it means you have two full-backs going forward, can get an extra man in midfield and can play two up front.”
On paper, he’s right - that formation allows for more bodies in the middle, two players out wide to stretch the play, and two strikers. But in reality for this Reading side, it falls down for two main reasons, both of them to do with the personnel we have available in defence.
Firstly, and perhaps most crucially, the wingbacks in a 3-5-2 have to be able to get into the game, provide an option when Reading are on the attack, and have an impact in the final third. But when they’re marked out of the game and can’t do any of those things, Reading’s play becomes too focused through the middle, too stale and uninventive.
Secondly, having three centre backs - particularly against one centre forward - is overkill when playing at home. It commits too many players defensively, especially when Pele is there to protect the defence too, and neither of the wingbacks are quite gung-ho enough to constantly drive into the final third.
That can be solved by one or two of those centre backs pushing higher up in support of attacks, which both Moore and McIntyre are good at. The latter was unavailable due to injury, and should have started if he’d been available, but the former didn’t get forward enough - bar one ambitious overlapping run outside Gunter early on.
All in all, it’s no surprise that when Reading had a back three in the first half, too often they were left to go long up to the front two, Sam Baldock and Yakou Meite, rather than patiently playing through the thirds. Although it created a few chances - Jordan Obita firing wide from Baldock’s lay-off and Baldock himself doing the same from Araruna’s long ball - that approach isn’t the way to dominate a home match and unlock a defence.
It’s similarly no surprise that, for the second game in a row, Bowen switched to a back four at half time to liven Reading’s approach play up. That eventually worked in midweek when Reading fought back from 2-0 down at Cardiff, and paid off on Saturday when Jordan Obita slotted home from a tight angle for the opener. Going to a back four means that the wide players higher up, such as Obita on the left, had someone behind them in support, in this Blackett, making it easier for Reading to play up the pitch and stretch the game.
But the specific formation in the second half confused me. The Royals have previously used a 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders, three attacking players and a lone centre forward, which Bowen could have gone to without in the second half against Hull without any substitutes. Obita to the left wing, Meite to the right, Ejaria behind Baldock and Swift alongside Pele in midfield.
However, Bowen seems particularly keen on playing two up front, and shoehorned Reading into a 4-4-2. Obita did indeed go out to the left, with Baldock and Meite staying up top, but Swift was for some reason pushed out to the right while Ejaria came deeper alongside Pele. Those roles don’t suit Swift or Ejaria, and in truth it would have made more sense to swap them - Swift central, Ejaria out wide.
Indeed, despite Reading going 1-0 up, Bowen still brought Aluko on in another tactical change aimed at allowing the Royals to play through the lines better. The forward replaced Baldock and played off Meite, allowing Reading to go 4-4-1-1. It was a decent idea from Bowen, but wasn’t enough to jolt the team into gaining more momentum and putting the game to bed with a second goal.
My underlying impression in terms of tactics is that, in the absence of one clearly superior system, Bowen doesn’t really have a clear plan on how to set Reading up. In his attempts to find a clear plan, he’s going through a few different formations and lineups, but in the process he’s over-complicating when he doesn’t really need to.
Now replace “Bowen” with “Gomes”.
It’d be unfair to say that Reading have just reverted to how they were before Bowen replaced Gomes; a lot of progress has been made, as shown by the record of two defeats in our last 12 league matches. But the same problem with this squad remains: even if one set-up works for a time, there’s no clear alternative. Gomes struggled to win a solution when his 3-5-2 ran out of steam, and Bowen is similarly still experimenting after the loss of Joao.
That leaves me with two main conclusions:
- Unless we stumble upon a solution quickly, Reading aren’t going to make the playoffs.
- The summer recruitment should ensure that, next season, we’ve got enough strength in depth to cover for problems like the loss of Joao.
It means Reading are more than likely headed for a comfortable cruise to the end of the season - bar any drastic positive or negative changes in form - and the focus becomes even more about setting the team up to have a proper crack at promotion in 2020/21.
For the meantime, at least we’re still in the cup.