“You can’t always get what you want... but if you try sometimes, you find, you get what you need.”
Those lyrics from The Rolling Stones sum up Reading’s win over Barnsley rather nicely. For any football club, there are things you want out of a football game, and things you really need - and that’s particularly true for teams like Reading that are not only in a bit of a rut, but also badly in need of a reaction to an awful night a few days earlier.
We all will have wanted a free-flowing, easy-on-the-eye, comfortable victory on Saturday afternoon to properly exorcise the demons of Wednesday night. But in reality, Reading got exactly what they needed - and not much more: three points, a clean sheet, and a sufficiently competent performance all round to put the Wigan defeat behind us.
Mark Bowen was all too happy to admit that that was, more or less, his approach to the game. Indeed, in his post-match comments, he emphasised the importance of three points (over putting in a great performance) and said he told the players at half time to “see the game out”.
At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. We may well have wanted the kind of afternoon that really showed how good Reading could be, but any win - coming in any fashion - was needed in order to prevent one dire match from causing wider problems.
A good day for the defence
A key part of getting that result was, of course, what went on in Reading’s third. The Royals may not have been at their attacking best, but they did enough to secure a first clean sheet at the Madejski Stadium since Boxing Day, and just the second in the Championship overall in 2020.
Although the victory and clean sheet looked comfortable by full time, there were numerous points at which the Royals were vulnerable. That was particularly true in the first half - due to both general tactical problems and individual mistakes. In the first case, Swift’s was unconvincing as a holding midfielder, and in the latter, mistakes from Morrison and Obita provided the Tykes with avoidable chances. Indeed, had Rafael not pulled off a top save just seconds before the interval to keep it 1-0, the rest of the game may well have gone very differently.
After the break, it was pretty much a case of sitting deep and absorbing pressure, although we looked convincing in doing so. Barnsley dominated the second half on the face of it, with more than twice our passes (324-142) and nine times our shots (18-2) - but just four of those 18 being on target demonstrates how resolutely Reading defended.
An old setup is revived
For all the talk of Jose Gomes as a tactical tinkerman during his time at Reading, Mark Bowen’s very much done the same, and on Saturday he again went for a change in formation. To be fair, that was the right decision in principle as his 4-4-2 had massively backfired in midweek against Wigan - but curiously he avoided his previous 4-2-3-1 in favour of something else.
Interestingly, the system reminded me a lot of a 4-3-3 which had been used by Gomes last season - from pretty much the exact same time that Bowen arrived as a technical assistant. Back then, one deep-lying playmaker was deployed behind two box-to-box midfielders, with two wingers either side of a lone centre forward.
There are three personnel changes: Lewis Baker for John Swift in the playmaker role, Nelson Oliveira for George Puscas up front and Modou Barrow for Michael Olise on the left. The other players in the midfield and attack are the same though: Yakou Meite (right wing), Ovie Ejaria and Andy Rinomhota (box-to-box midfielders).
There’s some promise to this system, particularly in how it makes more use of Rinomhota’s energy, freeing him up from a screening role to press higher up and drive attacks forward with the ball at his feet. Similarly, Meite is probably best deployed as a right-sided forward - rather than an out-and-out winger or central striker, while Puscas seemed to enjoy better support with this system in the first half.
Otherwise though, I’m not too sure. Swift isn’t good enough defensively to be left to protect the defence on his own, Olise is more comfortable in the middle (rather than hugging the touchline) and Ejaria is stronger coming in from the left (rather than starting centrally where it’s more crowded).
Timbe loves to shift
It’s no secret that Reading miss an extra element in the final third, and Ayub Timbe could be exactly the man to add that. Unlike the Royals’ other wide options, he’s quicker and more direct, and certainly showed that on Saturday.
In fact, despite only being on the pitch for the closing 20 minutes or so, Timbe attempted more dribbles than any other player on the pitch (6) - Olise and Yiadom were next with 5 each. What’s more, every single one of Timbe’s dribbles were successful.
There’s a lot of value to Reading of having someone as positive and pacey as Timbe in the side. On the road, his ability on the counter is fairly obvious, but the option of using him out wide to stretch the play at home should be a key tool in getting the Royals to break teams down that sit deeper and offer less space.