Reading approached their tie with Barnsley off the back of one of their worst performances in years, and most certainly under Mark Bowen. He opted to change his side back into a 4-3-3: Rafael; Obita, Morrison, Miazga, Yiadom; Swift, Rinomhota, Ejaria; Olise, Puscas, Meite.
With Reading back in a familiar shape, they looked a lot more comfortable in every aspect of the game. Whereas on Wednesday night, with John Swift and Pele beside each other in the first half, Reading now had more protection with the energetic Andy Rinomhota drafted in.
On Wednesday, Swift and Pele playing as a flat two (with only a couple of bursts forwards from Swift) meant that both midfielders would constantly and far too easily be taken out of the play by a simple driving run, and the stretching of the midfield by not only the opposition but also to provide options to the ineffective wide players, meant Reading’s midfielder was next to non-existent. However, on Saturday, Reading managed to make challenges and be competitive in the middle of the park while also sitting back with relative comfort, with Barnsley not able to break the Royals down unless it was from a counter attack.
Sloppy mistakes from Michael Morrison and Jordan Obita gave Barnsley their only real threatening chances of the game, but a willingness to make amends (best shown in Obita’s assist for the second goal straight after an error) meant that the other side of the game was executed with relative ease and determination. The returning Matt Miazga in particular was a commanding presence at the back, adopting near-perfect defensive positions when Barnsley did threaten on the counter and showing his aerial dominance. Miazga’s ability on the ball, mixed with his decision making in when to clear first time was also highlighted all throughout the game, with the US international hardly putting a foot wrong.
With George Puscas replacing Sam Baldock in the side, he showed a touch of class with his turn, touch and finish for Reading’s second goal. The Romanian now has nine league goals this season in 22 starts, but his movement could’ve been slightly improved on the counter. When a midfielder was carrying the ball forwards towards one touch line, Puscas was sometimes too close to the centre back and, despite him being able to beat him for pace, a few steps across the pitch and away from his man would’ve given him space to receive a diagonal ball forwards, especially due to Barnsley pushing their full backs high late on.
Reading’s general shape was solid in defence, with Ovie Ejaria in a central role and able to track back and start a counter to better effect than when out wide. However, in attack Reading were slightly stop-start, especially on the left wing with Michael Olise not an out-and-out winger and Jordan Obita not pushing that high to overlap. Perhaps a combination of Richards and Obita/Blackett on the left could have the effect it did in the FA Cup replays? One of Olise and Ejaria in the centre and the other as an impact player off the bench may suit Reading more, with Bowen seemingly looking to fit both into his team at the expense of a more balanced side. However, with the lack of wingers and star quality of both men, it does not hinder Reading too much.
When Reading did make changes, Ayub Masika and Garath McCleary stretched the shape of the home side with very wide starting positions, with both able to come inside when needed and bamboozle the full backs. As McCleary showed, it gave licence for Yiadom to push forwards and with the movement of Puscas, it always meant there’d be a runner in space to play in/play out wide to.
Although the game was won and Reading did not trouble Bradley Collins in the Barnsley goal any more, the two wingers stretching the defence gave glimpses of another “system/Plan B” that could be utilised in the future (especially against the attacking wing backs and overlapping centre backs of Sheffield United). Added to the speed and directness of both players, it could be akin to the Beerens/McCleary partnership from Reading’s play-off final campaign.
Whichever way Bowen decides to play, his solid foundation seems to be back after a midweek blip, and so the focus should now be on increasing the number of chances created per game and getting that flowing football back.