Reading approached their biggest game of the season, a fifth-round tie with Sheffield United, with an unchanged team following their 2-0 victory over fellow Yorkshire side Barnsley: Rafael; Obita, Morrison, Miazga, Yiadom; Swift, Rinomhota, Ejaria; Olise, Puscas, Meite.
With the biggest crowd of the season at the Mad Stad, David McGoldrick heading in a second-minute opener was the worst possible start for the Royals. With not enough pressure on Ben Osborn, the left wing back’s left foot and delivery was his main asset during the game and it showed almost immediately. Lys Mousset being marked by Michael Morrison and David McGoldrick in between Morrison and Jordan Obita was either the result of poor marking or intelligent movement and a free header for McGoldrick gave Rafael no chance in the Reading goal.
The remainder of the first half mainly consisted of “pointless” possession by an under-par Sheffield United, managing to keep hold of the ball for long periods of time but not really troubling Rafael again. However when Reading did get on the ball, they themselves managed to keep hold of it for longer than most of the home fans probably expected, with United’s high intensity press at work. Matt Miazga in particular, completing his second 90 minutes in four days following a month long injury lay off, was so composed at the back that he Cruyff-turned one of the Sheffield United forwards when the last man and with the scores level at 1-1.
Reading’s central midfield three at times dominated the middle of the park against Premier League opposition, putting in some great tackles after taking a while to come into the game. Andy Rinomhota playing in front of John Swift and, at times, Ovie Ejaria, meant that his high-energy style and willingness to press could set the standard for those further behind him and Swift himself once more showed his quality in front of the back four.
Swift's “Cruyff turn followed by ball over to Meite” seemingly was a staple throughout the game, and one which Sheffield United never got to grips with. These searching balls over to the big man were indicative of how Reading had the ability to move United’s backline over to one side of the pitch before finding space on the other, and so disappointingly never really made much use of their left flank with Jordan Obita not receiving the ball early often enough to be able to deliver in a cross. Added to Obita’s fantastic delivery, Sheffield United’s defence and, in particular Dean Henderson, looked nervy from crosses and so putting them under a bit more pressure may well have made the difference in normal time.
On the wing, 18 year-old Michael Olise continued to impress further up on the left side of the pitch, while drifting infield to outnumber the Blades in central midfield. This meant that Yakou Meite was mainly restricted to the right wing, which was an area he dominated, coming up against the significantly smaller Ben Osborn. In the first half it was clear that Reading’s primary form of attack was through his flick-ons to George Puscas and his ability to cut in and fire shots off on goal.
When the Royals made the change to bring on Ayub Timbe, it would’ve allowed Meite the freedom to come into a more central role as a second striker when Ayub Timbe was in possession but, because the home side put in such an impressive display, Mark Bowen waited until extra time to make his first changes of the game, deciding to bring off both Olise and Ejaria (the duo being replaced with Timbe and Pele). With Billy Sharp putting the Blades 2-1 up on the stroke of extra time half time, only seven minutes had passed before Meite himself was replaced. He and Rinomhota making way for McCleary and Baldock followed by a switch to a 4-4-2.
This so-called “Plan B” gave Reading two out-and-out wingers and more pace on the counter where both men looked dangerous, with McCleary’s experience in particular showing through his confidence on the ball in the high-pressure situation of being a goal down in extra time. Despite most of the fanbase thinking he may not have the quality to play for Reading anymore, his impressive runs down the wing (resulting in a great ball across that neither Baldock or Puscas were close enough to), and cutting in to set up Pele for a shot meant that he’d been involved in almost all of Reading’s extra time chances (and certainly their best ones).
Although the Royals did slip to defeat against their Premier League counterparts, it should not be overlooked at just how brave and tidy in possession the Royals were at times with only two defensive lapses in concentration all game. It was not only a performance to be proud of because of the calibre of opposition, but also following on from last Wednesday’s result against Wigan (and even the Barnsley game to an extent).
The two defensive mistakes (in allowing Premier League strikers free headers in the box) were not the story of the game but completely uncharacteristic compared to the rest of the tie, which goes a long way to show the level of performance the team played at. If Reading can use game as a barometer for the intensity at which they want to play at going forwards under Bowen, and bring this game to every match they play, then a strong end to the season and a top-half finish may well set them up for success next season.