Reading’s form this season, like that of most Championship sides, has both fluctuated and remained stable in equal measure. A current 14th-place standing suggests Reading’s ratio of wins to draws to losses is relatively even, and this is true, with the current table reading: W:13; D:9; L:15.
Of course however, this does not paint the whole picture. On the way to achieving their current total of 48 points from 37 games, Reading have gone on winning runs, losing runs, half a cup run (thanks to the keeping of replays in the earlier rounds) and even sacked a manager. Added to this, they have altered formations, changed shape and tinkered with starting elevens like no other, as both Jose Gomes and Mark Bowen have attempted to find their best side while constantly battling injuries and suspensions.
The season kicked off on Saturday August 3 2019 at 3pm, with Sheffield Wednesday the visitors to the Madejski. The team that started this game is almost unrecognisable to the last time Royals fans saw their men in blue and white walk out onto a football pitch, which is probably for the best.
New signing Joao Virginia gave his first glimpses of just how much we’d taken Emiliano Martinez for granted the season before, failing to keep out a Kadeem Harris shot that seemed to go right through him. It would’ve been unfair to blame him entirely for the goal however, with Andy Yiadom pushed so high up the pitch that Liam Moore needed to move over to cover the space left in behind. This he failed to do, as Harris was able to cut inside and leave him on his backside far too easily.
Both these players had slow starts to the season, with the usually ever-reliable Yiadom showing signs of fatigue after his Africa Cup of Nations conquests with Ghana in the summer, and Liam Moore inexplicably just not getting to grips with the start of the season.
With Josh Barrett starting on the left wing and impressing with an assist, it was clear that with experience and a little bit more know-how, both he and substitute Michael Olise could push for regular football and make their mark on the side this season. However, Jose Gomes’ 4-3-3 was not quite coming off, with Danny Loader dropping so deep as a number 10 that the space in front of him would be occupied by the Wednesday midfield and Loader would just be spraying passes out wide or back to the centre backs, rather than turning and linking up with Yakou Meite and Modou Barrow.
Reading’s next clash was a trip to Hull City where they did not fare any better. With Virginia once more beaten far too easily at his near post, the Royals quickly found themselves 2-0 down. New signings Pele, Lucas Boye and Lucas Joao were introduced to the starting XI, showcasing mixed performances.
It was clear that the highly rated holding midfielder Pele was not quite at the speed of English football, his physicality also (somewhat surprisingly) leaving much to be desired. As the man from Monaco would receive the ball on the edge of the box from his centre backs (remember: this is ‘Gomesball’), after he had turned to face the play he would amble forwards looking for an option. When this option, more often than not, would not present itself, he’d dwell on the ball until being pressured and tackled from behind by Tom Eaves, leaving Reading extremely exposed and somehow only 2-0 down at the break.
Despite only briefly being able to showcase his crossfield passing ability, he was by far the most disappointing of the three new men. Lucas Boye on the contrary was full of energy and, added to his willingness to take on (and beat) a man, revealed his rocket shot with a few sighters from range. Still to reach full match fitness, he was taken off at half time for record signing George Puscas, who himself showed glimpses of why Reading paid so much for him, hitting the bar late on.
It was the Royals’ other new striker however, Lucas Joao, who managed to get onto the scoresheet, with an impressive finish to make up for the fact that he had scored against his new side only a week earlier, in Sheffield Wednesday colours.
After two disappointing defeats to start the season, shipping five goals and looking inferior to distinctly average sides, Jose Gomes opted for a tactical reshuffle ahead of the Royals’ clash with Wycombe Wanderers in the Carabao Cup mid-August. The tie against League One opposition was seemingly the perfect game to experiment ahead of a tough run of three games in seven days, against two relegated sides and a West Brom team who had just come unstuck in the play-offs only three months earlier.
Bringing in an additional central defender, Michael Morrison, for a member of the attacking front three, on the surface seemed to signal a more defensive set up, opting to address the leakiness at the back as the main priority. And with the quality the Royals possessed up top in George Puscas and Lucas Joao, and in the middle of the park in John Swift and Ovie Ejaria, Reading were always going to be a team capable of creating enough chances to score goals and, ultimately, win games.
After a resounding 3-0 victory over Cardiff City, where everything seemed to click, followed up by a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns and a 2-0 victory against Huddersfield, Reading suddenly emerged as one of the favourites to challenge in the upper reaches of the division. A back three of Michael Morrison, Matt Miazga and Liam Moore with Rafael between the sticks had only shipped one goal across 270 minutes of football, and not a single one from open play.
What caused the turnaround?
So what changed so drastically from that desperate hunt for an equaliser at Hull to weathering waves of Huddersfield pressure and leaving with two goals, a clean sheet and the three points?
For starters, to point out the obvious, with three central defenders Reading were conceding far fewer goals. Morrison slotting into a central role, getting his body in the way of seemingly anything and everything that came his way and dominating aerial duels against physical Cardiff and West Brom sides (not to mention his goal at Huddersfield) gave Reading some much-needed security at the back - in the shape of a man who simply loves to defend.
This also gave Moore and Miazga wider berths at the back, where Miazga in particular excelled with his excellent and versatile ball-playing skills, meaning under a high press he was still able to clip a ball over the advancing attackers to one of John Swift or Ovie Ejaria, rather than simply playing it across the defence or to the advancing Andy Yiadom.
The 3-5-2 system also improved the way Reading played the ball out from the back. Rather than passing to the holding midfielder with his back to play, two centre backs either side of the six-yard box, with one just in front, has proven to actually be less risky, utilising the space in front of the defence. Swift and Ejaria had been arguably Reading’s stand-out players so far, but credit must go to Gomes for their positional rotation with the two strikers.
As the team lined up on paper, the two attacking midfielders and two strikers were very central, in line with roughly the ends of the centre circle, with the wide space being occupied by Richards and Yiadom. However, what was evident - particularly against Cardiff - was how wide Swift and Ejaria sometimes played, allowing the strikers to stay central and get into the box. This was highlighted by Reading’s second goal against the Bluebirds - Swift underlapping Yiadom to whip in a cross which Puscas finished expertly. The inverse of this involved Swift and Ejaria occupying more central positions to provide cover for Pele, or to make runs into the box, with Puscas and Joao working the channels.
Reading could also tinker with their attacking options as, through this three-game spell, they deployed three different strike partnerships. Boye, Joao and Puscas were all given game time with one another, to no detriment to any of them.
Most Reading fans were looking at their squad, and the way their side had been playing, and could see no reason as to why they shouldn’t be challenging at the top end of the table come May - something they weren’t expecting to say after full time at the KC.
In terms of keeping up this momentum however, things did not quite go as planned. Charlton (August 31) and Blackburn (September 21) visited the Mad Stad with a clear gameplan to press high, apply pressure on the centre backs and block off passing lanes to Swift and Ejaria. This resulted in slow build-up play and, coupled with poor passing and decision making, frustrating defeats.
Surely this system hadn’t been worked out within two weeks? Where once Swift and Ejaria were dictating play, the back three couldn’t find a pass to them, leaving them isolated in those wide positions where, once the ball had been turned over, Pele and the defence were left outnumbered, something which Blackburn exploited and thankfully didn’t capitalise on at 2-1 in the second half.
Joao and Puscas were ineffective, Joao seeming to impress more in an attacking midfield role with options ahead of him, rather than trying to trick his way through or force a one-two with Puscas through the defence. A highlight of this dismal month though was the return of Jordan Obita for the Royals’ clash with Blackburn, after two years out injured.
After the international break, Gomes decided to play Meite and Boye up front against Middlesbrough (September 14). This fixture, in between the two home defeats, was much more positive with the two up front showing great signs of energy with a lot of running off the ball and Meite getting in behind on numerous occasions in the first half.
When Middlesbrough did take the lead, their 10 men behind the ball made things difficult, but Reading still managed to create chances and, were it not for Darren Randolph, could have been walking away with a point or three.
A third man to come in for the trip to The Riverside was the Royals’ player of the 2018/19 season: Andy Rinomhota. He did not hit the heights of last season against Boro, something that is understandable after being benched since the trip to Hull, but he was a man whose dynamism and workmanlike performances last season, not to mention his driving runs forward, could have added some much-needed steel and energy to a midfield that looked weak when pressurised.
His showing in the centre of the park and at right back against Wolves (September 25) in the League Cup helped his cause to get back into the starting XI. With both Miazga and McIntyre sustaining injuries, a switch to a 4-3-3 gave Gomes the option to play with two holding midfielders rather than one.
However, in the final clash of the month at Swansea City, Gomes brought in Rino for Pele. After an early goal conceded and a poor first-half performance, Joao was brought on as a number 10, where he could link up with Puscas and even push forwards in a 4-2-2-2. The Romanian however was having something of a difficult spell, managing to miss a sitter in most games he played in this period of the season.
Despite Joao playing deep and setting up Andy Yiadom’s last-minute equaliser, to bring to an end a run of three successive league defeats, it was clear there were deeper problems. This talented side only really showed its capabilities in the second half of games, something that continued into October, until it all came to a head.