The most surprising thing about the Wigan Athletic victory was that it was played out without both John Swift and Ovie Ejaria, who had succumbed to injury/illness before the game. When it became clear they’d sit out the first match of December at home to Birmingham City and that Mark Bowen was to keep an unchanged side, equal measures of shock and anger rang out from Royals fans.
With Reading in a 3-5-2 (as they did in the Wigan game), and the opposition playing a 4-4-2, it seemed the obvious weakness was the wing backs being doubled up on and exploited, and once more Omar Richards and Andy Yiadom struggled to get forwards at points of the game, strangely often being caught out by playing too centrally.
Reading struggled with Pele and Andy Rinomhota as the holding midfielders. Where the once compact midfield against Leeds United showed off Mark Bowen’s promise of each player being closer together, this game was the complete antithesis of this. With Pele taking up Rinomhota’s role of sitting just in front of the defence, Rinomhota had to assume the Swift role of drifting back and forth in the midfield, but always seemed to be slightly lost, never really getting into the game as much as he should. With a static attack and a Birmingham gameplan executed very well, his driving runs had to come from out wide, but did not occur nearly as much as usual.
Where usually one of Swift/Ovie could link up play and create space for him, Garath McCleary’s game of his own driving runs that this was not something that could occur. This left the midfield stretched, with McCleary up high with the front two, Pele and Rinomhota sitting too deep and not applying pressure.
This occurred in the first half at Wigan and, with the restrained wing backs, meant Reading had almost seven players sitting deep at times. Strangely, in the first half, Reading seemed to be pushing forwards a lot, and it was actually after the tactical change when things became trickier.
Whereas against Wigan Reading’s switch to four at the back meant the already-booked Morrison was sacrificed, this time it was the slightly underperforming Miazga. The early stages of the second half began with incessant Birmingham pressure and chances and, despite having a fairly weak defence (especially from set plays), Birmingham just about deservedly won the match.
What became clear after the game was that, despite only playing 14 minutes of the clash, Charlie Adam showed how he could provide the creative spark missing for the Royals. With Reading chasing the game at the point of his introduction and throwing bodies forwards, Adam provided an attacking threat not seen with Pele, managing to also provide a bit more balance to the side.
This signalled a change in the team for the upcoming games over the Christmas period. Trips to struggling sides Barnsley and Stoke City were good opportunities for Reading to get back to winning ways, but with only two points out of both games, including some poor and toothless displays, murmurs of uncertainty were back.
However, as Bowen pointed out, restricting the opposition to one goal (that coming from a sloppy Morrison mistake from a goal kick at Oakwell) and remaining undefeated following two away performances, was exactly what this side needed and showed a continuation of their newfound resolve. Of course, Bowen was unhappy with the ‘long ball’ tendencies of his side at Barnsley (ironically still managing to concede from a short goal kick) and would’ve preferred at least one victory, but as he put it, “any point away from home is a good point”.
The Barnsley game featured the return of Ovie Ejaria but, 10 days later, John Swift was back on the bench as the Royals played host to Derby County. Thanks to an early red card, plus a couple of penalties, a 4-4-2 with Lucas Joao and Baldock up top helped the Royals to a 3-0 win. With Ejaria and Yakou Meite on the wings, Reading had found a new position for the playmaker, albeit one in where he wasn’t as effective. Despite this, the return of Swift, coupled with the form of Adam (mixed in with the fact that Reading still lacked out-and-out wingers), meant Ejaria out wide was the best area to play him for the time being.
A few days later, Reading claimed a 1-0 Boxing Day win over QPR, thanks to a John Swift wondergoal (the POTS contender hitting form at a key time), and flaunted the side that would go on to claim wins at Preston North End and Fulham in the next week. Baldock succumbing to injury meant that a 4-3-3 with Lucas Joao up top, flanked by both Meite and Ejaria, and a midfield of Adam, Swift and Pele gave Reading both attacking threat (five wins in a row) and defensive stability (four clean sheets in a row).
This was in part down to the great form of Chris Gunter, making his return at Barnsley, following the injury to Andy Yiadom four days previously. When the news broke of the length of time Yiadom would be out for, it soon transferred to the back of most fans’ minds as Gunter put in a few superb defensive (and even attacking displays).
With John Swift also getting on the scoresheet at Preston and Fulham (Blackett assisting him in near-identical fashion on both occasions) and Rafael producing a string of wondersaves in all three post-Christmas games, Reading could finally say they were on a play-off push, and looked more than capable of seeing it through.
The New Year (barring the Fulham game) did not get exactly get off to the best possible start though. With no league victories in January after that one at Craven Cottage, and the volume of games increasing, inconsistency would surely be what would derail this newfound play-off push as, even though Reading would always be mathematically in with a shot over the coming months, the trust from the fans to the team to continue to produce victories had dwindled by the end of the month.
With a dramatic late goal conceded at home to play-off chasing Nottingham Forest, followed by an even later and more dramatic equaliser, the disappointment at only taking a point from an ever-present top-six side, on a good run of form themselves, showed in equal measure the frustration at letting their winning run slip and how far this team had come over the last month.
What followed after this game (as well as a hamstring injury for key man Lucas Joao) was a deserved new contract for Mark Bowen. But with the introduction of his new “We’ve got super Marky Bowen” song at The Den a week later, and a near-packed away end, Reading slipped to defeat for the first time in eight games.
On an awful pitch and facing a side who had beaten both Leeds United and Brentford on their own patch, once more Reading fans would need to be level headed after a great run of form and only second away defeat under Bowen. Another comeback draw against Forest, followed by some dreadful defending at home to Bristol City and yet another draw at Cardiff City meant January’s points total ended on a measly six (half of those coming at Craven Cottage on New Year’s Day).
It seemed as if Reading did not know how to play and even score goals without Lucas Joao up top, netting only three league goals after his injury in January (one of them being an own goal). Bowen eventually changed to three at the back for the clash at Cardiff, which seemed to work quite well against a side not entirely expecting it, Liam Moore in particular having a fantastic game.
The Royals’ skipper was not only competitive, up against the physical Callum Patterson, but also provided support in attack, hassling and harrying the Cardiff forwards to concede possession and build an attack for the visitors. There were even one or two occasions when Moore made an attacking run into the space left by Joe Bennett (in order to press Gunter) to give an extra option for the Welshman and ensure the ball did not have to return back to the defence. The formation change to a back three allowed Moore the freedom to make these moves, with a lot of Reading’s first-half attacks coming from balls into the channels for the strikers to hold up or run on to.
Despite a slightly promising sign, the Royals would be heading into a tough month of fixtures in February with arguably the easiest up first, and a fantastic chance for three points at home to struggling Hull City.