February did not begin in ideal fashion for the Royals. With 120 minutes (plus penalties) being played in the FA Cup in midweek at Cardiff City, Reading looked considerably lethargic throughout their clash with Hull City. With Mark Bowen reverting to three centre backs with wing backs, Reading once again struggled in the wide areas, with neither wingback able to effectively beat their man (while also being doubled or tripled up on to prevent the cross).
This was partially improved in the second period, with Tyler Blackett offering an overlapping threat on the left wing. Most of the home side’s attacks came through the middle, with an array of passes into congested areas in the hope of a dummy or flick to get a forward in on goal, but not producing too many clear-cut chances.
After Jordan Obita had given the home side the lead in the second period thanks to some patient build-up play, the onus was on the Royals to get a second. However, this did not quite show on the pitch – the fatigued Royals keeping possession in order to secure the 1-0 victory. Of course, this never usually works well for Reading and, alas, a deflected Mallik Wilks effort (after the forward had been failed to be closed down by all three central defenders in the penalty area) looped over Rafael to earn his side a share of the spoils – a hugely disappointing result against a team who couldn’t buy a point.
New signing Felipe Araruna slotted in at right back after Chris Gunter was forced off due to injury in the first half, easing him into the clash with high-flying West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday night (coming into midfield due to Andy Yiadom’s return from injury. In the second of two successive home games, there was an added sense of pressure on the side following two points dropped at the weekend.
Despite a strong start, culminating in George Puscas’ penalty which gave Reading a brief advantage, the league leaders hit back twice, with Reading happy to play on the counter. Reading failed to have another attempt on target but, looking over some dubious decision-making from the man in the middle, the visitors were hanging on come the final throws of the game, having not managed to convert any more of their earlier chances.
Positive signs there may have been, but with no league win still since New Year’s Day, it was fair for all to see that the inconsistencies in this Reading side would surely leave them mid-table come May; the play-offs and relegation both seemed a tad unrealistic at the best and worst of times.
What then followed at Hillsborough on the 15th February at 3pm was completely unexpected but, at the same time (by Reading’s inconsistent standards), expected. Sheffield Wednesday had had a dreadful recent home record (the 0-5 defeat to Blackburn Rovers a fair example), struggling to even score on their own patch.
Three changes to the side (Andy Rinomhota, Michael Olise and Omar Richards in for Araruna, Pele and Jordan Obita) all proved to have positive impacts, with Richards in particular having a fantastic game both defensively and offensively, even clearing an early Wednesday effort off the line with a last-ditch recovery.
John Swift dropping into Pele’s holding role just in front of the defence, and the tough-tackling Andy Rinomhota playing in front and next to Michael Olise (who was Reading’s main midfield threat in driving the play forwards) meant the Royals found a good balance in midfield in order to offer an attacking threat without being overpowered. Ovie Ejaria moving into the middle to outnumber the opposition midfield and link up some fluent passing moves allowed Richards space on the left to push forwards into the vacated space.
One such movement from Ejaria was effective in leading to Reading’s opening goal. He received the ball infield before driving forwards and slotting the ball through to Yakou Meite. The Ivorian himself had moved in from the opposite wing with a great run - but a lot higher up the field than Ejaria - essentially able to offer a threat as a second striker when needed.
Ejaria put in one of his best performances on the wing this season, managing to use his trickery to get Osaze Urhoghide sent off and link up with both Swift and Richards in attack. Most of Wednesday’s men were lunging into tackles all over the park and, apart from a short spell after half time, Reading managed to continue to play football while still showing their robustness.
A flicked George Puscas finish was still to come before a Sam Baldock penalty wrapped up the scoring and gave Reading a 3-0 victory. A notable mention must go to the Romanian for putting in an improved shift and looking like more of an all-round threat.
Reading followed this performance up with another trip to Yorkshire to take on the ‘mighty’ Leeds United. Although a fortunate (or persistent, depending on what side you support) Pablo Hernandez won the game for the Whites with the only goal of the game, it was another display to be proud of for the Royals.
Another great showing from Omar Richards was only overshadowed by one of the most mature performances an 18 year-old could give you in front of a vociferous home support - from Michael Olise, who had been drafted in for the injured Ovie Ejaria at the 11th hour. Behind him in midfield was Pele, sitting deep alongside John Swift, with Andy Rinomhota roaming around in front and making driving runs. When the Royals won back possession, two of these men would usually push forwards into the vacated space.
Rinomhota in particular had a superb game in driving the play forwards and applying pressure on Kalvin Phillips (and even the defence at times). Pele also, it should be mentioned, won numerous balls back inside Reading’s half before driving forwards himself, again showing how hard it is to dispossess the African and how far he’s come over the course of the season.
However, when Reading did come forwards, they lacked considerable quality to pose any kind of threat to the Leeds goal, either not managing to get bodies forwards or slowing the move down with indecisiveness/a lack of options.
When Phillips, playing in a holding role while intelligently drifting out to either full back to make himself an option and drag the visitors out of position, succumbed to injury in the first half, it seemed as if it was to be an opportunity for Reading to seize on.
However, this only worked in Leeds’ favour, with Ben White moving into the holding role, Luke Ayling shifting into centre back, Stuart Dallas taking Ayling’s place on the right and Ezgjan Alioski entering the play at left back. This change allowed the attack-minded Alioski to push forwards in support of Jack Harrison and the two linked up late in the first half, coming close to finding the breakthrough, before the home side eventually won it in the second.
After an awful display in midweek at Wigan which involved tactical naivety in the form of a 4-4-2 (with central midfielders out wide), a fantastic display from the visitors and a distinct lack of effort from the Royals, Reading moved onto one of the most must-win games a mid-table side would ever play - Barnsley at home - following the post-mortem that came in the days after the Wigan debacle.
Thankfully for all, a 2-0 victory was ensured by goals from Meite and Puscas, meaning the Royals finally entered March on a high, after a rollercoaster of a month.
With just the one league game in March (no explanation why needed), Reading travelled to Birmingham City with the knowledge that the hosts were unbeaten in 10 league games. Of course, with Bowen’s fabulous away record, Reading took the points after coming from behind.
Conceding early away from home and going on to hit three in reply is not something exactly synonymous with Reading, but the Royals have most definitely turned a corner under Bowen. With players like Matt Miazga, George Puscas and Omar Richards putting in displays worthy to cement their places in the side, while the likes of Rafael, Swift and Ejaria continued to shine, Reading remain in a strong way to finish off the season if need to be, but more importantly also look set to finally be able to build into another campaign.
It’s certainly been a topsy-turvy season so far and, despite some tricky periods, Mark Bowen’s current record reads: P26, W11, D7, L8 - taking 40 points out of a possible 78 (with the majority of fixtures left to play involving struggling or middling sides, it must be said).
What will occur over the coming months for both the Royals and English football will be unprecedented but, taking out the intricacies of FFP and fixture scheduling, there are positive signs ahead for Reading Football Club on the pitch.