The football is back, Reading are back and overanalysing how Reading conceded is back. All that lovely enthusiasm drained as the Royals got the full Stoke-style sucker punch with Nick Powell’s last-minute equaliser.
Let’s get rid of the elephant in the room first. Yes, this is the first game back after three months and yes, it was always going to be tough for Reading to carry on their pre-lockdown momentum. Nonetheless, Stoke had the same scenario and Mark Bowen will not pass off this match as solely rustiness. Issues in the performance are understandable, to neglect them wouldn’t be.
The first surprise was in the line-up. John Swift has been moved deeper to accommodate Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria, but always alongside a more defensive colleague like Pele or Andy Rinomhota. The risk with playing Swfit as the primary holding midfielder is twofold: he is restricted from taking up advanced positions in the attack and lacks the defensive prowess to regain possession.
Bowen’s 4-1-4-1 system compensates for the lack of bite in midfield by defending deep, therefore slowing opposition counters instead of engaging early with a press. Both sides moved the ball forward sluggishly, with just two offsides in the whole game.
We all got another glimpse of how wonderful Lucas Joao is. His goal was well-worked and very rarely seen at the Madjeski this season. With the lack of traditional wingers at the club, Reading seldom score cutbacks from wide but Meite made a great run in behind the fullback. If Yakou can improve that area of his game to consistently supply crosses from the by-line, it will add a whole new dimension to the Royals’ attack. Olise, too, looked dangerous whenever he rotated out onto the right flank.
Bowen was quick to draw attention to the defending, or lack thereof, for Stoke’s equaliser in his post-match comments. Obviously, there is blame to be apportioned there and we will get around to that later, but a more holistic view is important too. You can learn a lot about a manager about the way he sends his team out for a second half when leading.
Do they push forward, looking for the goal to kill off the opponent? Or, do they protect their lead, defending in numbers? Both methods have their advantages and every manager is looking for the perfect balance between the two. Ideally, Reading would have been resolute in defence while still possessing a threat on the counter.
As it happened, it seems Bowen went for the latter option. Between Joao’s goal in the seventh minute and Nick Powell’s equaliser in the 91st, there were just six shots in the box, half of which came from corners. Infogol has a whopping 0.7 xG for both teams combined in the same period.
In short, Reading killed the game. The logic appears sound – if neither team can create clear chances, the result looks secure. Unfortunately, football is rarely that simple. It is by nature an incredibly tight-margin sport. So, when you decide to sit on a lead, you must defend perfectly, because you aren’t scoring up the other end. Then, if you do concede, then the whole plan looks pointless.
One of the new quirks of post-pandemic football is the expansion of the bench and the five-substitute rule. With more subs, a larger selection pool and more fatigue, managers have more power than ever before to influence the game. Positively and negatively. Disregarding the George Puscas sub as it was enforced and the obvious move, Bowen brought on Rinomhota, Garath McCleary and then Charlie Adam.
Rinomhota and McCleary both go into the inoffensive category with little impact. Adam, however, is plainly a terrible substitute for a team on the back foot. You cannot in good faith be called the “Scottish Pirlo” with a 50% pass success rate. Ejaria, the man he replaced, was hitting 95% of his targets. Of course, Ejaria is tired but is the alternative actually better than leaving him on for the final ten minutes? It’s hard to overstate how bad a substitution it was. You can have a great system but that’s irrelevant if your central midfielder is losing the ball more often than you’re losing connection to iFollow.
Onto the key moment - here is a clinic in how *not* to defend an injury time corner in five simple steps.
Step 1: The cheap giveaway
Adam has an opportunity to clear the ball but is being pressed by Nick Powell. Either he should receive a shout from Moore or check his shoulder. Instead he telegraphs his clearance, allowing Powell to pressure him into giving away the corner.
Step 2: The zonal marking
Reading line up on the six-yard line, with Puscas front post and Richards marking Powell on Rafael. Contrary to what you hear on Match of the Day every weekend, zonal marking is a perfectly acceptable way to defend a corner. Every man is back defending. All seems fine.
Step 3: Panic
This is where things start to go wrong. Stoke have evidently clocked onto the zonal system, overloading the back post with bodies. Campbell has pinned Morrison in the middle, leaving a three v three. Charlie Adam has evidently heard Billie Jean over the PA, as he’s moonwalking off to the East Stand.
Step 4: Chaos
Obita covers Batth which leaves Swift and Adam to deal with Chester and Vokes. Unfortunately, Swift has lost both attackers and Charlie Adam is sat in Y26.
Step 5: Sadness
Chester heads the ball back across goal and Powell (again) nicks in front of Richards to score. You could argue that the left back should not be beaten to the ball or that Gunter mistimes his leap, yet, typically, second balls are much harder to defend. It is great opportunism from Powell, but the damage is done when Chester gets a free run at the initial corner.
Bowen bemoaned a “lack of concentration” and his players “expecting either Moore or Morrison to head in” for the goal. Both are valid points. The game was flat at this stage, with Stoke hardly forcing the issue. If Stoke were fiercely pressing for an equaliser, perhaps Reading would have been more alert on the corner. Perhaps the lack of crowd sapped their energy or urgency. Perhaps Stoke just had the aerial advantage. After all, this is a team that started the game with four centre halves. In contrast, only Moore, Morrison and Puscas are truly proficient in the air.
However, you look at it, no-one comes out in a good light. The corner could have been dealt with, but the manager has to take a portion of the blame for allowing the team to drop deeper and deeper. Reading failed to attempt a single shot after the 66th minute. Bowen turned off the attack in his attempts to solidify the defence and it cost Reading.