As one of the lucky few who managed to get an iFollow stream going before Reading’s first game back kicked off, the opening throes of the game started positively for the Royals. Extending this statement to the first half suggested the Royals would go on to claim all three points, thanks to an early goal from the returning Lucas Joao. However, it was not to be as a late Nick Powell goal eventually gave Stoke a share of the spoils.
Reading line-up (4-3-3): Rafael; Gunter, Morrison, Moore, Richards; Swift, Ejaria, Olise; Meite, Joao, Obita.
With Matt Miazga out with a slight hamstring injury, Liam Moore slotted back into central defence following the three-and-a-half-month lay-off. Further forwards, in midfield, Andy Rinomhota was surprisingly omitted from the squad for Jordan Obita. Playing in front of Omar Richards, it was clear Bowen wanted to utilise the strength these two possess and have shown in the FA Cup this season.
With one of Ovie Ejaria or Michael Olise (both rotating throughout) usually occupying this left-wing position (before the pandemic hit), most would’ve expected Bowen to sacrifice one in order to employ the robust Rinomhota. However, Bowen opted for a midfield of Ejaria, Olise and the ever-impressive John Swift. Seemingly ‘lightweight’, perhaps the gaffer noted Stoke’s prowess from set pieces and decided that a more creative midfield would prove the difference from open play, with enough physicality in Moore, Morrison, Joao and Meite to ensure an adeptness in both sides of the game.
This strong first half from Reading did indeed reflect the ability of the triumvirate in midfield; Swift controlling play, Olise managing to create an opportunity from a dangerous cross while also testing Butland himself, and Ejaria linking the play nicely. With all three men seemingly taking turns to drop deep to pick up the ball from the central defenders, while the other two would either remain level, when this ‘deep’ midfielder carried the ball forwards, one of the other two would push forwards into the number 10 role - the constant movement meaning Stoke’s midfield had trouble tracking and making sense of who they should be picking up.
However, Ejaria put in a slightly average performance by his standards. From time to time, not releasing the ball quickly enough and lacking an end product can frustrate, and the decision of taking off a player (when leading the game) who keeps the ball so well but had not quite imposed himself onto the game is not an easy one to make. However, with the impressive Olise doing more in terms of keeping the ball and spreading it out to a teammate, substituting the young Frenchman earlier on in the game can strike confusion.
Perhaps the omission of Pele from the side resulted in Ejaria staying on the field slightly longer than was needed, but with Ejaria tiring late on, he did struggle to close down a Stoke attack which resulted in Tyrese Campbell’s deflected effort striking the post. Maybe against most sides a midfield trio of Rinomhota, Swift and Olise, with Ejaria being introduced from the bench, would be the way forwards - or having one of Ovie or Olise (or Masika of course) on the wing, for when Obita tires, could be an alternative for the odd game.
For the meantime though, Bowen seems to be thinking that minutes on the pitch will help Ejaria recover his best form - something every Reading fan will be hoping for in the run-in.
Reading’s attack-minded side did prove dangerous from all areas, Obita swinging in a few good balls in from the left, while Gunter and Meite’s combination play down the right resulted in a first goal on his return for Lucas Joao. Stoke themselves were not able to create many clear-cut opportunities, partly due to a high-energy press adopted by every outfield Royal on the field. With both fullbacks pushing up as high as the forward line at times, and the midfield covering vast amounts of ground, Stoke were resigned to the odd deep cross into the box in the first period.
Come the second half, Reading’s intensity waned slightly (partly due to the injury Joao picked up in the first half) and then eventually led to a mindset of seeing out the game. As we saw with Hull City, even some of the poorer teams in the league can capitalise on this, especially those who are a danger from set plays.
With seven Royals players in their own six-yard box, yet two Stoke City men becoming free in the box as it was floated in, illuminated the static nature of Charlie Adam (who was still, for whatever reason, standing at the back end of the six-yard box, with no opposition players around) and showed how numbers in the box do not count for much when half-hearted attempted clearances and a lack of movement are prevalent in the penalty area for the defending team.
Joao’s replacement Puscas ran his socks off and managed to dispossess a defender in a dangerous area, but with Reading’s midfield dropping back, they opted to play longer (and not always high) balls forwards to the Romanian. This, as we have seen throughout the season, is not quite his forte and so it remained a tall order for him to be able to take one of these balls, turn his man and score a magnificent goal as he did against Barnsley.
Perhaps bringing on Masika could have given the Royals an injection of pace on the counter, if not only to carry the ball forwards and away from danger. A more permanent solution though could lie in the directions of Bowen in telling his side to continue pushing forwards in search of a second until the last 10 minutes, rather than the last 20 or so (putting aside the contentious penalty decisions that occurred on this occasion).
With not much left to play for, it is clear that Reading will be capable of creating a fair amount of chances against the majority of the sides they have left to play this season. If another occasion arises where they are unfortunate to only be one goal to the good, perhaps they should continue pushing forwards for slightly longer (especially against sides whose majority of chances have been coming from set plays during the game).
Nevertheless, a positive performance welcomed football back for the Royals, and on another day (and with another referee), three points surely would have been secured. With the games coming thick and fast from next weekend onwards, it will be interesting to see how Bowen’s side will differ game from game, and if he will continue to make any changes in setup between home and away fixtures, with Derby County the first travelling test for the Royals.