Reading made four changes from their outing against Stoke City for the trip to Derby County. Matt Miazga, Andy Rinomhota and George Puscas came into the side for Michael Morrison, Jordan Obita and the injured Lucas Joao.
Rafael; Gunter, Moore, Miazga, Richards; Rinomhota, Swift, Olise; Meite, Puscas, Ejaria.
Throughout the game, Reading continued where they left off against Stoke, adopting a high press with one of the three central midfielders (Olise) operating as a second striker in order to prevent Derby from building up attacks from the back. As well as this, Reading moved their full backs narrower, either side of Moore and Miazga, to ensure Derby could not get in behind the defence and that the Rams would have to play in front of Reading’s backline.
All in all, a lot of this was done to ensure Wayne Rooney, playing deep, wouldn’t be able to cut open the defence with an incisive pass. With Rooney as deep as the halfway line at times, to really demonstrate just how much Derby relied on the former England international, Rooney was man marked, leaving their defenders (Andre Wisdom in particular) time on the ball. Of course, as this was a deliberate ploy, both Wisdom and Derby struggled to make the correct decisions and seek out a pass when on the ball.
However, as sometimes comes with new game plans, hesitation grew in some of the Royals’ movements, borne out of defensive unsureness. When the two full backs came infield, the two wingers dropped back as wing backs in a kind of six at the back, able to spring forwards on the counter. Despite the fact that this worked well most of the time (Chris Gunter even setting up a good George Puscas chance, thanks to a challenge in central midfield), at times Reading let Derby players wander forwards and right through the visitors’ defence.
One such lapse resulted in Derby’s first of the game as Andre Wisdom was allowed to charge up the middle of the pitch from centre half unchallenged, before the ball came to Tom Lawrence, finishing from the edge of the box with all of the Reading bodies in front of him. Shooting from range was in fact a situation Reading’s defenders wanted to create - rather than Derby being able to get in behind. However, two Reading men were unable to win the loose ball, giving the Welshman the opportunity to get a shot off.
The second goal came as Liam Moore tripped Martyn Waghorn in the area, following - again - an unchallenged forward run from a defender. This time it was Jayden Bogle down the right. Moore’s giving away of a penalty capped a disappointing afternoon for the centre half, who broke up play often with late challenges. Unsurprisingly, Miazga had been restored to the starting line up, but with Morrison on the bench perhaps it was an opportunity missed for that pairing, who had done so well just before lockdown.
Further up the field, the impact subs of Baldock (nice interplay when coming short) and McCleary (a menace on the right wing) turned Reading into more of a threat in the second half, and Ejaria (from the start) proved how adept he can be out on the left, to the point that it is starting to look like his best position.
What originally seemed like an overly defensive mindset was actually something that was certainly encouraging: seeing a high press both home and away, and, taking away the defensive lapses, Reading seemed to once again get it right tactically but not be able to quite see it through.
As EFL on Quest host Colin Murray summed up perfectly, it could have been four (or even six) points rather than one for Reading in the last week, summing up a frustration this season created by small lapses in concentration and poor decision making (rather than a lack of quality). And as Ian Holloway wisely added, Bowen has done magnificently since he has come in, so now is certainly the time to be positive ahead of a tough clash on Tuesday.
Regardless of the results and how the table does look in midweek, Reading won’t be going up or down come the end of the season, and a few mistakes should not take away from another decent performance. If Reading can sort out their defensive concentration, improve their decision making at both ends of the pitch, and continue to create the number of chances they currently are, things could all come together in the final six games.