Well that was dreadful, wasn’t it?
We all knew that tonight’s game against Brentford would be difficult. The Bees have been on fire recently - third in the league and with their sights set on the top two after beating high-flying West Bromwich Albion at the weekend. Putting them up against a Reading side that’s looked lethargic since football resumed, sloppily dropping points to Stoke City and Derby County, made Tuesday’s contest look like a foregone conclusion.
In all honesty, I wouldn’t have been too annoyed by a defeat; Brentford are a good side and Reading’s season is going nowhere. But the manner of the defeat is something else, and boy did we lose badly on Tuesday night.
Reading were toothless in attack, coming up with just one shot target across the entire game, and were taken apart far too easily at the back. Brentford’s three goals were simply all avoidable - something depressingly familiar to fans of this club in recent years.
There was otherwise little in the way of a spirited fightback from Reading. Put technical quality to one side for a minute, the Royals should at least have got stuck in and made life difficult for Brentford. Make them feel uncomfortable as the away side and make sure they work bloody hard for the win.
But spirit was in short supply on Tuesday night. Reading heads dropped low after the first goal, glanced home by Bryan Mbeumo in acres of space to seal a basic set-piece routine, and they didn’t pick up again.
It's one thing that the Bees managed to add second and third goals under similarly embarrassing circumstances from the point of view of Reading’s defence. But the lack of any obvious fightback at 1-0 - a period that lasted for a huge portion of the game at 40 minutes - was for me more alarming.
Even after twice being addressed by Mark Bowen directly - first at a drinks break directly following the first goal, secondly at half time - the players couldn't be stirred into action. It’s in games like this though that the players shouldn't need stirring into action; the events unfolding in front of them should be motivation enough to give him them a kick into life.
Bowen shouldn’t come out of tonight without his own share of blame though.
We know Sam Baldock isn’t a lone striker. In fact, I worked out after the team selection had been released that Reading have failed to score (except via one own goal) a single time this season in any league match that Baldock’s started as a lone striker. Putting him there simply doesn’t work, as we should know by now, but Bowen tried it on Tuesday night, apparently thinking something different would happen. By now, you don’t need me to tell you the definition of insanity.
The failure to affect the game through tactical tweaks and substitutions was similarly frustrating. In the first half, a switch to 4-4-2 aped Reading’s approach in the second half at Derby, neglecting the fact that Brentford’s comfort in possession meant a two-man centre midfield would be underpowered. Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria are bright creative talents, but out wide on the flanks of a four leaves them too far removed from the most dangerous parts of the pitch.
As I’ve pondered before, is Bowen’s default tactical plan B merely to go two up top? Even if means rearranging the players around that pairing to make it work?
The substitutions, or rather the lack thereof, were little better. Bringing George Puscas and Garath McCleary into that 4-4-2 on the hour mark made some sense, and replacing John Swift with Charlie Adam was at least a decent idea at freshening up the creativity coming from the middle of the park.
But Reading played out the final 20 minutes or so of the game with two unused substitutions. Mostly with the score at 2-0, and then briefly at 3-0, that inaction from Bowen is, for me, inexcusable. Ayub Timbe has barely had a sniff of first-team football but was overlooked, but even bringing Pele on to win the ball back quicker would at least have been something. Bowen surely can’t have been happy with what he’d been seeing, but for whatever reason neglected to use the options available to him.
The most infuriating thing about tonight is just how familiar it is, especially with regards to the 3-0 humiliation to Wigan Athletic, which was supposed to be a one-off. Although we had the saving grace of no fans being in attendance, and the mitigating factor of playing one of the best sides in the division, the same worrying themes are prevalent.
Schoolboy defending, a group of players that collapses psychologically far too easily, tactical problems that have been going on for months but not been solved, and a manager who doesn’t - to me at least - seem to have a clear idea of what he wants to do with this side. None of these problems are new.