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Reading 1-2 Middlesbrough: Home Discomforts

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Reading’s inability to trouble the opposition ‘keeper at the Mad Stad is becoming a worrying trend.

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

You know Reading are having consistent trouble when you can cut and paste a match report title from one game and apply it to another. A Chance Would Be A Fine Thing, my attempt at summing up the drab 0-0 with Huddersfield Town, could not only have been used for Tuesday night’s 2-1 defeat to Middlesbrough, but also every other home game after lockdown.

Reading have now had four matches at the Madejski Stadium since the restart, and in all four they’ve struggled to work the opposition ‘keeper. Three shots on target (all before Lucas Joao’s injury) against Stoke City, one against Brentford, two against Huddersfield, and one against Middlesbrough. Those dire numbers are over too long a period to be dismissed as aberrations. No, Reading seriously struggle to find a way to look like scoring, let alone actually doing it.

It’s particularly frustrating because, with the exception of the Brentford game, it’s just a matter of one more goal at the right stage of the match to get Reading all three points. If the Royals make it 2-0 against Stoke or Middlesbrough, they have a comfortable enough lead to protect for all the game, and a concerted late push against Huddersfield may well have yielded a 1-0 victory.

Instead, we’re sat here talking about a home record of zero victories, two draws and two defeats from four. You can’t win games if you don’t score goals; you can’t score goals if you don’t get shots on target.

So it was too on Tuesday night. The more obvious problem perhaps is that Reading didn’t see out the 1-0 lead they had. Although the defending for both Boro goals was poor, I don’t think you should sit on a 1-0 lead against a team fighting for its life to stay in the division. You need to build on your advantage.

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

That advantage came from an uncharacteristically effective corner routine in the first half. Michael Olise’s venomous inswinging corner was glanced on by Tyler Blackett at the near post, allowing Liam Moore to slam home from point-blank range.

But from there, Reading barely troubled the visitors. Whether during a weirdly open period in the first half, or in a second 45 in which they did to their credit push forward in search of a goal that would restore the advantage after Ashley Fletcher’s equaliser, ‘keeper Aynsley Pears barely had anything to do.

John Swift hit the post in the first half and Yakou Meite headed a good cross from Gabriel Osho over in the second, before he and George Puscas both missed another fine delivery from the youngster, but it was slim pickings in the final third. Again.

There’s been plenty of discussion about Reading’s striking options, or lack thereof, ever since Joao’s injury in January. But regardless of Puscas’ or Baldock’s ability to play up front on their own, it doesn’t excuse the lack of chances they’re getting. Bowen’s had seven and a half months or so now to find an answer to this problem, whether it’s a longer-term solution or something more makeshift and workable in the short term.

My own preference is to persist with Puscas, get him used to a lone striker role, and make sure bodies are getting around him in support. That’s worked before, we just need to build the consistency. To his credit, Puscas’ link-up play seems to be improving nicely, even if he doesn’t have the upper body strength to hold off defenders for longer like Joao.

But again on Tuesday, he got next to no service. Moore and Meite both managed three shots, but there was only one for Puscas. Bizarrely though, Bowen opted to criticise both Puscas and Baldock in his post-match comments by saying:

“I brought Puscas off and I expected more of him. Baldock comes on and you expect a bit more of him too. At the moment, the striker jersey is up for grabs and nobody is grabbing it.”

How are either supposed to “grab it” when they’re getting no service?

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

It’s certainly not all on Bowen though. Reading were missing some key players on Tuesday night who may well have made a big difference: not just Joao, but also Ovie Ejaria, Andy Yiadom and Pele, all of whom are capable of providing creativity (albeit in different ways and to different extents). In fact, the first two are second and third respectively for assists this season, having collectively contributed to nine goals. Reading were always bound to miss their creativity.

Those on the pitch need to step up too. Regardless of the system, you’d expect more end product from the team’s three main creators on Tuesday night: central playmaker Swift and widemen Olise and Meite. The former created one chance all game, from a corner, while Olise made two (three if you include the set piece flicked on by Blackett) and Meite came up with none.

So why did they misfire? Fatigue probably plays a part for Swift and Meite, who’ve both featured constantly since the restart, while Olise doesn’t have that problem but is still closer to a raw talent than a finished article.

However, mentality needs to be taken into consideration too. Bowen made clear his frustration with the players “going through the motions and seeing out the season”, which fits with a lethargic, passive mindset that seemed to be on show in the second half. Too many in the team are apparently content to let the 2019/20 season drift, and although that’s understandable to a degree as we’re firmly wedged in mid table, it’s still frustrating for Bowen and us as fans.

The problem though is that, by definition, the issue can’t be resolved until 2020/21, when Reading will next have something to play for properly. And that doesn’t leave me particularly looking forward to the next two games.