Reading went in to their clash with Middlesbrough off the back of three clean sheets in a row, taking seven points out of a possible nine from those fixtures.
Starting Lineup: Rafael; Osho, Morrison, McIntyre, Blackett; Moore, Swift, Rinomhota; Meite, Puscas, Olise.
Despite netting just a single goal since they put five past Luton, the continued good form with Michael Morrison, Tom McIntyre, Rafael, and all those at the back, ensuring Reading remained undefeated by providing a solid base behind the midfield.
On Tuesday evening however, a lapse at the back (added to a great cross and header) meant that Reading slipped to defeat at the hands of Neil Warnock’s men. Once again though, the main issue for the Royals in this game seemed to be their lack of goal threat.
One thing Reading do manage to do is get into good final third (or ‘goal scoring’ to be perhaps overly kind about it) positions.
From here, a combination of poor decision-making and a lack of quality, specifically in terms of passing, let the Royals down massively in midweek. This means the problem does not lie with awful finishing and consistently missing easy chances anymore.
The attacking problem is clearly down to the absence of Lucas Joao and the role he plays in the side. When up top, Joao enjoys dropping back into the number 10 role to collect the ball, before turning and driving at the defensive line, whilst also possessing the ability to hold the ball up or flick it on to a teammate.
With both George Puscas and Sam Baldock not quite able to have the impact Joao does, in terms of individual ability (Baldock’s interplay, work rate and even ability in the air; Puscas’ movement and physicality etc.), both men have shown enough to bring to light that the issue doesn’t lie entirely with them.
When Lucas Joao was at the top of his game over the Christmas period, the Royals were lining up in a 3-5-2 with John Swift playing just behind him as a 10. This enabled the Portuguese forward to have some attacking support (as well as a strike partner) and with the attacking wing backs, service from both the flanks and the areas just behind him. With at least three of Swift, Ejaria, Meite, Blackett and Gunter joining in with any one attack, Reading managed to create chances and look a real threat.
The Royals did indeed play various games in a 4-3-3 but now, their build up play tends to be a bit slower (with no Charlie Adam pinging the ball to an advancing full back, for example). When Swift and Rinomhota carry the ball forwards, unless the opposition defence is wide open or sitting right back (Luton were both), Reading find it difficult sometimes to open up the defence. The play leading up to the penalty against Charlton is an exception.
Of late, Reading’s main threat has seemed to be on the counter, but here is usually when their decision making and quality of passing lets them down and in turn, slows them down.
Looking at the side, you would expect most of Reading’s threat to come down the middle, especially with Olise and Meite on the wings. However, thanks to balls being blasted up to Puscas/Baldock (granted, sometimes Puscas’ touch lets him down), it can be hard to work out how Reading will score.
If Reading are not to get a grip of the game in midfield, thanks to poor passing, and allow Olise/Ejaria to move infield in order to free up space for the attacking full backs, then maybe some ‘out and out’ wingers would provide Reading with a boost. A formation change to allow a second striker on the pitch could be one option, but a change of tactics where wide men are to get to the byline and Puscas/Baldock are told to stay in between the goalposts may help the Royals.
At the moment, the full backs are doing a good job of getting forwards to support their winger but could benefit from an Ayub Masika/Lucas Boye to take on a man and get in behind the defence. In terms of having a holding midfielder sit in front of the defence rather than two, this seems to be working quite well with both Pele and Moore impressing in recent weeks.
Liam Moore in particular should be praised for bouncing back from being dropped with some solid midfield performances and a goal on his return to the starting XI. It’s also worth pointing out that Moore dropping back alongside Morrison and McIntyre would be a very smooth transition into a system that involves two strikers.
Against Boro on Tuesday night, Reading struggled to provide Puscas and Baldock with service - both men usually served up balls punted forwards to them. With a vacuum in the space behind them at times due to there not being anyone in a No.10 role (which isn’t necessarily a problem), it’s clear that to hold up play long enough for a teammate to provide support is neither man’s forte.
At 1-0 up, Reading had a half-decent penalty shout turned down and struck the post as the game opened up but, come the second period, they were not as clinical as Boro. With a few half chances from crosses for Meite and Olise, Reading needed to prevent the opposition from getting on the front foot by controlling the game in the midfield.
Failing to do this by going behind and never really keeping possession (or even looking comfortable in it – Swift especially having a poor game), the Royals did not look like equalising in the final 10 minutes, with there enough effort and urgency on show to get by.
However, it’s clear that this side were not fighting for anything.
Although this game was more about a lack of quality in midfield and attack, mixed in with some frustratingly poor decision-making (Olise in particular guilty of it, his age a factor perhaps), there is a growing consensus that Mark Bowen should opt to tinker with the side in order to benefit the forwards. In fairness, Reading manage to get into good areas but do regularly fail to create enough clear cut chances, especially for their strikers.
After sorting the defence out following the Brentford game, there is no reason why a similar approach could not be taken ahead of the Royals’ final two. With nothing to lose, now could be a perfect time for Bowen to solve these attacking issues. As he has shown before, he can get his side to react to a poor defeat, and maybe the best way to do so would be to give the men waiting in the wings the chances they deserve.