When you look back on this bizarre 2019/20 campaign in search of one match that sums it all up, you’d do an awful lot worse than to pick this game.
Reading’s 4-3 defeat at Blackburn was, like the season as a whole, an odd set of events. It featured encouraging spells, moments of individual brilliance, sloppy mistakes and tactical decisons that were sometimes intelligent, other times ill-informed. There was a poor start, followed by a fightback which left you wondering if things would turn out well after all, but then ultimately a frustrating finale.
More significantly, both the game and the season leave you wondering if Reading Football Club is - in the grander scheme of things - going in the right direction. Granted, both are evidence of tangible progress, whether in terms of being able to put on a fightback from 3-1 to 3-3 or finally achieving a mid-table finish. But then again, neither make me that excited for what next season may have in store.
The game itself was, from the off, problematic. Mark Bowen made two unenforced changes to the side that lost to Middlesbrough in midweek, bringing Gabriel Osho and Liam Moore out for Chris Gunter and Omar Richards, and switched the formation from the 4-1-4-1 we’ve seen recently to something closer to a 4-4-2.
After the game, Bowen explained that tactical switch by saying “people said we didn’t have enough shots on target against Middlesbrough so I made the decision to go 4-4-2 and be a bit more adventurous going forward to cause [Blackburn Rovers] problems”. Setting up in a 4-4-2 does seem to be Bowen’s go-to ‘attacking setup’, as shown in recent weeks when Reading have been trailing in matches, although to my mind it’s not actually worked.
It certainly didn’t work against Blackburn, at least for the first hour, during which Reading had gone 3-1 down and been second best across the pitch: sloppy in defence, lacking authority in midfield and not creating enough in the final third.
At the back, a lack of individual concentration meant it was far too easy for Blackburn to take the lead after two minutes, then double that lead not long after. Ben Brereton and Adam Armstrong took full advantage of the gaps offered to them by Reading’s defenders, who were perhaps taking government social-distancing guidelines a little too far.
Reading’s 4-4-2 shape was also problematic, with the midfield pairing of Andy Rinomhota and John Swift easily bypassed on too many occasions. Armstrong, buzzing with confidence after rifling the ball home from the edge of the area, was all too happy to keep getting into that same area, finding space between Reading’s midfield and defence. Without a dedicated holding midfielder to close off that space, Reading didn’t shut that problem down.
Without proper width too - Michael Olise drifted inside frequently but to little effect, with Chris Gunter not offering much on the overlap, and Omar Richards ineffective on the left - Reading were devoid of proper attacking thrust. Poor Yakou Meite and George Puscas were left isolated up top, neither being the kind of target man to retain the ball and bring the other into the game, both of them starved of proper service.
Although Swift made it 2-1 before half time with a gorgeous free kick, the overall flow of the game was emphasised when the hosts made it 3-1. This time, it was Joe Rothwell with space on the edge of the area to shoot, and Liam Moore’s ineffective block served only to deflect the ball past Rafael.
Then though, Bowen changed the game. I’ve previously been frustrated with his substitutions, whether not being proactive enough with them in the Huddersfield Town match or being too negative at Charlton Athletic, but the triple change at Blackburn worked a treat.
Off: Tyler Blackett, Omar Richards and George Puscas; on: Jordan Obita, Garath McCleary and Sam Baldock. The additions gave Reading better balance in their 4-4-2 shape - Baldock was a more natural foil for Meite and worked his socks off from the get go, Obita overlapped Olise well down the left, while McCleary provided pace and width on the opposite flank. I’m not keen on Reading using a 4-4-2 in general, but if you’re going to do it, you pick the right personnel for the system, and doing that paid off - at least temporarily.
Subs Obita and Baldock linked up to perfection for Reading’s second of the afternoon, with the former curling a pinpoint cross onto the latter’s head. Baldock had a tough job guiding that delivery home, but he met the ball with precision to make it 3-2.
He wasn’t done there. Four minutes later, Baldock’s hard work paid dividends as he won the ball back on the edge of the box and bided his time before picking out Meite with a chipped cross that was headed home.
At that point, Reading looked the stronger of the two sides and the more likely to grab a winner. Swift put one free kick into the wall and another over the top, with Obita blasting over just after the first of those two set pieces. The best chance however fell to Olise who, having cut inside onto his stronger left foot, had a shot deflected for a corner.
All in all, it was probably one of Reading’s most convincing attacking spells since the thrashing of Luton Town. However, just as with the season as a whole, Reading’s momentum petered out. This wasn’t helped by Swift seemingly taking a knock late on, prompting a tactical reshuffle as Gabriel Osho replaced him while Moore went into midfield.
Ultimately, the game ended as it began, with weak defending facilitating a poorly conceded goal. Although Michael Morrison did enough to get a low cross away, Gunter didn’t close down the resulting re-delivery, which was bundled home by Sam Gallagher at the back post - under minimal pressure from Obita and no claim from Rafael.
On the whole, this game feels like a case of one step forward, one step back. Although Reading showed positive signs in some areas - the attacking intent at 3-1, good substitutions and the mental strength to fight back - they were undermined by poor concentration, weak defending and questionable tactics.
We’ve got one more game in which to show we can solve those problems more emphatically. Swansea City are the visitors in midweek, and they’ll be more than up for the fight after a 1-0 win over Bristol City on Saturday left them in seventh, three points off the top six.