Reading’s last game of the 2019/20 season was a home match against play-off chasing Swansea City. Heading into the fixture, it appeared as if Mark Bowen had realised the positive and negative aspects his 4-4-2 had showed him. The attacking promise two strikers showed (at least compared to one up top in a 4-3-3) had stayed, while he looked to shore up the central midfield with an extra man, in a reversion to a 3-5-2:
Rafael; Gunter, Morrison, Moore, Miazga, Richards; Rinomhota, Swift, Olise; Meite, Puscas.
In all honesty, it was quite an odd contest. Reading came out of the blocks a bit slowly, with Rhian Brewster smashing a shot past Rafael from 30+ yards relatively early on. However, Reading did indeed threaten. A goalmouth scramble following a blocked effort from Michael Olise and a shot that needed to be tipped onto the bar were promising signs for the Royals.
At the other end though, Reading struggled against the incisive passing from the Swans’ attack. When not closed down, the visitors were not shy to strike a shot from range, best shown by Brewster’s thunderbolt, but also by a deflected effort that popped up for a Swansea man to direct narrowly wide of the post.
At first glance, Reading’s midfield seemed slow to close down these men, but snippets of well-trained link-up play almost coming off showed the force Swansea possessed as an alternative. An ‘altercation’ just before half time saw Yakou Meite dismissed, which surprisingly led to Reading improving as an outfit. A John Swift ball through two Swansea men, meeting the climax of Andy Rinomhota’s run, paid off as Rinomhota was brought down, with Reading levelling from the spot.
In the second half though, with Swansea pushing bodies forwards but not quite showing as much of an urgency as expected, Reading managed to (sort of) take advantage of the gaps left in the visitors’ backline. Olise started off at the tip of the Royals’ midfield trio but drifted over to the left-hand side in the second period, thriving in the freedom he was given.
Dropping back to make defensive challenges, while also pushing forwards (and taking out two or three Swans’ men in one move at times), Olise was certainly the main link between Reading’s defence and weakened attack. With the substitution of Garath McCleary on for Swift, Reading’s three-man midfield had men who could start centrally but push on in wide positions on both flanks.
The problem though was not necessarily being an attacker down. Despite the fact that this makes the job of scoring all the more difficult, Reading managed to get themselves into good goal-scoring positions. However, Olise, Puscas (granted, he worked the goalkeeper pretty well) and substitute Lucas Boye squandered opportunities to drag Reading back into the tie.
In a cruel twist of fate (Swansea being far more clinical a side than the Royals), the visitors seemed to put the ball into the back of the net minutes after each chance was passed up. A fantastic second and an (apparently) offside fourth could perhaps be looked over (although Chris Gunter really should have been goal side of his man for the fourth), but the third goal, coming from a long throw with too many men either switched off or slow to react, was an extremely poor one to concede.
It is clear then that, this season, the main issues have been these defensive missteps and a lack of a cutting edge up front. Yes, ‘the style of play’ has not been nailed down, nor have the performances been pretty, but in the end, individual mistakes and a sub-standard mentality had almost confined this side to mid table long ago. It’s all well and good putting goals past teams when already two/three up, but in the moments that have counted, rarely have Reading delivered.
Promising signs have been shown at the back in recent weeks with the performances of both Tom McIntyre and Michael Morrison. Morrison in this game even took it upon himself to cut in front of his man (when the attacker had his back to goal) and nick in with a few tackles/interceptions before carrying the ball forwards for his team.
Rewinding to the penalty incident, Morrison was on the edge of the box, maybe reflecting a Mark Bowen idea in that, when in possession, not all three centre backs had to be sitting back. Coupled with this, neither wing back really pushed on too high, perhaps concerned about Swansea’s threat, meaning most of the attacks from both sides came through the middle (and also allowing Morrison to push forwards).
Despite this nice little tactical idea, at times this season Bowen has been slow to change/adapt his ideas (from a 4-3-3 after Lucas Joao’s injury on New Year’s Day, and has been proven not to dabble with a 4-4-2 – yet at least). Come next season, with a new squad (hopefully ‘his’ squad), and a different mentality, Reading will be a more effective side at both ends of the pitch.
Whether Bowen is the ‘right’ man and whether or not Reading will achieve some sort of stability behind the scenes ahead of next season remains to be seen. It would be fair to say that Bowen deserves a shot at next season, but with the problems at the club seemingly stemming from higher up, attributing blame over what occurs over the summer will be difficult. Either way, if a new side can be sorted out before the start of the season, it will go some way to helping a man and a team who will be judged intensely from day one.