Reading came into their clash with high-flying Brentford having made three changes from their previous game at Derby: Sam Baldock, Michael Morrison and Jordan Obita in for George Puscas, Matt Miazga and Omar Richards.
Rafael; Gunter, Morrison, Moore, Obita; Rinomhota, Swift, Olise; Meite, Baldock, Ejaria.
Most of this clash involved high-intensity attacking football, but it was the quality in the final third that really made a difference. Stats wise, Brentford dominated the shot count. However, the open nature of the game meant both sides had space to work in in the midfield area, Reading’s decision making and quality severely lacking once again.
Reading not being able to make the most out of their good opportunities (with Puscas, Meite and Baldock all either making the wrong decisions or lacking quality in their finishes), coupled with Brentford scoring from situations where Reading had almost all of their defence and midfield back, showed just how big the gap is between mid-table and automatic promotion.
Despite gaps in the midfield for both sides, Reading’s midfield (partly thanks to Brentford’s zippy passing) looked considerably more permeable. Michael Olise moving over to the right-hand side (into Chris Gunter’s position), giving license for the Welshman to push forwards up the wing and, consequently, Yakou Meite to move into the middle as a second striker, certainly looked effective on paper. However, with the young Frenchman (for the third game running) delivering good balls into the box from the right, either a lack of quality in the finish or the attacker just not quite being able to get on the end of it meant that once more Reading were not able to capitalise on Olise’s talents.
More problematically though, due to Olise starting in a central position, this left large gaps in the midfield which Brentford were able to exploit at will. More open spaces came from Jordan Obita’s high position on the left. With the academy graduate pushing forwards to offer an overlap for the (not exactly out and out winger) Ejaria, when Reading were dispossessed, both Benrahma and Watkins used this space to exploit the home side.
Although Andy Rinomhota put in an energetic, workman-like performance, the task of stemming Brentford’s attacks was too great for both he and Swift to cope with, especially with the Royals chasing the game for the majority of the 90 minutes.
Up top, Sam Baldock started the game brightly with a shot from range and some good runs in behind. However, when replaced with Puscas, Reading’s threat waned. Following Baldock’s impact at Derby at the weekend, it seems as if, regardless of who starts, Baldock makes Reading look more of a threat. Despite both not getting on the scoresheet of late, his interplay and willingness to run and get into dangerous areas is not currently matched by the Romanian.
What seems to be the main issue though is the fact that Reading are trying to play one up front, with both men not quite taking to the role. Although Meite moved over to a central position for the majority of the second half, with Olise moving over to the right and Reading’s midfield becoming more and more stretched, it would not be a fair reflection of a ‘two up top’ system.
Perhaps the only other viable formation would be a 3-5-2, if Bowen were to make a tactical change, and so would also potentially give opportunities to both Tom McIntyre and Gabriel Osho at the back. Added to the fact that the 3-5-2 has not been used for months, there is a good chance it could catch opposition sides off guard. Puscas and Baldock have already proven that they can potentially play well together and form a partnership, so it may prove a welcome respite for the side against strugglers Luton Town on Saturday.
Regardless of formation, Reading will need to up the intensity for their final six games. Best shown by Brentford’s first and second goals, the desire in teams battling at both ends of the table will naturally be higher than Reading’s, but being alert and fighting for every loose ball should be a staple of this side no matter what’s on the line. After the zonal marking system had worked so well for the Royals for a lot of the season, when it goes wrong it really doesn’t look pretty.
Nevertheless, Bowen needs to ensure that the static bodies in defence (in and out of open play) do not reappear with Luton, Huddersfield, Charlton and Middlesbrough on the horizon: positive results will ease any growing relegation fears, four winnable games giving Reading the perfect opportunity to show what they are really capable of.