Reading travelled to Luton off the back of two consecutive defeats, yet to record a victory since football’s restart. Mark Bowen made five changes, bringing in Gabriel Osho, Tom McIntyre, Tyler Blackett, Pele and George Puscas for Chris Gunter, Liam Moore, Jordan Obita, Michael Olise and Sam Baldock.
Rafael; Osho, Morrison, McIntyre, Blackett; Pele, Rinomhota, Swift; Meite, Puscas, Ejaria.
It was a surprising line up from Bowen: dropping both full backs, captain Moore and young talent Olise. Opting to continue in a 4-3-3, with Osho at right back, Reading were at it right from the off. Adding a control of the game in the midfield to a high-energy press seen in previous weeks, the sheer amount of turnovers all around the pitch, coupled with some lovely passing moves, helped Reading to stifle a (in previous weeks) resurgent Luton side.
The two ‘wide players’, Ovie Ejaria and Yakou Meite, have natural tendencies to drift into central positions and both men seemed to have more freedom than usual to do this. With Blackett at left back, Ejaria once again showed how he links up with the former Manchester United man better than anyone else on that left flank.
Ovie’s movement infield helped to crowd the central area and so left plenty of space for Blackett to push on into high positions, and once Reading had shifted the ball from side to side in the midfield, a pass out into this position from Swift broke Luton’s lines and almost led to an opener (a Meite effort being cleared off the line).
Despite looking a threat from a wide position at times this season, Ejaria’s run into the middle and superb pass for Meite for Reading’s third (and Yakou’s hattrick) really showed how he can excel in central midfield - and that maybe his recent ineffective performances have been borne out of form rather than positioning.
This also occurred on the right, with Meite moving infield (as a second striker rather than a central midfielder), enabling Osho to get into attacking areas, deliver crosses (causing the second goal with a cross from the byline) and become part of the attacking moves. Whereas against Brentford Olise was pushed over to the right to allow Gunter to push on, Reading managed to achieve this same result but did so without unbalancing the midfield, with a larger emphasis on controlling this central area of the field.
Taking nothing away from Olise’s delivery from cutting in from the left (and the fact that this may have been a specific tactical instruction to pin back Said Benrahma), when Olise was brought on at Kenilworth Road, he played much more centrally, while also moving out to both flanks (rather than one) to try to link up play.
Reading’s willingness to knock the ball about across the width (again taking into account the opposition) showed how much of a threat they were from both wings. However, with the hard-working Puscas in the middle setting up three of Meite’s goals, the Romanian showed how he could be a threat when supplied with the ball in dangerous areas. Puscas topped off a decent performance with a headed goal from a predatory position at the back post, following a Michael Morrison header across goal.
Behind him on the pitch lay the midfield trio of Swift, Rinomhota and Pele. Despite giving away a few early free kicks, Pele slotted back into the side with relative ease, having not played a game for almost four months. Breaking up play and creating counter attacks, he was tasked with sitting in front of the defence.
Both Rinomhota and Swift enjoyed getting forwards, especially when the Royals had pinned back their hosts. Pushing into the space just behind Puscas and Meite (into a kind of right attacking midfield position), Rinomhota was almost playing as a 10 at times. When Swift would do the same on the left, this gave license for some nice attacking moves involving Ejaria, Blackett and substitute Ayub Timbe. With Luton in damage control mode for the second half, out-and-out wingers Timbe and McCleary found spaces to attack but, along with Baldock, couldn’t quite find enough to add to the visitors’ tally, the game almost fizzled out by this point.
At the back, Reading were surprisingly solid. Despite both full backs pushing forwards (and Osho sometimes getting caught out stepping up to the opposition wingers slightly too early) there were never any gaps for Luton to exploit, bar when a loose ball broke in the box late on, Rafael being alert to make a fantastic smothering save. With a few first-half crosses causing a bit of trouble for the Royals, as soon as Meite had his first there became almost nothing more to worry about.
A dominant display from Tom McIntyre was certainly one of the biggest positives to take out of the game, winning almost everything in the air and, partnered by a man who has been consistently putting in hard-to-fault performances, Reading may have a centre back partnership to take forwards.
With Miazga probably not returning next season and Morrison able to act as mentor for McIntyre, while also himself impressing, it would be a shame not to see them both start on Tuesday evening against Huddersfield. Whether Osho remains at right back will be interesting, with all five men who came into the side on Saturday fully deserving of keeping their place. Hopefully Bowen will not take the view that the changes were meant for only one game, as a ‘punishment’ or ‘shake up’ of some sort, and so will persist with the young players who played so impressively.
No matter just how poor Luton were all over the pitch on Saturday afternoon, every man in blue and white put in a display to be proud of, taking the Royals into their midweek clash riding the crest of a Yakou Meite-inspired wave.