I feel so emotionally drained from that game, such was the mind-numbingly tedious nature of it, that I’m having trouble summoning up the energy to write a match report. I’ll give it a go anyway.
Reading’s goalless draw with Huddersfield was tedious in the extreme; calling it dull would be an understatement. As far as entertainment goes, you couldn’t find an experience much more different to the thrilling 5-0 rout at Kenilworth Road on Saturday. Heck, even the 3-0 drubbing by Brentford was eventful, even if not for the right reasons.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter too much. Reading have gained a solid point and clean sheet, which Mark Bowen will take some positives from, and all we’ve really lost is the opportunity to get into the top half. Depending on Wednesday night’s results, we could still do that at the weekend.
But I’m still left deeply frustrated at how Reading, more specifically Bowen, responded to the unfolding snooze fest. Dull games certainly happen sometimes, even to the most entertaining sides, but the question is then how you react to that. Do you shut up shop, essentially banking the clean sheet and point, or be positive and try to change the game?
In December, Bowen tried the former. After three losses in four (Brentford, Leeds United and Birmingham City), he prioritised avoiding defeat over pushing for a win, Reading drew at Barnsley and Stoke City (another particularly turgid game of football), and that set us up for a run of four straight impressive wins.
Was that what Bowen wanted from the Huddersfield match? We knew way before half time that the game was heading for a bore draw - if anything, as the game went on, the visitors looked more capable of nicking a goal. But rather than opting to be proactive and shift to a more attacking set-up, Bowen let the game carry on as it was, tediously edging towards oblivion.
Besides a few half chances, the best of which fell to George Puscas in the first half as he tried unsuccessfully to chip the goalie after intelligently getting in behind, Reading looked utterly devoid of ideas in the final third. That opportunity resulted in one of just two shots on target for Reading on the night.
The first sub belatedly came on 66 minutes. Michael Olise, who should have started on the left in Ovie Ejaria’s absence instead of Jordan Obita, replaced Puscas. That meant Yakou Meite moving up top while Olise headed to the Ivorian’s right-wing spot; swapping personnel around but no tactical rejigging to actually inject new ideas or change the balance of the game.
It’d be another 20 minutes before Garath McCleary and Lucas Boye were introduced for Obita and Pele. A penny for their thoughts, not to mention those of Charlie Adam and Sam Baldock, after those players - all capable of adding new elements offensively - had been forced to sit and watch their teammates come up with next to nothing.
In fact, three of those players have had their contracts extended to allow them to play until the end of the season. Why bother agreeing extensions with their parent clubs and paying more in wages if, when we need what they have to offer in a particular scenario like this, we barely use them, if at all? It’s hardly that we have money to throw around at the moment; don’t forget we’re paying to not use players while the under-23s, women’s players and behind-the-scenes staff are on furlough.
The more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. I can forgive bad tactical ideas - unless they’re completely daft I’ll applaud the intention at least - but almost complete inaction from the manager doesn’t sit well with me, certainly not when it results in that snooze fest. From Bowen’s point of view, it’s lucky we didn’t concede, otherwise his failure to be proactive earlier on in the game would have looked far worse.
This isn’t proactivity for proactivity’s sake. The task for both Reading in general and Bowen specifically is to finish this season as positively as possible. Instil some confidence and form ahead of 2020/21, which will start soon after 2019/20 draws to a close, and perhaps even develop some new tactical ideas.
None of that is achieved by the conservative approach we had on Tuesday night. Reading had a great opportunity to, at the very least, have a go, even if it simply meant throwing Boye and McCleary on half an hour earlier - rather than leaving it until the 86th minute to introduce them. By doing that, we could - for example - have learned more about how much better this side may be with wide players, or if Boye is a player we should try to get back on loan next season. In the end, a few minutes with McCleary and Boye simply wasn’t enough.
I know I’ve been harsh on Bowen in this piece. It’s very easy for me to have a go at a tactical approach when it’s merely resulted in a dull 0-0 rather than anything worse, and again, a point and clean sheet aren’t to be sniffed at. As I alluded to earlier, this result could well keep us ticking over before winning on Saturday, in which case tonight’s boredom is insignificant and I look like a mug.
(Long-term readers of The Tilehurst End will reasonably argue that ship has already sailed.)
But, to be honest, I want more from this Reading side. Solid points are all well and good, and they do add up, but what really contributes to long-term improvement is positivity and proactivity, even if it’s a little risky. Bowen could do with embracing them.