Rafael; Richards, Moore, Morrison, Araruna; Rinomhota, Laurent; Ejaria, Swift, Olise; Joao.
Reading secured their first home win of the season, at the first time of asking, after a wretched run of only one victory at the Madejski this calendar year (also coming against Barnsley).
To start with, Reading’s poor home record of late may be due to the style of play that the Royals have had under previous managers. With Jose Gomes, Reading employed a possession-based style of play. Due to various reasons this didn’t work out – the Royals frequently losing home and away while playing largely the same way.
However, Mark Bowen’s job of making Reading a tougher side to play against immediately brought results – Reading moving away from dominating possession to being a tough, clinical side to play against. With Joao in the side, Reading were winning almost every game they played (over the Christmas period), before an injury meant that their out ball would sometimes result in too many punts upfield (something we saw both before and after this period – a period when Reading found an excellent balance in their play).
As January wore on, the side started to struggle at home, a change in formation and no ‘Plan B’ meaning that hopeful balls up field weren’t taken down or utilised by George Puscas (excluding his fantastic spin for his goal against Barnsley in February). However, the alternative of passing through the opposition failed time and time again, with away sides applying the press, knowing that a combination of Madejski unrest and a larger emphasis on possession would derail the side.
Away from home though, Bowen’s record continued to impress – a defensive set up with balls upfield or quick counter attacks produced a few fantastic performances – probably due in part to being the underdog and shouldering fewer expectations. (Post-lockdown, things unravelled, but part of this can probably be attributed to having nothing to play for/an early injury to the returning Joao, meaning Reading were stumped going forwards both home and away – Luton an exception, looking lost and making mistakes at the back).
However, when Veljko Paunovic took over, he brought with him an impressive press. The Royals were in control of their game at Derby while not having nearly as much of the ball as you’d think they’d had. The big question mark however would be how the Royals would fare at home.
Just like under previous managers, a press seemed to outdo them (it must be said, Barnsley regularly press against whoever they play against, home and away – just as Derby like to keep hold of the ball in most games) but, just like in the fixture last season, Barnsley had many a shot without really threatening at all. Reading’s patience wore off and, although our last home win came in almost identical circumstances (though not helped by the dismissal of two Barnsley men), it can’t be disputed that Pauno is off to a good start. Although the style of play is enjoyable to watch and is producing results, whether we can consistently win games without Joao in the side is not known yet.
And while there doesn’t necessarily need to be a ‘set way’ of playing at home and another away from home, the more we see of Paunovic and his team, the more we will learn of how he plans to counteract other sides coming to the Madejski who employ similar tactics – deciding to continue to employ a press at home being a big positive. In effect, Reading played very similarly to how they played at Derby. Their press was not as high up the pitch as in the Derby game, due to Barnsley’s defensive line being very high, but this did present opportunities and so was a key factor into why, when Barnsley don’t take their chances, they get punished.
Although Reading didn’t deal with the press all too well, their visitors’ profligacy in front of goal saved them. The two red cards led to the Royals having more of the ball in the second period and this is where the sides’ patience came to the fore. In the first period Reading’s main threat came from balls over, or through, the reduced (due to men committing forwards) high line – Joao causing one red card and Swift being adjudged offside when clean through.
Due to this, you could argue that the quality of Reading’s chances (or attacking situations), was a lot higher than Barnsley’s and, even though Barnsley did make it difficult for Reading’s defenders, the home side still may have been victorious regardless of the men advantage. Reading’s own press and general tendency for a quick counter is producing many a dangerous situation (Olise another man to be scythed down after breaking the lines), and again shows how Paunovic wants the hallmarks of his side to be high-intensity play and commitment. While also having the ability to pass and make use of the ball when needed, the ingenuity and ability of the front four always leaves Royals fans confident that there will be another chance created.
So as the game wore on, although at first Reading looked like the team with 10 men, the home side knew that all it took was one clever movement from the front four to get in on goal and have their first real chance on goal. And so it came through John Swift. For most of the game, Swift let himself down with poor touches or passes, struggling to trap the ball and then release to a team mate on the attack. Just after Yakou Meite had come on off the bench, Swift made a run from the central area to the left channel. Receiving the ball forwards, he whipped in a cross in which Meite forced a save from the keeper.
Meite’s introduction gave Reading energy and intensity on the attack and provided the home side with a different option – powerful running at the defence and an all-round presence. Not only were the Royals utilising different options from the bench to great effect (hopefully further additions to the squad will enable this in more areas of the pitch), but their threat from Michael Olise’s corners continued – Meite opening the scoring from one such delivery.
Josh Laurent making way for the returning man meant that Olise dropped into holding midfield alongside Rinomhota, and it was from a Swift corner that Olise doubled the scoring with a fantastic first-time volley from range. Swift dropping back would have allowed him back into a more comfortable position as Reading switch up their side throughout a game – but the former Chelsea man is finding himself in dangerous situations and creating chances further forwards, despite not being quite at his best at the moment. Straight from kick-off after the first goal, Reading looked invigorated and pressured Barnsley into a misplaced pass (Joao, Ejaria, Meite, Olise and Swift all very high up the pitch) and, moments later, a second Barnsley red.
Throughout the game as a whole, Reading enjoyed attacking down the left wing. This mainly occurred in the second half (as did most of Reading’s attacks) as Swift, Ejaria and substitute Aluko made use of the spaces Barnsley left open at the back. The visitors’ second red really allowed Reading to dominate the closing stages of the game and both Ejaria and Puscas came close to adding a third – both probably at fault for not setting up the other.
As well as Ejaria, Omar Richards managed to complete the most dribbles in the game, always providing support for the wide man and adding a sense of maturity to his defending. Where last season the young man was sometimes caught out and dispossessed too easily, you’d be well pressed to find an occasion where he’s put a foot wrong so far this season – managing to use his strength and balance to turn and remain on the ball at one point in the second half, where it seemed as if the Barnsley man would get the better of him. An identical situation occurred in the closing stages of the home defeat to Birmingham last season and resulted in Birmingham’s third of the day, this weekend’s performance showing how Richards has cut out the errors in his play.
On the other flank, Felipe Araruna was a more than able deputy for the injured Andy Yiadom. Although being caught out positionally a few times, with a tendency to drift centrally (of course, he will have more of a spotlight on him), some nice touches, interplay and dribbling enabled him to slot into the team seamlessly.
Added to another comfortable clean sheet from Rafael, solidity in midfield from Rinomhota and Laurent (each blocking a shot), and also from Morrison and Moore at the back (making a total of seven interceptions and clearances between them), Reading will travel to Cardiff next Saturday with six points out six. Much can be made of the quality of opposition but, in the end, you can only beat what’s in front of you – something the Royals have done, scoring four goals and conceding none.
All in all, if Pauno can keep his players consistently delivering on the previously mentioned hallmarks, then Reading should be able to keep up their performances, form, and ultimately, results – home, away, with Joao and (hopefully it doesn’t come to it) without.