I don’t know about you, but following Reading Football Club in the last couple of weeks has felt a bit strange to me.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Royals were in the middle of a flurry of games, playing nine league matches in the month between December 2’s 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday and January 2’s 2-1 win at Huddersfield Town, but the Championship juggernaut has ground to a sudden halt.
By the time Reading face Coventry City on Tuesday evening, it will have been 17 days since the Royals’ last league encounter (that victory at the John Smith’s). That’s all been because of the return of the FA Cup, an unfamiliar lack of mid-week games and the postponement of Brentford’s visit on Saturday due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the Bees’ camp.
So is all of this good for Reading? The immediate conclusion is yes: we’ve had plenty of injury problems in the last couple of months so a reduced workload at this stage will help clear the treatment room. Injured and tired players can get a breather, build up their fitness and attack the second half of the season fresh.
That’s particularly true for some key players. Lucas Joao, John Swift and Omar Richards all managed to get back into the first team over the Christmas/New Year period to get varying degrees of match practice but don’t now have to be rushed back into regular action. Plus, the 17-day break means Reading will have been able to work on the fitness of absentees Liam Moore, Yakou Meite, Lewis Gibson, Felipe Araruna and Andy Yiadom without those players being unavailable for league games.
All in all, it should mean Reading can avoid a repeat of December, when a depleted squad had to simply grind out results and do the best it could amid an onslaught of fixtures. But I’m a little concerned that Reading have had too much of a break. Getting a breather is vital for any squad, let alone a small one in a congested season, but so is momentum.
Reading were on a good run before the hiatus from Championship football, winning twice and drawing once after Christmas Day. Grinding out a 2-1 victory over Luton Town and 0-0 draw at high-flying Swansea City, then putting in one of the best away performances of the season to win 2-1 at Huddersfield Town, was the perfect reaction to successive defeats against Norwich City and Brentford.
It was an ideal set-up for the next fixture: the chance to get revenge on Brentford when they came to the Madejski on January 16. Getting a positive result against the Bees ahead of games against mid-table Coventry City and Preston North End would have allowed Reading to really pick up a head of steam across late December and January.
The extended break though means Reading essentially have to start again. There’s a number of key first-team players that had been in the side week in, week out but missed the FA Cup game at Luton, so will have to get their sharpness back: Rafael, Michael Morrison, Andy Rinomhota, Josh Laurent and Ovie Ejaria. That doesn’t mean we’ll inevitably flounder when we return to action, but immediately building up momentum after an extended time away from league matches isn’t something that this side has a great record of doing.
Reading went into the first international break on the back of probably the two best displays of the season up to that point: the 2-1 win at Cardiff City and 1-0 victory at home to Watford. Two weeks later though the performances dropped: a goalless draw at Middlesbrough followed by below-par shifts (but wins) against Wycombe Wanderers and Rotherham United.
Although Reading went into the next international break in a much worse state than they’d gone into the first (three successive defeats against Coventry, Preston and Stoke City), the reaction was similarly poor: a second-half collapse at Bournemouth followed by a drab 1-1 at Millwall.
There’s also a precedent for Reading stumbling when their momentum has stalled after New Year. Although Joao’s absence is frequently (and rightly) cited as a key reason for the drop in form in January 2020, I’d argue that the sudden halt in league fixtures played its part too. The Royals’ 2-1 win at Fulham capped off the team’s best form of the 2019/20 campaign: four victories in 11 days. But it was then another 10 days before the next league match, a 1-1 against Nottingham Forest, and seven before the 2-0 defeat at Millwall. Mark Bowen’s side wouldn’t win after New Year’s Day in the league until February 15.
Avoiding a repeat of such drops in form should be a key consideration for Pauno now. He’s already shown that he can handle intense periods of games - perhaps from his experience of winning the World Cup with Serbia’s under-20 side in 2015 when his team had seven games between May 31 and June 20 - but being able to immediately pick up momentum from a standing start is also important.
How well we do so this time around is hard to predict. Reading’s first game after the break from league action is this time neither a play-off contender (Middlesbrough) nor an automatic-promotion contender (Bournemouth). A home game against Coventry is on paper a less difficult fixture so, theoretically, a win is that bit more likely - although of course the reverse fixture is a great big flashing neon sign about why we shouldn’t underestimate Mark Robins’ side.
It’ll also be a while before Reading are back in an intense run of fixtures like before. The Royals have five days after the Coventry match before their next fixture, then another five, then another eight. It isn’t until February 10 that we have a mid-week game before one on the following Saturday.
The dull but appropriate conclusion is simply that we’ll have to wait and see how Reading respond to this 17-day gap. It may be that it takes a little while to build up momentum, or we could fire on all cylinders straight away - we won’t know until we have the benefit of hindsight. Either way, the return of a host of first-team players to full fitness in the coming weeks should mean we can have our second half of the season can be as strong as our first - if not even stronger.