The mark of a good team, they say, is that it can win when it doesn’t play at its best. By that standard, on the basis of Saturday’s 1-0 win over Barnsley, Reading sure are a good team.
Saying the Royals played badly though would be an unfair generalisation of the overall performance; it’s not that Reading had to rely on luck. Yes, the attacking display was pretty poor: with the exception of some bright spells, particularly in the first half, Reading were pretty effectively restricted by the visitors, lacking control in midfield and fluency in the final third.
However, in what’s becoming an increasingly familiar pattern for this side, the defence was resolute. The Tykes may have had plenty of joy in midfield at times, but the Royals’ back line stood firm under the pressure, refusing to be opened up. Luke Southwood had to make some good saves, sure, but not the kind of last-ditch heroics you’d see for a team on the ropes.
Quite the opposite. Simply put, defensively speaking, Reading knew exactly what they were doing.
It’s no wonder that was the case when you consider the sheer amount of know-how the Royals had available. New signings Scott Dann (making his first start) and Danny Drinkwater were again conspicuous by their maturity and intelligence. While that was particularly obvious in individual moments (such as a couple of first-half crunching sliding tackles from Drinkwater that had the fans roaring their approval), they radiated composure onto everyone around them too.
This was a mature, focused, organised defensive shift from everyone - both individually and collectively. Contrast that to the chaos before the first international break, when you were constantly worried the opposition were about to score, seemingly at will, particularly from set pieces. We’ve not conceded a goal in such a fashion since the Peterborough win.
Such a defensive shift is the kind of bedrock upon which you can build a winning team. Regardless of how poorly the side plays offensively, all it’ll take is one moment of quality to snatch all three points. Fortunately for us, we’ve got someone who can come up with those whenever he feels like it.
John Swift is impressive enough as a playmaker, so it feels somewhat unfair on the rest of the league to see just how ruthless he is with chances of his own. This one in particular was tricky: Swift controlled a Pirlo-esque (or should I say Drinkwater-esque?) long ball from Dann, charged into the area, took the ball past the ‘keeper and calmly slotted home. Easy as you like.
It was a moment of attacking class on an afternoon when the Royals generally lacked them.
Reading are at their best going forwards when a few playmakers are linking up with each other, passing and moving, cutting through the opposition. The football played in the Middlesbrough win was a particularly good example of that: delightful to watch and devilishly tricky to defend against.
But such sharpness and fluency were hard to come by against Barnsley. That’s partially down to the Tykes’ performance in being able to stifle Reading, but also some uncharacteristic sloppiness (particularly evident from Josh Laurent and Ovie Ejaria).
While fatigue can’t have been a factor after an international break (none of the midfield four between Drinkwater and George Puscas played for their country), team selection could have been. After all, while some midfielders were in familiar positions (Ejaria and Swift), others had to adapt to new(ish) roles. Laurent lined up in a more advanced box-to-box role ahead of Drinkwater, while Tom Dele-Bashiru went out to the right wing in Junior Hoilett’s absence. While both have played in those spots before, it’s understandable if they’re not at their best individually, and Reading’s attack isn’t at its best collectively, if they’ve had little recent game time there.
Ultimately, excluding the goal, the Royals created just the one quality chance from open play. Femi Azeez ghosted in behind for a one-on-one and should have taken it early with his right foot, but checked onto his stronger left, allowed the space to be closed down and wasted the opportunity. It’s a common mistake from a young forward, and one he’ll learn from.
In the end though, it didn’t matter. Reading successfully completed the same formula that worked against Middlesbrough and Cardiff City: stay tight at the back, grab a goal, manage the lead and go home happy. Basic stuff, but so satisfying when it comes off.
That formula won’t work for the whole season, but for now it’ll do. It’s understandable to forget after a run of wins that Reading are having to make do without a huge chunk of the squad, but a subs bench of six academy players plus Rafael against Barnsley illustrates the sheer lack of depth.
In the face of that challenge, not to mention the Damoclean sword hanging over Reading’s head that is the impending points deduction, all the Royals can do is keep winning. And this side knows exactly how to get that job done.