1-0, 1-0, 1-0. The last week’s had a bit of a theme to it, hasn’t it? And when you consider just how goal-laden Reading’s matches had been earlier in the season, it’s hardly an expected theme. The Royals’ results are being decided by ever-tighter margins.
Perhaps that’s what makes Reading’s latest 1-0 win, a proper smash-and-grab at Cardiff City, so sweet. If you wanted to see the Royals’ attacking flair on full show this was the wrong match for you: Pauno’s men mustered up just the two shots, with the only one on target nestling in the back of the Bluebirds’ net to earn the three points.
The hosts were in all-out-assault mode however. Controlling much of the flow of the game, they ended it having peppered Luke Southwood’s goal with 27 attempts: five of them on target, 10 off target and a further 12 blocked. While each outlet records xG differently, Fotmob had Cardiff winning by 2.06 to 0.12, while Infogol put it at 1.57 to 0.09.
The numbers couldn’t have been clearer: this was one-way traffic. So, given the result, this game demanded a non-statistical explanation. While Reading needed an element of luck to see out the result in the face of the hosts’ overwhelming pressure, putting the game down to that would be doing the Royals short. Reading had the spirit, organisation and focus to get over the line.
Taken in conjunction with the wins against Fulham and Middlesbrough, both of which required resolute rearguard actions, it’s fair to say that those qualities I mentioned above are becoming a bit of a theme. Clearly, Reading know how to grind out results like this and are getting better at doing so.
That’s certainly a team effort; we’re not simply relying on the same individuals. Yet again, Reading had to make do without a number of players injured - Alen Halilovic was ruled out before the game and Andy Yiadom was forced off in the second half. Regardless of who’s unavailable though, the next man steps up to get the job done.
The match-winner today was Junior Hoilett, who notched his first Reading goal in the first half. It was a bit of an odd goal really: John Swift aimed a long pass at Andy Yiadom, the ball dropped to Hoilett, and he slotted inside the far post calmly before a non-celebration out of respect for his former employers.
It was a particularly telling example of the ‘next man steps up’ attitude. Remember: Hoilett is effectively Reading’s fourth-choice right winger. Yakou Meite is out for the season, while Femi Azeez and Halilovic both started off brightly before succumbing to injuries themselves. We’re in a fortunate position to be able to still have a quality, experienced player in Hoilett for that spot even with those three out.
That was as good as it got for Reading going forwards, and it’s interesting how Veljko Paunovic responded to that fact in the second half. As early as the 65th minute, he decided he’d had enough of the Royals’ attacking structure to that point: off came George Puscas, on came Scott Dann, in a switch to 4-2-3-1 that meant Hoilett going up top.
It was a big call. For all Puscas’ lack of influence on the game - again he lacked service, despite to my mind making some nice runs - swapping personnel in such an overtly defensive fashion was only going to invite more pressure on the Royals’ back line.
But, in fairness to Pauno, his decision paid off. Reading still had to with, but they did so with an impressive level of assurance, if not outright ease. The addition of Dann’s experience and know-how certainly helped, as did the tactical switch of going to a 4-2-3-1 with false nine Hoilett up top and Josh Laurent in midfield.
While Cardiff came close a couple of times, you got the sense that Reading knew what they were doing: managing the game effectively rather than clinging on out of desperation. It says a lot that, when the hosts hit the woodwork late on, it was from an overhit cross rather than a worked routine.
Reading’s defensive growth has been profound in recent weeks. Long may that continue.