As part of my matchday routine, I always try to have a coffee before I leave the flat. Thanks to some poor organisation on my part though, I didn't have time for it today - or before getting the tube, or before the train to Blackburn. As anyone with an over-reliance on caffeine will tell you, going without a coffee leaves you feeling that bit more sluggish, tired and lacking in your general zip than usual.
Reading's performance at Blackburn felt a lot like that. The Royals weren't that bad - certainly much better than in midweek although that's not saying much - but the usual spark wasn't there. This team could have used an espresso or two.
That's no surprise. This is a distinctly injury-battered, and therefore heavily fatigued, squad at the moment. That's nothing new, we've known it for ages. And until that state of affairs changes, we'll continue to see matches that are heavily influenced by how little Reading have in the tank.
The trip to Ewood Park was one such match.
Reading started off brightly, putting some good moves together and playing with a positivity and cohesion that’s been lacking recently, but faded as the half went on. Still, a pretty even contest that would have gone the way of whichever side could take their game up a few gears. Reading just didn’t seem to have that extra level in them.
All it took was one strong shove for the contest to be decided. Two second-half goals came in quick succession: Gallagher tapping home from close range on 61 minutes before Dolan doubled the lead with a curled effort into the bottom corner on 64. Reading switched off, Blackburn took their chances.
At that point the game could have gone completely, but to Reading's credit they fought back, took the attacking play up a couple of gears and asked the hosts questions. While the switch in the balance of play was largely down to game state - Blackburn were happy with their lead and Reading had no option but to press forward - the reaction was still encouraging.
The inability to do much with that reaction though said a lot about the Royals’ lack of energy. Reading were good enough at getting the ball into and around the area, whether by playing centrally or trying to get in behind out wide, but just didn’t quite have that final execution. One moment summed that up perfectly: a neat backheel from Tom Dele-Bashiru pulled the ball back to John Swift, free in the area, but rather than taking it first time he dallied and the chance went. A sharper Swift would have slammed that into the net first time.
Reading needed fresh legs and fresh ideas to turn attacking intent into attacking product, but none were available - unless turning to rookie academy players, which Pauno has shown he’s not keen on. Either way, it’s a bitterly ironic indicator of the current injury crisis that the only experienced attacking option on the bench, George Puscas, had to be brought on for Femi Azeez in the first half when the youngster picked up another injury.
Alen Halilovic and Junior Hoilett, both of whom would have livened up proceedings and - crucially - offered something different tactically, were conspicuous by their absence. Reading were left to rely on Swift, Ejaria and Dele-Bashiru as the creative trio; those three had played every minute of Reading’s previous two matches, bar TDB being subbed off on 83 minutes in midweek. Even at their freshest they’re not an ideal combination; none are quick, direct wide players so they offer similar qualities, not the variety needed to unlock a defence.
Paunovic could well have turned to Mamadi Camara, and you’re left wondering why he didn’t. The young winger is distinctly more quick and direct than the former trio, and is far fresher, having not played since getting 90 minutes against Birmingham City for the under-23s a few weeks ago. Instead, Pauno opted for Jahmari Clarke, playing the lanky centre forward out of position on the left.
Despite the lack of product, at least one goal would have been a fair reflection on Reading’s overall efforts. Still, they weren’t enough.
I’m left frustrated by how the game panned out, but not angry, which I certainly was after Wednesday. Yes, Reading could have done better on the day and fatigue can’t be a complete excuse, but it’s making things a hell of a lot harder than they otherwise would be. Until injuries clear up and rotation becomes possible, Reading will be wading through mud, doing well to grind out narrow wins but sometimes coming out on the wrong end of fine margins, like today.