In this dramatic, often bizarre season that’s been largely defined by swings between extremes, a 1-1 draw at home to Nottingham Forest feels quaintly low-key. It was after all surely the most ‘middle of the road’ result for Reading all campaign - just the second draw, with the other (3-3 at home to QPR) far more of a rollercoaster ride.
It’s difficult to feel too strongly about this match either way. This game was not evidence that this Reading side is better than we previously thought, or worse than we previously thought, although there are certainly positives and negatives to take away. I’d even shy away from over-analysing whether it one point gained or two dropped - it was just a decent point.
To sum the match up in two words, I’d simply say that it was absolutely fine. Little to worry about, little to get too excited about. What’s more, it doesn’t fit into any obvious narrative; you can tell that a win would have drawn media headlines of ‘defiant Reading dig in for crucial victory’, while a loss would have ‘piled on the pressure’ and played into fears of a relegation fight.
The afternoon started with Veljko Paunovic making one change to the side that started at Birmingham City two weeks ago. Danny Drinkwater’s return from injury meant Tom Dele-Bashiru dropped to the bench. However, unlike at St Andrew’s, Pauno went with a 4-1-4-1 from the off: Drinkwater deep and Andy Yiadom retaining his position on the right wing. That made some sense given how well that set-up (including Yiadom’s part in it) worked a fortnight ago.
Joining Dele-Bashiru among the subs was new signing Andy Carroll, who made the matchday squad in Jahmari Clarke’s enforced absence. Even just between those two, Reading surely had their best bench from the standpoint of attacking options all season, given how often we’ve had to rely on academy players.
Any positivity going into the game though soon evaporated. In a moment reminiscent of the start at St Andrew’s, a defensive error handed the opposition an early goal - this time Philip Zinckernagel was the man to slot home. While Liam Moore should again come in for criticism for the goal, mistiming a challenge on Zinckernagel, the broader nature of how the Royals’ defence parted like The Reading Sea (see what I did there?) shouldn’t avoid scrutiny.
The story of the rest of the half was largely of Reading trying to break the visitors down and having little joy. There were some decent moments. Yiadom looked lively down the right wing and set up a great chance for Drinkwater who probably should have done better than side-footing straight at Brice Samba, while Baba Rahman and Drinkwater had efforts saved from range. But they were just moments, not periods of more sustained, convincing pressure.
Reading seemed to lack ideas and Forest were well organised, particularly around their own box. This was less a case of the Royals playing overtly badly, more of things just not working. It was little surprise then when the score was still 0-1 at half time.
At this point, before the international break this game would have probably only played out in one way (although the St Andrew’s comeback was a neat exception to the rule). Reading would have tired, not had the fresh legs or minds on the bench to change things up, and ultimately been edged of the game.
This time though, Pauno had a couple of cards to play. First was bringing on Carroll, whose introduction must surely have been one of the most celebrated at the Mad Stad in quite some time. Loud chants of “Andy Carroll duh duh duh duh” started before his tactical substitution for Moore was announced, and you could sense - when he took to the pitch - how lifted the whole place felt. Say what you like about his injury record or anything like that - this is still a character with real quality and real clout.
It didn’t take too long for that lift to be translated into a goal. A matter of minutes after he came on, he won a header in the area to set up a chance for John Swift; while Swift didn’t take it, he still managed to win a corner, which he fired low into the area to be slammed home by Scott Dann. That’s now two for the season for Dann, both from set pieces, and that goal threat’s already looking like a nifty bonus for this side.
Add Carroll’s introduction and an equaliser together, and you get a huge lift. Reading had their tails up at that point, really taking the game to Forest in order to complete a quick turnaround. Even George Puscas, enjoying a rare extended spell in a match alongside an experienced strike partner, looked livened up, although he could have done better with some opportunities from around the edge of the box.
And then the second card: Dele-Bashiru coming on for Drinkwater. Having one attacking player to bring into the equation was novel, so being able to introduce a second was special indeed. At this point Reading were in a shape that looked like a 4-1-3-2: Josh Laurent deep, Dele-Bashiru and Ovie Ejaria wide, with Swift behind the front two.
While the idea of dropping Laurent into the screening role in front of the back four and adding Dele-Bashiru’s fresh legs higher up made some sense, it didn’t work and Reading faded in the closing portion of the match. The Royals still looked too open defensively, and perhaps because of Drinkwater’s removal, they couldn’t set the tempo in the same way as just after the equaliser.
Forest were in the ascendancy late on, and Luke Southwood was called on to make a fine save, flinging himself low to his right to tip away a shot that looked bound for the bottom corner. But Reading ultimately held on to see out the 1-1 draw.
So now to those positives and negatives I mentioned earlier. In the plus column, Carroll had a promising debut, being involved in the build-up to the equaliser and generally like a different route to goal for Reading, who’ve often been guilty of being unable to mix things up. That wasn’t just him standing in the box as a target man - he even drifted out to the left sometimes to put in crosses; you can tell he’s got a decent delivery on him.
What’s more, the fact that Reading have again picked up a result from a losing position shouldn’t be overlooked. The Royals are generally bad at doing so, but this is the second consecutive match in which we’ve done it. That takes the right character (belief and patience), and I wonder if the addition of a few experienced heads into this side is paying off. Messrs Dann, Drinkwater and Carroll have been there and done it; that’ll be a great asset over the rest of the season.
And now to tactics. When it became clear that Carroll would be introduced, I just assumed he’d be coming on for Puscas - swapping one centre forward for another, rather than altering the system, is a classic Pauno move. To be fair to him though, he was bold enough to go for something fresh: Yiadom dropped back to right wing, Holmes moved over to centre back, and Carroll partnered Puscas - rather than one of them being inexplicably shunted out wide, like Clarke was forced into at Coventry City.
So, as Reading had gone from 3-4-3 to 4-1-4-1 at Birmingham City, this time Reading went from 4-1-4-1 to, erm, I’m not 100% sure. It looked like more of a 4-4-2 with Swift and Ejaria out wide before Drinkwater’s removal, and then 4-1-3-2 afterwards. The credit to be given here is for the intent (trying new things) rather than the outcome: going two up top had promise but ultimately didn’t win Reading the game, while Forest managed to assert increasing pressure in the closing stages.
That came about largely from, simply, Reading looking too open at the back. Playing one holding player in front of the defence allows gaps to open up, whether that’s Drinkwater or Laurent. What’s more, there was a number of occasions when Rahman was caught out of position, allowing the visitors to exploit that side of the pitch.
While Reading didn’t lose the game, those moments of openness at the back should still be warning signs for the future. They’re not isolated incidents, given Reading have previously looked exposed with one holding midfielder, and Rahman has sometimes been caught too high up - think of Millwall’s goal for example.
These issues shouldn’t prompt over-the-top responses. Reading should still try to develop the 4-1-4-1 if that’s what Pauno wants, and don’t need to drop specific personnel. But it does feel like there’s a defensive imbalance here that Reading are yet to work out, which may take some practice, tweaks and patience too for good measure.