“That’s a f**king proper performance bro, that’s a f**king proper performance.”
Caught on camera in a video from the club showing Reading’s celebrations on the pitch following a fantastic 3-2 win at Swansea City, Andy Yiadom summed up the Royals’ display better than I can here. Simply put, Reading were excellent, thoroughly deserving a first-ever league win at the Swans’ current stadium.
While some players stood out more than others individually, for an all-round team display you couldn’t ask for much more. This was a dogged, determined, organised and switched-on performance from back to front that meant Reading more than matched the hosts’ often pretty relentless pressure.
Swansea dominated possession - due both to their own style and Reading being willing to let the match unfold in that way - but struggled to find a way through. Yes they found the net twice, but that tally would have been a lot higher were it not for the Royals’ rearguard action, which allowed some clinical finishing at the other end to win the day.
And really, beyond a few worrying spells, I didn’t feel all that concerned by the threat the hosts posed. Individual heroics weren’t the order of the day. Luke Southwood pulled off some fine saves to deny long-range efforts but wasn’t called into action for close-range, desperate shot-stopping after Reading had been carved open, while those in front of him weren’t tasked with putting in last-ditch interventions.
When the collective defensive performance is so good, individuals don’t have to bail the team out. In that sense, this game was reminiscent of the win at Cardiff City (ironically), when Reading had to soak up an awful lot of pressure but did it convincingly, with the quality of opportunities for the opposition limited.
In other words, you got the sense that this side knew what it was doing. While no shortage of praise will go to the players, plenty is also due to the manager; after all, how a team performs flows from the top. After a difficult week - a frustrating draw with Nottingham Forest and very poor defeat to Sheffield United - Pauno’s pushed his players up a few gears to put in one of the best displays of the season.
He also got his tactical approach right. While Pauno deservedly took flak for a dull, largely incoherent set-up in mid-week, the system paid off at Swansea. The manager kept things relatively basic, opting for a formation that looked to me like a 4-3-3, so not all that different to the 4-1-4-1 we’ve seen on numerous occasions this season. With Liam Moore and Ovie Ejaria injured, it meant Reading lined up like so:
Southwood; Yiadom, Holmes, Dann, Rahman; Drinkwater, Laurent (deepest), Swift; Halilovic, Carroll, Dele-Bashiru
A distinct alternative would have been to set Reading up in a 3-5-2, which some fans had called for before the match. That would have allowed two up top and license for the wing backs to get forward. However, if Pauno was tempted to use that formation, Moore’s absence left him one centre back short, and going two up top with a back four and midfield four wasn’t a go-er against possession-heavy Swansea.
Still, Pauno deserves credit for how he set the midfield trio up. The key call was opting for Laurent as the sole holding player - rather than Drinkwater whose positioning has been exposed at times this season, or pairing the two in a 4-2-3-1, which may have meant them operating in similar space. Pushing Drinkwater higher up was unconventional, but the effect of getting a big performance from Laurent in front of the defence meant it was certainly worth it. Reading’s back four had a significantly easier task as a result of Laurent’s shielding efforts.
This set-up won’t be viable in other games when Reading’s midfield is more required to control and use possession offensively, but for this scenario it did the trick.
Anything you can do, we can do better
The reason we’re talking about a hugely pleasing win rather than a draw or loss though is, at the end of the day, the Royals’ quality in the final third. Reading scored three times for just the third time this season, and all were quality goals in their own right.
Those goals said plenty about Reading’s overall mentality, given that two of them came almost instantaneously after Swansea had scored. So really, again it’s a collective trait shining through. Twice the Royals had to react to conceding, and twice they did so in perfect fashion.
The particularly pleasing thing though was that the excellent reaction to score those goals boils down almost entirely to contributions from new players. Reading’s first was pretty much made and completed by Tom Dele-Bashiru, the second by Danny Drinkwater and Andy Carroll respectively, and the third by Dele-Bashiru and Drinkwater respectively.
We’ve always known these are talented guys, but they’ve bought into performing for this club so well that they come up with the goods right after the sucker punch of conceding. To me, that says plenty about the character of this season’s recruits: stepping up when it counted in such a fashion isn’t the trait of a player not all that bothered about how well they’ll do at Reading.
But their talent certainly was evident too. It was in Dele-Bashiru’s clever control to work space in the area before converting, and in the composure shown by Carroll and Drinkwater to take their opportunities. They (the last two particularly) may have made their goals look easy, but we’ve seen openings like those go to waste all too often.
This was no lucky win. Reading may have been under the cosh a lot, but they played the occasion excellently, and head home with a huge three points that should act as a vital lift for the players, manager and fans alike. But it’ll go to waste quickly if not followed up with a win next weekend when Hull City come to the SCL.