Sometimes the weather can be a particularly apt metaphor for a game of football. Today's loss at West Brom was a good case in point: not catastrophic enough to be a full-on storm, but still, oppressively grey and miserable.
Before anything else, let's get one important thing out of the way: the scoreline. Reading may have come away from this game with a seemingly narrow 1-0 loss, but that masks how one-sided the contest was. West Brom could and should have scored a few more goals at least; better finishing and I'm writing about a rout.
Something like that was always on the cards. West Brom are third and haven't been out of the Premier League long, so a dominant home performance and win was hardly a complete shock. A tough afternoon for Reading was similarly likely to the chance of, well, getting a grey and miserable day in December.
It wasn’t helped by an injury curse that’s long since taken on a sense of inevitability. Absences for key players John Swift, Andy Yiadom and Danny Drinkwater meant Veljko Paunovic brought in Liam Moore, Dejan Tetek and Tyrell Ashcroft. The former of those three has looked poor in his recent games while the latter two are still raw talents, so there was a clear drop-off in quality available in the starting XI, which looked like this:
Southwood; Holmes, Moore, Dann, Rahman; Laurent; Ashcroft, Tetek, Halilovic, Dele-Bashiru; Carroll
I’ve put it there as a 4-1-4-1, but Reading seemed to start the match in more of a 3-4-3 with Halilovic and Dele-Bashiru playing off Carroll.
Those points above are all mitigating circumstances that can’t be overlooked, but they shouldn’t be complete excuses for the poor display Reading put on for a lot of the game.
The less said about the first half the better. To sum it up succinctly, it was one-way traffic. Reading could barely build anything in the way of meaningful possession, let alone dangerous forays into the final third. A great opportunity on the counter towards the end of the half for Tom Dele-Bashiru, which he squandered, was the only attacking highlight.
This is where Reading’s absentees would have made a real difference. There’s bound to be a drop-off in the Royals’ ability to dictate play when Drinkwater and Swift are on the sidelines, so that can’t be ignored. What was particularly frustrating though was in the inability or unwillingness to adapt. Two potent attacking weapons were on the pitch but underused: Reading failed to get either Alen Halilovic (who played centrally in the absence of Swift) or lone striker Andy Carroll meaningfully into the game.
When Reading did have possession, too much of it was spent knocking the ball around the back. In itself that’s not an issue: building out from defence is a sensible tactic for creating chances with this team, and this group is technically good enough to do so without constant errors like we’ve seen in years gone by. But this practice needs to a) be with purpose, b) be mixed up.
Instead, too often Reading knocked the ball around the back seemingly because it was the default move, weren’t keen on going directly into Carroll, lost the ball in midfield after an aimless attempt at playing forwards and were subjected to a counter attack. Credit to the hosts for how well they shut us down, but Reading could have done more.
There’s not too much in the way of depth or nuance to be said about what happened in Reading’s third. West Brom created far too many chances, a fair few of which were clear-cut openings, whether in those counter attacks after a turnover or in breaking down a more static defence. Callum Robinson’s second-half winner was just one of many opportunities that could have been converted.
This was a far cry from the 3-2 win at Swansea City when Reading conceded plenty of possession and chances, but did very well to limit the quality of those openings. How exposed the back line was is concerning, although team selection was a strong factor. There are bound to be more gaps opening up when the defensive structure contains central midfield Tetek and right back Ashcroft, both of whom are still finding their feet at Championship level.
To Reading’s credit there were improvements after the break. The Royals were noticeably more positive and looked to get at the hosts more, seeming to play quicker and more bravely when opportunities to get forward arose.
It wasn’t however enough to turn the game. Again, Yiadom and Swift in particular were conspicuous by their absence. The former is a far more accomplished attacking force than rookie Ashcroft, while the latter’s ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat could have been a gamechanger despite the hosts’ dominance. Halilovic and co, including substitutes Junior Hoilett and George Puscas, tried their best but didn’t quite have enough; Halilovic was tantalisingly close with a goalbound effort blocked by a West Brom head.
A quick side note on those changes. It is at least pleasing that Reading finally have notable attacking quality on the bench to try to alter the match; not all that long ago the Royals wouldn’t have had the option of an established centre forward and experienced winger. On the flipside, it won’t have been lost on Liam Moore that this is the second time he’s been withdrawn in a tactical swap; this could be an unsubtle sign that Pauno’s not all that keen on the skipper and would drop him if he didn’t wear the armband.
As frustrated as I am by today’s defeat, I’m far from angry. I have been after other games this season - particularly the collapse against Blackpool - but this loss doesn’t call for such a reaction. At the end of the day, an injury-battered Reading weren’t good enough against a strong West Brom side that contains Premier League quality.
While there’s little to be positive about, this isn’t the kind of game to set off alarm bells. If you’re looking for evidence of deeper issues - such as problems with the manager or the likelihood of Reading being in relegation trouble this season - you’ll get it from other games. The Royals’ 2021/22 fate won’t be determined by losing at West Brom, however poor the performance.