It's funny how people can see the same game in distinctly - albeit not radically - different ways. Reading's 1-1 draw at home to Hull City today is an interesting case in point. For me, it was a poor home performance, one that wasn't awful but still not good enough to deserve a win. Looking through post-match comments from other fans though, while some seem to broadly agree with that interpretation, plenty are much more positive.
It's an odd space for me to be in, given that I generally see myself as rather positive, sometimes overly so out of stubbornness (hey, I stuck with Jaap Stam for months longer than most). For whatever reason - perhaps I was cheesed off by how cold it was - I was underwhelmed by Reading's performance.
Sure, there were bright moments, not least the goal from Tom Holmes. This team has the capacity to come up with magic out of nowhere, even on an off day, and it was immensely pleasing to see Holmes don a wizard's cap to put the Royals 1-0 up just before the break. Having the initiative and guts to try an overhead kick, let alone the skill to pull it off, was hugely commendable. It was also a delightful moment on a more personal level: that was Holmes’ first goal for Reading, and it will have meant a huge amount to someone who’s had to be patient for his opportunity.
Reading also had good chances to win the game. John Swift should have scored in the first half when through one on one, Andy Carroll should have done better with some sights of goal in the second, and Femi Azeez had an effort blocked at close-ish range late on.
Down the other end, although Hull managed a brace of disallowed goals, they only found the net legally through a Reading error. Mistakes have been rare for Luke Southwood this season, so him letting a long-range effort from Mallik Wilks go through him was certainly uncharacteristic.
The Tigers did threaten otherwise. We were warned of their threat out wide in the pre-match Town End feature, and accordingly the visitors created openings with crosses, particularly in the first half. Reading managed to deal with those moments though, and never looked properly on the ropes or lucky to be in the game.
Combine all of the above, and it's hard to say a narrow win, perhaps seeing out the 1-0 lead, would have been an unfair outcome. The Royals have definitely picked up victories in the past from worse performances and will do so again in the future.
And yet, the underlying feeling I have is still downbeat. My main takeaway from the game was how Reading generally struggled to set the tempo or build up momentum going forwards. You can often judge how well a team does those things by assessing the buzz in the crowd - the almost-audible feeling that a goal isn’t far off. Indeed, the home crowd felt particularly flat today - not angry (the post-match booing was reserved for someone else as I’ll discuss later), but noticeably bored and frustrated.
What Reading needed was energy and intensity, individually and collectively, but both were lacking. On the contrary, there were a few too many moments of sloppiness or poor decision-making, particularly in the middle of the park. The game was there to be attacked and thus won, but the Royals didn’t look convincing in trying to do so.
Although fatigue would have been a factor not all that long ago, putting Reading’s flatness against Hull down to that would be more of a stretch, given the lack of a mid-week match.
There is something to be said for how Reading’s tactics affected the performance. Pauno went for the exact same set-up as last week: a 4-3-3 that contained Josh Laurent as the deepest central midfielder, with Swift and Danny Drinkwater just ahead and Andy Carroll supported by wide players Alen Halilovic and Tom Dele-Bashiru.
Of particular interest was the central midfield shape (Laurent deep, Drinkwater higher). That worked a treat defensively last week as it got plenty out of sole holding midfielder Laurent, while Drinkwater’s positioning was less of an issue in a game when Reading had less of the ball anyway. This time though, Drinkwater’s ineffectiveness in being used higher up was more evident. I’d have liked to see him switch spots with Laurent, allowing the Chelsea man to get on the ball more in withdrawn spots and pick passes.
While that probably would have helped, it doesn’t account for individual performances. Regardless of how they were used tactically, all of Reading’s central midfielders looked more error-prone than usual.
I can’t avoid the elephant in the room though - the refereeing - an aspect of the match which we seemingly all agree on. Reading had two big penalty shouts turned down in the second half. While I’ve not seen a video replay of either, both looked stonewall in real time: Swift was barged over inside the box in the first instance, and the ball hit a Hull arm (raised well above the player’s head) in the second. Getty Images even managed to catch the latter case, as you can see here:
Whether or not Reading should have had two spot kicks isn’t, for me at least, controversial. Veljko Paunovic called for VAR to be introduced in the Championship during his post-match comments, and that argument certainly isn’t without merit. Referees have to make split-second calls in moments like those without second guessing themselves; sometimes they’ll get it wrong, occasionally on multiple decisive occasions in one match.
I deliberately didn't lead on this angle or mention it higher up for an important reason. While the officiating was a source of huge frustration, ultimately it’s not why Reading failed to win the match. However many penalty kicks were awarded, the Royals should have been able to get all three points anyway. Focusing too much on refereeing mistakes distracts from Reading’s shortcomings as an attacking threat, which was ultimately the decisive factor in the game.
Somewhat worryingly, a lack of intensity and quality going forwards has become a trend of late for Reading at the SCL. The Royals’ last two wins have both come on the road, so you have to go back to October 16 for a home win: the 1-0 against Barnsley which capped off the run of four victories in six.
Since then we’ve had the capitulation to Blackpool, being edged out by high-flying Bournemouth, a middle-of-the-road draw with Nottingham Forest and drab defeat to Sheffield United. To varying degrees, but particularly in the losses to the Tangerines and Blades, Reading have needed to show much more impetus and initiative going forwards. Is there something about playing at home which prevents that, given how convincingly the side came from behind to win at Birmingham City and Swansea City?
Whatever the case, it’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Next up: the club’s 150th anniversary celebrations when Luton Town are the visitors on December 18. No pressure.