A three-match winless run, the last of those games being a particularly poor home defeat to Millwall, meant Reading needed a reaction tonight at Ashton Gate. We got just that. The Royals weren’t overly troubled by a very poor Bristol City side, but still played well enough to comfortably get the three points. All in all, a pleasingly routine win.
Yet another moment of set-piece magic from Michael Olise opened up an easy close-range finish for Lucas Joao, before Michael Morrison channeled his inner Franz Beckenbauer to bulldoze his way through the home side’s defence and poke home for 2-0 shortly before half time. It helped that on both occasions the Robins left Reading enough space in the middle of their defence to open up a Covid mass testing centre, but Joao and Morrison took their opportunities regardless.
You wouldn’t have been all that surprised if Reading had approached this match with a large degree of hesitancy and anxiety after the nature of Saturday’s loss. Blowing a lead at your own stadium through two irritatingly scrappy goals is bound to knock confidence. But the Royals showed plenty of verve and positivity against City - the hallmark of a side that knows it’s good enough to bounce back after disappointment.
Pauno’s team selection played its part in that. Omar Richards and Andy Yiadom returned after being rested at the weekend, while Tomas Esteves coming in as a right winger meant Michael Olise shifting over to the 10 role that Andy Rinomhota had occupied on Saturday. Rino was needed in his familiar spot in the double pivot in the enforced absence of Josh Laurent.
The effect of those tactical alterations was to make Reading much more dangerous going forwards. Richards and Yiadom provided significantly more attacking thrust from the full-back positions, Olise was the central spark that Rino isn’t suited to be, and Esteves - in an unfamiliar position - added the width and overlapping runs that made others’ jobs that bit easier.
In contrast to Saturday, the whole XI felt far more fluid and cohesive. A word of praise here too for Alfa Semedo, who’s all too often looked lost as a number 10, but has come into his own in the double pivot over the last two games. You can tell he’s significantly more comfortable when the play is in front of him and he can focus on the basics - using his strength and keeping the ball moving, typically feeding a playmaker rather than trying to act as one himself.
Reading’s increased fluidity was noticeable from the start of the game, although it took 20 minutes or so for that to translate into quality chances - the first two of which came from stretching Bristol City with clever wing play. Intelligent link-up between Yiadom and Esteves on the right allowed the former to pull a low cross back for Ejaria (blocked for a corner), shortly before Ejaria danced in off the left, into the area, to feed Richards in the same way (blocked on the line).
We’ve all seen the Royals work hard to get on top and fail to capitalise though, and that was my worry as the first half dragged on. I was wrong to worry. Olise’s inch-perfect free kick fed Joao for the first, and Morrison’s Messi moment provided the second a few minutes later on the stroke of half time.
In the second half, Reading didn’t need to get out of second gear. A tame header from a corner, easily caught by Rafael, was the home side’s only shot on target in the entire game. The back four did well to keep their concentration and snuff out anything that came their way, but that wasn’t saying much.
Down the other end, the Royals had a few good opportunities to extend their lead. Esteves went close a couple of times on the overlap, Semedo made contact with an excellent low cross from Richards but couldn’t convert, McIntyre couldn’t beat the ‘keeper when he met a corner at the near post, and Ejaria went through on goal but lost momentum and ran into traffic.
A touch more ruthlessness and Reading could well have gone home with a much bigger scoreline. The home side were playing with all the confidence of a side that had just lost 6-0 to Watford, never looked like finding a way back into the match, rolling over for any damage Reading could inflict. Performances like that are still fresh and recognisable from recent seasons, so I take little pleasure in seeing it repeated by another side. For our part though, all we can do is beat what’s in front of us.
Given the straightforward nature of the win - which was apparent well before full time - it’s a little frustrating that Pauno wasn’t more proactive with his subs to give key players a rest. Reading can’t afford to lose Rinomhota, Olise, Joao or Ejaria at the best of times, let alone in the absence of Laurent, John Swift and Yakou Meite. The opportunity was there for Pauno to take at least one of them off with 20 minutes or so to go, thereby reducing the chance of a muscle injury, but he didn’t take it. Ejaria and Joao were withdrawn on 86 minutes, Olise on 92, and Rino not at all.
That’s understandable given the importance of getting the points, but we know all too well the danger of pushing players too much this season. Pauno can’t say he hasn’t been warned if one of Reading’s key men are sidelined through avoidable injury, so I hope he takes a more proactive approach in the future.
That shouldn’t take any gloss off what was, at the end of the day, a very good win. Reading go five points clear of sixth ahead of Bournemouth’s match tomorrow night, and - crucially - eight clear of seventh. Next up is another crucial encounter in the play-off battle: the visit of Neil Warnock’s eighth-placed Middlesbrough.