Fresh off a morale-boosting win at Bristol City in midweek, Reading are back in action at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday with the visit of Middlesbrough. There’s a little bit of spice to the game, seeing as Boro (managed by long-time pantomime villain Neil Warnock) were the first side to take a point off the Royals this season when the two teams met just over four months ago. The match has significance in the play-off battle too. Middlesbrough (8th) are one of five sides hovering just outside the top six - in their case eight points behind Reading in fifth.
To get a bit more background on what to expect from Middlesbrough, how they’ll set up and whether they’ll end up in the play-offs, we spoke to Boro fan and football writer Sam France.
How’s the season gone for you so far?
Things had been going swimmingly until our annual New Year drop-off. We had been right in the play-off mix but have lost six out of 10 in 2021, including big home defeats against Brentford and Rotherham. After last season, most would have been happy enough with a top-half finish, which we still look good for – but it has been a disappointing slump.
Neil Warnock’s got Boro in play-off contention after your poor 2019/20 season. What’s he changed?
His individual coaching has been remarkable. Individuals who couldn’t get in the team last year have become key players. Defensive duo Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola are the prime examples – they were flop signings under Jonathan Woodgate but both are real fan favourites now. Players look happier and more confident, and he has a way with the press that has helped keep fans on side even during this bad run.
How does Warnock set this side up tactically?
We’ve been quite flexible between three and four at the back throughout the season, depending on opponents and who is available. Personally, I like the 3-4-3 set-up we used in midweek against Huddersfield, though it hasn’t completely clicked in midfield yet.
Three centre-halves, two in midfield with wing-backs overlapping, then two wide forwards supporting the striker. Neeskens Kebano has looked bright since joining in January and Duncan Watmore went full Messi in midweek so it would be nice to see them keep their places, though Ashley Fletcher’s return from a long-term injury means two up top is more of an option again too.
What are Boro’s main strengths and weaknesses?
Our good start to the season was built on our defensive record but that has slipped in recent months – injuries and Covid outbreaks have meant we’ve struggled a bit for consistency at the back, which hasn’t helped.
Unusually, a strength of ours is now an array of options out wide and in attack. We’ve had an absolute dearth of wingers in recent years but even with Marcus Tavernier and Yannick Bolasie injured, there’s still Fletcher, Kebano, Watmore, Britt Assombalonga, Chuba Akpom, Marvin Johnson and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing to choose from for three or four starting spots. Actually getting the ball into the goal still seems to be an issue but I think we look well placed to improve on that front since January.
What have you made of Reading so far this season?
I remember the reverse fixture being an absolute dirge, for a start. Luckily we aren’t nearly as solid at the back as we were back then, so this one might be a bit more open. I’ve been glad to see Lucas Joao doing so well; I really liked him at Wednesday and thought he probably should have scored more than he did there. I don’t especially see you going up, but who knows if you get play-offs?
How do you see the rest of your season panning out?
We need to pick up pretty sharpish if we’re going to have a chance of the play-offs, but personally I think we’ll finish around where we are now. We have the players to put a run together and a manager who has been winning promotions for roughly three centuries now, but the consistency just isn’t quite there. I think most fans would be happy enough with 7th-10th. We’ve been generally more entertaining this season than in recent years, and the Premier League is rubbish anyway. And who wants to be promoted in an empty ground?
How will the game on Saturday go, and what will the score be?
We were good for about 25 minutes against Huddersfield in midweek. For those 25 minutes, we were very good and could have scored more than the two we did – but there were long stretches where we made them look a lot better than they are. I think the turnaround is coming for us but I’m not sure it will be this weekend. 2-1 Reading.