I don’t know whether to cry, throw my phone at the wall or simply laugh at how farcically awful that was. Reading’s 1-0 defeat to rock-bottom Wycombe Wanderers was certainly our worst result of the season, and by quite some way. Three points were there for the taking at kick-off, half time, after a depressingly avoidable goal on 49 minutes from Anthony Stewart, and certainly when the hosts went down to 10 men 20 minutes later, but Reading simply weren’t up for the task.
Perhaps we should have known we were in for a bad night as early as 6.45pm. Veljko Paunovic got his line-up wrong. Badly wrong. There’s making a few tweaks to allow your side to counter the opposition, and then there’s starting FOUR centre backs and THREE defensive midfielders in a match against the 24th-placed side in the division. That XI looked like this:
Rafael; Holmes, Morrison, Moore, McIntyre; Semedo, Laurent; Rinomhota, Olise, Ejaria; Joao.
I can’t get my head around that team. Pauno had more attacking options he could have turned to: George Puscas as a second striker, Andy Yiadom and Omar Richards as attacking full backs, Tomas Esteves as a winger, Sone Aluko as an ACTUAL playmaker (not a defensive midfielder shunted out to the right)... hell, even Sam Baldock - who’s yet to score this season - would have been helped in the final third.
Instead we had an XI that got some things right - Alfa Semedo is better as a DM than a 10, while Michael Olise was rightly played just behind Lucas Joao - but was badly flawed in other ways. Unsurprisingly, there was little attacking impact from the full backs (converted centre halves Toms Holmes and McIntyre), and besides the odd commendable moment of getting in behind (including winning the penalty), Andy Rinomhota simply wasn’t the right option as a makeshift right winger to break down Wycombe.
Managers can’t get everything right, and even a much more attacking XI from the outset might not have had a better result. But, by the hour mark when it was clear that things weren’t going to plan - 1-0 down and with few ideas on how to change the game - it was up to Pauno to be proactive, correct his errors and give his team a fighting chance of turning the match around. Instead he waited until the 79th minute to introduce Puscas for Olise. Five minutes later: Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock for Ovie Ejaria and Tom Holmes.
To sum up: Pauno left it around 20 minutes too late before making any change and waited another five minutes before completing his subs. Off came the side’s two best creative players, leaving the three centre forwards on the pitch with just one playmaker to come up with chances for them. Three defensive midfielders stayed on, while two attacking right backs - one of whom can play as a winger - continued to sit on the bench.
There are matches when managers try everything in the book to get their team back in the game and nothing quite works. The frustrating thing is that there was so much more that Pauno could have done, and it was all so obvious.
I love Pauno and hugely respect the impact he’s had on this club. In previous seasons, losing 1-0 to bottom-placed Wycombe would have been a relegation six-pointer, not a result that potentially leads to us dropping out of the top six. But he got his approach to the game badly wrong and this result has to come back to the poor decisions he made both before and during the match.
The players shouldn’t come out of this match without their fair share of blame though. Regardless of team selection and substitutes, the XI should have been good enough to at least find a scrappy equaliser by hook or by crook, but didn’t have the work rate or intensity to match a Wycombe side that put their bodies on the line at every point throughout the contest. That’s particularly galling when you consider just how proud we’ve been this season of Reading’s spirit and never-say-die attitude.
And yet, there were chances for Reading to spare their blushes, primarily from the penalty spot. On the 69th minute, Ejaria slid through an excellent pass for the onrushing Rinomhota, who was brought down in the area by Ryan Tafazolli, who saw red. Up stepped Joao. Surely he couldn’t miss again? He missed again, crashing his effort against the bar.
That’s now three penalty misses this season for Joao, who also failed to convert from the spot against Birmingham City and Preston North End. What’s worrying is that those misses seem clear - at least in hindsight. In certain games, when he plays poorly and isn’t involved enough in the match, he’s then unable to pick himself up to dispatch a spot kick. Whatever the specific problem, whether it’s belief or concentration, Joao mustn’t take the next penalty.
Otherwise, Rinomhota and Ejaria both forced excellent saves from the ‘keeper, and the game would have gone very differently had one of those gone in. In the second half, Holmes had an effort cleared off the line, Joao almost managed to get in behind a couple of times and Josh Laurent poked a shot just wide of the post.
Coming close with various chances isn’t good enough though. Perhaps the players had the though in their mind - at least subconsciously - that they could simply turn up on Tuesday night and get the win. That won’t do if we’re to make the play-offs.
Indeed, Reading’s top-six place is becoming more and more tenuous. A couple of good results make well turn things into our favour, but as things stand, Reading have won just once in their last six games and will be only two points off seventh if Cardiff City win their game in hand against Bournemouth on Wednesday evening.