As far as off days go, that wasn’t too bad. Now, Reading have had some really poor off days this season: being outplayed by the opposition, putting in a weak shift and being beaten in thoroughly deflating fashion. The 2-1 loss at home to Birmingham City in December - the only defeat in a five-match run that otherwise contained three wins and a draw - sticks out as a good example of that.
This 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest wasn’t that. The game will rightly go down as two points dropped in avoidable fashion - due to truly golden opportunities for Lucas Joao and George Puscas going begging - but that’s all it was. Points dropped on an off day from a good side that’s still in good form.
Given how the game was panning out until the 81st minute, you could even say it was a point gained (I wouldn’t, but there’s a case for it). Reading have a particularly poor record this season when going behind: Huddersfield Town away (2-1) s the only time we’ve won when going behind, while the 1-1 draws at Millwall and Sheffield Wednesday were, until today, the only draws we’d picked up from a losing position.
So, although my underlying emotion from this game is one of frustration, it doesn’t spill over into something stronger - like after the Wycombe Wanderers defeat.
Pauno stuck with the same XI and formation that disposed of a very poor 10-man Sheffield Wednesday side a week ago. There was however room on the bench for Yakou Meite and Lewis Gibson, both of whom returned after spells on the sidelines due to injury. It’s striking (pun unintended) just how much better the bench looks with just one quality forward back.
The manager’s decision to not meddle with a winning side (not that he could have done with various key players still out) seemed to have paid off in the opening stages of the game. From the off, Reading looked confident and proactive, looking to take the game to the home side in a way that an attacking formation like the 4-4-2 diamond demands.
As would prove to be the case throughout the afternoon however, Reading weren’t sharp enough in the final third. Joao got in down the right early on but fired over, while crosses from Yiadom (enjoying space down the right) and Olise (enjoying space through the middle) didn’t quite find their targets in the box.
As the half wore on, the hosts grew into the contest, particularly having joy down Reading’s right. A cross from that side was flicked goalwards from close range by Glenn Murray, while Joe Lolley (who would soon go off with an injury) danced through the defence before firing wide from the edge of the box - in similar fashion to a weaving run through the middle by Joao at the other end, just prior.
There wasn’t enough protection coming from the midfield on that side; Rinomhota’s energy and positional awareness were conspicuous by their absence. Alfa Semedo’s a decent back-up to have in that spot, but he seemed to let the game pass him by without really getting stuck in.
That shouldn’t have mattered. Late on in the half, Joao had the chance to put Reading in front but, in the words of the irate Pauno on the sidelines, was “f*cking casual” in his execution. A corner was played into Tom McIntyre at the near post, his flick teed up Joao nicely a matter of yards out... but he fluffed his lines and miskicked. You have to think that the Joao from earlier this season would have buried that.
Going into the second half, Reading needed to just go again: keep the attacking mindset while keeping things tight at the back. The second of those was the hard bit: Sammy Ameobi found it too easy to get past the isolated Omar Richards on Reading’s left and put in a low cross that was turned home by Tom Holmes, under pressure from Glenn Murray. The fault however was with the full back, who needed to do better in preventing the ball being delivered from such a dangerous spot in the first place.
That shouldn’t have mattered. Shortly after the opener, Puscas had the chance to get Reading level. Josh Laurent found the centre forward in behind the Forest defence but, with the relatively simple task of placing his finish either side of Samba, Puski blasted over.
Missing another opportunity naturally seemed to deflate Reading, and the hosts soon weren’t all that far away from making it 2-0. Anthony Knockaert, who replaced Lolley before the break, put a long-range effort wide, while Ameobi tried similar but drew an acrobatic stop from Rafa, who flung himself to his right to push the shot away for a corner.
Meite’s introduction in the 61st minute for Semedo seemed to energise the Royals. Reading’s new set-up (seemingly close to a 4-3-3) was more about fitting in three centre forwards and a playmaker than creating a coherent system though, so the change in personnel wasn’t the immediate game-changer we’d have hoped for. Reading’s shape looked better when Sone Aluko came on for Puscas, creating more of a 4-2-3-1, even though Aluko’s individual impact was limited.
When Yiadom hit the woodwork from a tight angle after Olise played him in, and then saw his deep cross nodded over by Joao, you thought it was going to be one of those days when literally nothing was going to fall for Reading.
...that was until Meite stepped up to the plate. Like he’s done so many times before for this team, Meite was the man on the scene when it really counted. Joao did well in a deep position to pick the ball up, hold off a couple of defenders and play in Meite, who could drive at the box and let fly. Samba, who helped Reading secure 1-1 draws with poor goalkeeping twice last season, did so again and couldn’t keep out Meite’s venomous hit.
From nothing, Reading were back level and had the momentum to go on and win. But besides a Holmes header at the back post (side netting) and two free kicks from just outside the area (blasted over by Olise, put straight at Samba by Meite), the Royals couldn’t come up with enough to secure a victory that, since the opener, had looked unlikely.
The result gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Picking up a point means the Royals edge up to five points clear of seventh (Bournemouth, who lost 3-2 to sixth-placed Barnsley), but we’re now eight points off Watford in second. Automatic promotion is an ambition that’s surely now out of reach.
From a Reading point of view, the reaction to our worst result of the season (defeat at Adams Park) stands at three wins and a draw. With two winnable games coming up against Birmingham City in midweek and Queen’s Park Rangers next Saturday, before an international break, we’ve every chance of making it four or five wins from six.
Do that, and a 1-1 come-from-behind draw from an off day at the City Ground doesn’t look all that bad.