A little disclaimer before we get into the nitty gritty: I don’t want this piece to be a doom and gloom piece. Yes, we’ve gone off track recently and our place in the top six is looking nowhere near as secure as we’ve gotten used to this season but, having let the dust settle from the last two results, being where we are is a hell of an achievement in itself.
With that being said though, there are clear problems that have bubbled to the surface in the last few weeks and these issues need to be addressed sharpish if we’re going to make anything out of this season.
What’s gone wrong?
We were never, ever going to sustain the remarkable (but ridiculously freakish) start we had to the season. In those first eight games our conversion rate was astonishingly good and that early season form was built entirely around a rock-solid defence combined with clinical, ruthless finishing at the other end of the pitch. That was always going to end at some point, it just had to.
It did, and we coped with it pretty well for a while - we still managed to pick up a good amount of points, with the likes of Lucas Joao staying in red-hot form for the most part. However, we are now a far cry from the deadly team we were earlier on in the season.
And the aforementioned Portuguese striker has arguably been the main culprit of this downturn in taking our chances. Now, like I said at the beginning, this isn’t a doom and gloom, everything’s going wrong piece, so I want everyone to understand where we’d be without this guy this season.
Joao has been phenomenal, imperious, unplayable at times. He’s been one of the players of the season, not just for us, but in the entire league - and he is a huge reason (maybe even the biggest reason) why we are sitting in sixth place right now. However, I honestly don’t think he’s been the same since the missed penalty at Preston North End back in January.
Again, like I said earlier, the early season form was unsustainable. But now we - and Joao in particular - are at the complete other end of that scale. The chances are being created, but where they were being taken with aplomb in the opening games of the campaign, they’re being squandered - and now is the time when taking those chances actually means something.
We missed huge chances against Wycombe, Nottingham Forest and, most recently, QPR, which would’ve potentially won us all three of those games. With that being said though, we have also taken chances in recent games too - and that’s down to one guy, Yakou Meite, which leads me nicely into the next reason why thing’s have gone so wrong... injuries.
This is something we all know about, and something that probably needs a standalone piece, but we have been desperately unlucky with injuries this season - and long-term ones, too.
Laurent, Joao, Meite, Yiadom, Swift, Moore, Ejaria, Puscas, Morrison, Richards and Rinomhota have all spent time in the treatment room this season, and these injuries have often coincided. That’s 11 players who would arguably walk into any team in the league - it’s going to have an effect on your performances.
Yes, every team suffers injuries. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a reason for a downturn in form. If those players stay fit, there’s a good argument to have about whether we’d be aiming even higher than finishing in the top six. Particularly the likes of Meite and Swift - whose absences have, in my opinion, been the biggest of them all.
A huge factor in how these last eight games will go will be whether or not we get players back fit. Getting Morrison and Swift back as soon as possible will be at the top of Pauno’s agenda, and whether or not he manages that will have a huge impact on where we ultimately finish.
Thirdly, and probably not finally because I’m sure you all have your valid opinions on what’s going wrong at the moment, our reaction to going a goal behind has been really, really bad all season.
We're good when we score first, we’re one of the best in the league at it. But to be a play-off team in this division, you have to be able to come from behind and win games - something we’ve managed just once all season, thanks to a Lucas Joao brace up in Huddersfield.
I don't know why, I don’t know how - those are questions for the players and Pauno to find the solution too - but we are a completely different team when we concede the first goal in a game. Our games swing far too heavily on the first goal. Without wanting to use too many cliches, you have to show character and respond when you concede the opening goal.
This isn’t a dig at the players’ mentality on the whole because, barring the game-that-shall-not-be-named last Wednesday, the mentality and effort of the players is one thing that cannot be criticised. However, we look clueless when we go a goal behind.
Because in this league, when a team scores against a team fighting at the top of the table, they usually do one thing: sit back. Sit back and wait for a chance to punish again on the counter - and we have proved time and time again that we don't know to combat that - which is a big worry.
How do we fix it?
It’s all well and good pointing and saying “that’s gone wrong”. It’s clear to any Reading fan, even the most optimistic of us, that things aren’t going quite as smoothly as they have been this season.
The question that will be keeping Pauno up at night over the next two weeks is “how can I fix this?” Well, a good start would be beating Barnsley on Good Friday at Oakwell. There are big games and then there are big games - and this one falls under the latter.
It's an obvious thing to say I know, I'm not claiming to be a genius by stating this, but I think it’s fair to say that if we walk away from Oakwell with all three points, things will be looking a lot, lot brighter amongst us fans. I don’t care how we do it, I don't care if we get battered for 90 minutes and then nick one on the break in added time (in fact, I’d probably love that more than a 3-0 battering) - but if we win against Barnsley, all we be okay again.
The game against Barnsley will hopefully include the return of Michael Morrison too - if what he said during his Sky Sports debut for the game against Blues is true. I briefly mentioned this earlier, and again it’s an obvious one, but getting players like Morro back will go a long way to making sure we finish in the top six.
Keep our fingers crossed that Yiadom and TMac’s injuries aren't too serious, and get Swifty back as soon as possible, and that's a squad I back to finish in the play-offs, that’s a squad I back against any team in this division.
The frustrating thing is that injuries are something you just have to wait for, you can't rush bringing players back. Especially in this crazy, frantic league. So Pauno, like all of us fans, will be keeping his fingers and toes crossed that he can have a full-strength squad to pick from for at least the majority of the remaining eight games - he’ll know how important that is.
But when or if those players do make a return, the whole squad have to show an improvement from the last two games, and put the Birmingham hangover well and truly to bed.
The frustrating thing is if we’d have beaten QPR, that game at St Andrews would’ve been forgotten about. However, because they failed to do just that, I feel there is still a very dark cloud hanging over the players - a cloud only they themselves can turn back to bright, Royal blue skies.
I said earlier that on the whole I can't criticise the fight and spirit of this group of players. They have proved time and time again this season that they are different to the crop of uninterested, unenthusiastic, woefully detached players we’ve been used to over the last three years or so. And that’s exactly why that Blues game is such a bitter pill to swallow.
I’m not going to go as far to say that they've lost the fanbase, because that would be a ridiculous thing to say. But I think they’ve certainly got a point to prove, and that’s the first hurdle they all have to jump, and they need to jump it with flying colours.
These are all things I fully expect the players and manager to do. Pauno has done more than enough this season to warrant our trust, patience and love - and this is the final thing I'm going to say about how we fix this mess, because us fans have a big part to play.
Paunovic said on a zoom interview with STAR earlier in the season that, even though we’re not in the stadiums, the players see what we say on social media - so we have a duty to stay right behind the players. Yes, we have a right to moan every now and again, this is our club and we pay good money to watch these players play every week, but when the going gets tough, and the tough has definitely got going now, that’s when the players really need us.
So stay positive, keep the faith, back the players in any way you possibly can. Because they’ll need us. We are the creators of the mindset and aura that surrounds the club; let’s create one that gives the players the best possible chance of success in the last eight games.