When has there been a more important month for Reading FC than March 2021? Certainly not since May 2017, when Reading were just a kick or two away from reaching the Premier League. The recent bleeding has been stemmed by gutsy 1-0 wins against Rotherham United and Blackburn Rovers, and while the chasing pack are nipping at our heels, the month of March is a fantastic opportunity for Reading to move away from seventh place.
Reading will show us this month if they truly mean business. With all of our games in March coming against teams that sit in the bottom half of the table, there will be nowhere to hide if results begin to slip.
Here’s the remaining schedule and their respective league positions:
March 6 (H) Sheffield Wednesday
The club that started the season with a minus in front of their points total has done fantastically well to stay in contention for staying in the division. Recent results have seen them falter however, and Reading should have more than enough quality to avenge their inability to win at Hillsborough.
March 13 (A) Nottingham Forest
Despite having hired a big name manager and spent outrageously through the summer, Forest have only scored more than one goal three times so far this year, in 13 attempts, and one of those goal gluts was against Wycombe Wanderers.
March 17 (A) Birmingham City
A team that seems to struggle from the same home-form issues that have dogged the Royals at the Madejski, given that they recently won their first home game in 13 attempts. Hopefully Reading can pile more home-grown misery on Birmingham.
March 20 (H) QPR
Ah, the fake hoops: the currently highest-placed team out of those listed. If we can’t prove that we’re the superior hooped team, then what are we even playing for?
The wish list
In short then, between now and March 20, we need four wins. The time for excuses is over, and it’s time to fix the issues or tumble down the league. So how do we ensure we’re in pole position for the playoffs come April 1? Here’s my wish list:
Meite comes back with a bang and improves the form of Joao
The recurring injury that’s cost us the most this year is not John Swift’s, but Meite’s. Without Meite’s physicality, Pauno has felt forced to push Semedo higher up the pitch to compensate, and provide another competitor alongside Joao for lofted balls. Unfortunately, while Semedo may be able to provide some of that lost physicality, the offensive difference is stark. Meite can get overexcited, but he’s a direct runner who never drops his head, and can count on a blinding turn of pace when he needs to. With La Brute unavailable for selection for good chunks of the season, it’s been clear that the right side of the attacking three has never truly settled. The coach is clearly missing Meite.
Speaking of missing Meite, Lucas Joao is working hard but struggling right now. In my opinion, Reading’s best performance this year was at home against Bristol City. The Royals harried the Robins all day, didn’t lose their heads when Bristol equalized, and eventually the dam burst on the way to a 3-1 win. That day, Meite picked up one of his just 10 starts this year, working on Joao’s right wing, and proved his worth as both creator and finisher with a goal and an assist. His direct running led to both of those, scything into Joao’s vacated position to collect an Olise pass for his goal, and creating the danger himself with a long pounding run for Joao’s goal and his assist.
Moreover, he took seven(!) shots that day, getting five of them on target. Reading have to hope that this compulsively direct style continues when he returns. When considered In combination with his proven goalscoring record, Championship defenders will have to respect the threat Meite poses, leaving Joao a little more free to work his magic.
In short, Meite offers a genuinely different type of threat to Joao: more of an unbridled power than a strong but controlled finisher. If Pauno wants to persist with the 4-2-3-1, Meite seems like the man to come back and get the best out of Joao. There is of course, another option however:
Test Puscas, rest Joao
The elephant in the room here is Puscas, who will be itching to start more games. It was exciting to see Puscas and Joao together up front on the team sheet, but it still looked as though Lucas was, and is, tired.
As stated above, eventually I’d like to see Meite return to the squad to compliment Joao and have Puscas as an option on the bench, and I think Pauno is most likely to choose this option. It’s going to take time for Meite to bed back in however, perhaps not being able to start until the game against Birmingham City. So while the next two games aren’t against particularly leaky defences (Sheffield Wednesday have conceded just one more goal than us!), they may be the time to give Joao a rest, and let Puscas work his way back into form.
I think Puscas offers a similar range of skills to Joao (hold-up play, deft flicks). He hasn’t shown the pure quality that Joao has produced just yet, but he’s no slouch and he learned a lot from last year’s lone-striker role. There won’t be a better opportunity to test Puscas and give Joao a week or two on the bench to recover, so let’s hope Pauno takes it.
A come-from-behind victory
We could do with a come-from-behind victory, or a victory in a volatile back and forth game: something to get the passion and confidence back into the team, and remind them that chasing the game in the second half doesn’t have to mean curtains. Too many times this year an early lead taken by the opposition has led to a very long afternoon for Reading. I’m sure most Reading fans could take an educated guess at our total number of come-from-behind victories this year: if you’re counting on your fingers you’ll only need one hand, nay one finger...
This implies the importance of Reading learning to score a goal in each half. The stats on how often we’ve managed that this season are jarring: just four times total and only twice since October. Worse is what this implies: that Reading are struggling to produce a full 90-minute quality performance.
Just using the eye test, the Royals can certainly be accused of fading in and out of games. They can burn incredibly hot for 10-15-minute stretches and put a lot of pressure on opposition goalkeepers, but then lull and take only two to three shots in a half within the same game. The stats reflect that, showing Reading score a quarter of their goals between the 30th and 45th minutes. That’s right in the sweet spot between Reading’s slow starts and their tendency to fade late in games through a combination of fatigue and Pauno’s questionable substitutions.
Reading are a team built to play with a lead, but most teams in the Championship would like to be able to say that. If they’re going to truly challenge this year, they’ll need to be able to win no matter what the score is at half time.
No late goals!
Reading are exhibiting a worrying trend. The Royals have conceded 13 of their 37 goals in the final 15 minutes of games, good for 35% of their total goals conceded in just 16% of the game. Conceding late goals isn’t the mark of any good team. We saw this against Millwall and Brentford in February, with the Royals seeming solid until the 75-minute mark. This is certainly something Pauno can affect, likely with his much-maligned substitutions.
Against Millwall for instance, Pauno took Tom Holmes off, and while it’s tough to blame his replacement Andy Yiadom for our subsequent collapse, it’s certainly questionable to make changes to a solid defence at a crucial time in the game. Pauno could affect the game positively at this moment with his substitutions and learning from his previous mistakes will be crucial to seeing games out.
There is hope here. After all, our last two victories have seen us with our backs to the wall and defending well in the final 15 minutes. What worries me though is Pauno’s willingness to sacrifice nearly all offensive capability for defence too early in a game.
I’d like to see Reading attempt to control possession in the last 15 minutes, rather than dropping deeper than the Marianas Trench and inviting teams to come onto them. Reading often spend the first half neatly passing between Laurent and the defence until an opening presents itself: why not attempt to play with a similar calm confidence later in the game?
Finally, after expending those efforts, this team could do with a rest. The Championship is always a tough division given the number of games, but this year has obviously been even tougher with the contracted schedule. There’s no doubt that players like Tom McIntyre and Michael Olise will be delighted to be playing as much football as possible, but most young players (especially at Olise’s age) would be more protected by their managers if the squad and fixture list allows. To give everyone a chance to reset and remind themselves of the very achievable goal they’ve laid out for themselves, a rest is needed.
Lo and behold then, there is a two-week break coming at the end of the month for an international break. The last international break came just before the FIRST(!) Bournemouth game. Four months will have passed since that break by the time the March break comes around, and in those four months, Reading will have played 26 Championship games in 119 days. That’s good for a game every 4.6 days, fewer than the recommended five days of recovery!
The team has done magnificently to come through a gruelling winter still in the play-off spots, but their legs and my heart will no doubt be thankful for having the last Saturday of March off. If they can string four more victories together and check some of these items off my March 2021 wishlist, then we’ll all be taking a much more calm and pleasant Saturday off on the 27th.