“We didn’t play a beautiful game. But it was the appropriate way to beat a very difficult team who are very good on the ball - one of the best technical teams in the division. When we couldn’t keep the ball, we had to have an alternative. And that alternative worked very well. We showed what we had at the beginning of the season in terms of the solidity of our defence. We are keeping clean sheets and getting good results.”
That quote from Pauno (emphasis added by me) stood out after Tuesday night’s crucial win over Blackburn Rovers. For all the evolution Reading have gone through this season - whether it’s tactics or personnel, forced or unforced - the first eight games are still proving to have a big influence on our campaign, more than four months on.
The importance of that run of seven wins and one draw is obvious. It announced Veljko Paunovic’s Reading to the division, clearly established our promotion credentials and provided a huge boost in morale - not to mention a near-perfect return of 22 points from a possible 24 that provided room for error when form hit a rocky patch further down the line.
More relevant today though is in how those results came about. Reading were far from at their free-flowing best in those first eight games, generally happy to prioritise defensive solidity, safe in the knowledge that there was sufficient individual quality in both thirds to grab a lead and then hold on to it.
Reading’s approach couldn’t stay like that though. After the fourth game - a 1-0 home win via a first-half George Puscas goal (yes I appreciate the slight irony in the timing) - I explained that Reading had got so far with a wall-like defence and ruthlessly efficient attack, but the system had to evolve into a more expansive one, capable of creating more chances from open play, if the Royals were to move forward and keep the promotion charge alive.
We’ve seen clear signs of that evolution. After the fourth game, Reading had the lowest number of shots per game (7.3) of any side in the division, but now sit a much more respectable 13th with 11.1 shots per game. Plus, this side feels like a much more dynamic, free-flowing one in attack than the one we saw in September and October. Take the midfield double pivot for example: no longer simply the ‘wall’ in front of the back four, as the season’s gone on, Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent have increasingly been seen popping up in the final third.
At their best, Reading have been capable of fantastic all-round performances - not just being defensively sound and nicking a goal or two, but bossing the match and putting the opposition to the sword. Games against Blackburn Rovers (away), Bristol City (home) and Bournemouth (home) stand out to me in this regard.
For all that progress though, it hasn’t been matched with consistency - primarily down to a relentless injury list. Reading’s form has ebbed and flowed since the first eight games, starting off with the infamous four-match losing streak. That inconsistency is highlighted by the fact that, although Reading’s post-Bournemouth away form has been good enough to put us seventh, we’ve only won back-to-back matches twice - Huddersfield Town/Coventry City in January, and Rotherham United/Sheffield Wednesday in the last two.
And that brings us back to the early-season approach. Whenever Reading have got into a rut, we’ve been able to dig ourselves out of it by returning to a more defence-focused outlook. Reading reacted to the December run of three losses in four with a cautious approach in the 2-1 Boxing Day win over Luton Town, and similar conservatism away to Swansea City a few days later earned an unlikely 0-0 draw. The only victory in those four matches (QPR away) also came in similar fashion.
And so it’s also proved in the last two games: scrappy 1-0 wins that were built on defensive resolve rather than being particularly pretty on the eye. Pauno neatly summed up his approach after the win at the weekend by simply saying: “At this point of the season, playing fancy is wrong.”
Although the Royals were outshot on each occasion (17-12 by Rotherham, 12-9 by Blackburn), the Millers and Rovers managed just one and two shots on target respectively - and none of those three came from inside Reading’s box. That record is hugely impressive - and remarkably similar to what we saw in the opening four matches of the season. Reading conceded just two shots on target to each of Derby County, Barnsley and Watford, while five were allowed at Cardiff City. As a result: clean sheets in the first three of those games and one goal conceded in the last.
Clearly, for all the changes Reading have gone through this season, the team is still capable of switching back to that safety-first approach when required. It’s a shame Reading have had to do that; I’d have loved to see free-flowing Reading each week, but incessant injuries have put Pauno on the back foot for far too much of the campaign.
Tactical flexibility is no bad thing though, and at the end of the day, it’s played a big part in keeping Reading in the top six. What’s more, if the Royals do have a play-off campaign come the end of the season, the ability to shut up shop and defend so resolutely could come very much in handy.