At half time I thought I’d have plenty of positivity to dish out in this match report. I should have known better, shouldn’t I? In a manner all too reminiscent of Reading’s poor mentality in recent months, the Royals collapsed in the second half against Norwich City to lose 4-1 at Carrow Road - a result that sealed the title for the Canaries.
The fact that it came after an encouraging first half which ended 1-1 only makes the result all the more frustrating. For 45 minutes we saw the Royals play positive football without fear, as if they didn’t want the season to end, getting a deserved lead and creditably going in at the break in a drawing position. The second half though was pretty much the polar opposite: the hosts took their performance up a few levels and Reading’s belief went - although our game wasn’t helped by a string of changes that killed momentum.
There are good reasons not to care all that much about this game. Norwich showed their quality in the second half to seal a comfortable win, and you can understand how having little to play for would exacerbate Reading’s collapse. In addition, the absence of Liam Moore and Andy Rinomhota meant starts for the relatively inexperienced Lewis Gibson and Dejan Tetek in key defensive roles, and that can’t be overlooked.
And yet, it’s still a shame to see this team roll over, even if it’s in one half against a very good team. The Reading side of earlier this season would still probably have lost this game in the second 45 - after all, it did in the reverse fixture - but it would have put up more of a fight. How well Veljko Paunovic does in restoring that doggedness will go a long way to deciding how well next season pans out.
Besides the surprise inclusion of Gibson at centre half (alongside Tom Holmes) and Tetek in the double pivot (alongside Josh Laurent), this was a very recognisable Reading XI:
Rafael; Yiadom, Holmes, Gibson, Richards; Tetek, Laurent; Olise, Swift, Ejaria; Joao
The Royals edged the first half overall, and that was evident from the off. Confidence in possession and energy to win the ball back meant this was one of the more enjoyable 45 minutes I’ve seen in the second half of this season. There was no expectation or need for Reading to win the game, and accordingly the Royals played without pressure. It was so refreshing to see.
Reading’s 12th-minute lead was surprising but deserved. After fine work from Tetek on the right, Olise swung in a gorgeous free kick to the back post that Laurent duly nodded home. Not only a fine opener, but also somewhat unusual in how it came about: we’re used to seeing Reading trying more elaborate routines from dead balls this season, but ‘pinpoint delivery + powerful finish’ worked a treat this time.
Although Reading’s forward players were revelling in the space left open by Norwich playing high up and losing the ball pretty easily by their standards, similar was happening at the back. Gibson and Holmes are talented young centre halves, but they lack experience, and that’s bound to be exploited by a high-pressing, excellent side like Norwich.
After Gibson losing the ball in Reading’s third a few times wasn’t punished, Holmes’ decision not to clear when given the chance to do so was. He had the opportunity to boot the ball away while under pressure, but opted to go short back to Rafael who - being closed down - could only play the ball to Kieran Dowell to equalise.
The reaction to that goal summed up Reading’s first-half positivity though. A gorgeous link-up between Ejaria and Swift on the left in the build-up to one chance showed their footwork at its glorious best, and Olise had a few opportunities to restore the Royals’ lead; one just before the break should have been converted, but the youngster’s right-footed effort was wild.
If Reading’s fine performance was obvious from the start of the first half, Norwich’s improvements after the break were clear at the beginning of the second. Rafael made a string of saves in the first few minutes after the interval to keep the match level: flicking a shot from a tight angle past the far post, tipping a header over the bar from the resulting corner, and then keeping out a shot - more easily this time - from the edge of the box.
The hosts had been uncharacteristically immature in their management of the game in the first half, allowing Reading a way into the game. Although it would take a little while before their second, third and fourth goals of the afternoon, Norwich’s control of proceedings - and denial of openings for the visitors - was evident throughout the second half.
That job got easier with the removal of John Swift, who had given Reading’s midfield poise and composure in possession, for Yakou Meite. It didn’t play a direct part in Norwich’s second, a powerful finish across Rafael from a tight angle by Dowell on 64 minutes, but the lack of Swift’s quality on the ball meant Reading lacked an outlet to build into the game once more - as had happened after the equaliser.
In an attempt to freshen things up, Pauno then swapped out Tetek and Olise for Alfa Semedo and Tomas Esteves. Ideally, I’d have preferred non-loanees to be the ones getting the game time at this point, seeing as there’s no point developing other clubs’ talent. Although Semedo was needed (being the only central midfielder on the bench), using Esteves as an attacking change when George Puscas was available struck me as odd.
Either way, Reading badly lacked cohesion after those changes, and Teemu Pukki started to get into the game. The Royals had kept Norwich’s leading scorer pretty quiet in the first half, but later on in the second he got in behind increasingly often, and should have scored a couple of times when in on goal.
Instead the third went to Xavi Quintilla, and there was no stopping it. Semedo had given the ball away by miscontrolling a pass from Omar Richards, then taken down Todd Cantwell just outside the area. Quintilla took full advantage of the opportunity and lashed the free kick past Rafael.
At that point the result was no longer in doubt, but there was time for another cock-up at the back, again from Holmes. He played a poor backpass to Rafael but, underhit, it was intercepted by Pukki, who had a simple tap-in after going past the goalie.
BBC Berks mentioned on their commentary late on the experience Reading had at the end of the 2004/05 season. The Latics beat the Royals 3-1 to seal automatic promotion, and seeing the opposition’s celebrations that day inspired Reading ahead of the title-winning 2005/06 campaign. Hopefully this game at Carrow Road will prove to be similarly influential.
As harsh as we’ve been on the team in the last few months (I’ve certainly given out my fair share of criticism in recent match reports), pushing for automatic promotion in 2021/22 isn’t a far-fetched idea. Despite the drop-off, at the core of this side is a level of spirit and individual ability that had been lacking for quite some time.
This campaign may have tailed off badly, but if we respond to it well, we could well be the ones celebrating automatic promotion this time next year.