In trying to sum up Reading’s 3-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace, there’s one word I keep coming back to in my mind: meh. It’s an apt description for the Royals’ very OK performance, and for how I feel about this particular loss.
Sure, there are issues that need to be highlighted. Reading looked error-prone at times, didn’t create enough, didn’t capitalise on Palace’s red card enough, and the lack of squad depth was evident in the starting XI and choice of substitutes. But we didn’t embarrass ourselves (see the 4-0 friendly defeat to the same opposition in 2018) and no one had a stinker.
I’ve seen some distinctly negative takes on this match since full time - along the lines that we’re set for a relegation battle because we lost to a 10-man team. But in reality, this game can only tell us so much about what’ll come to pass in 2021/22. We won’t be playing Premier League sides in the Championship next season, and the visitors going down to 10 men wasn’t a golden ticket: Palace still had the quality to grind out a win, and 10-man teams aren’t always that easy to break down anyway.
Of course, this isn’t to say that ‘meh’ is good enough. This summer has been a morale-sapping one for Reading thus far; both before the match and after the red card, this game could have been seen as an opportunity to inject some optimism ahead of what looks set to be a tough campaign.
A top-end Championship side would have been able to win this match: that includes not only those contending to get promotion this season, but also the Reading of last season. Based on today’s evidence the Royals certainly aren’t at that level, but there’s a long way between there and relegation standard. If we do get evidence that the Royals are in for a scrap to stay in the second tier, it’ll come in the imminent league season, not in this friendly.
The afternoon started off with Pauno naming a stronger side than he’s been able to this summer, albeit one that still had to rely on youth. Lucas Joao, Tom McIntyre, Dejan Tetek and Liam Moore all started in a 4-2-3-1 that looked like this:
Rafael; Yiadom, Morrison, Moore, McIntyre; Tetek, Laurent; Azeez, Swift, Ejaria; Joao.
The less said about the first 30 minutes or so the better. Little of note happened: Reading offered pretty much nothing going forwards, and while the visitors did have a few sights of goal from range, none of them troubled Rafael.
The key moment came half an hour in. Cheikhou Kouyaté’s poorly timed lunge on Ovie Ejaria looked set to earn him a yellow card, but the referee - to everyone’s surprise - sent him to the stands (albeit after lengthy protests from Palace players who wouldn’t accept the decision).
Reading were then the stronger side for the next 25 minutes or so: 15 until half time, 10 or so after it. Before the break the Royals went close through Ejaria - who put a great opportunity wide after typically nifty footwork to create the chance - and Laurent, who bent a shot agonisingly close to the far top corner.
The game was there to attack in the second half, and the Royals set up to do so with a tactical rejig at the break. Ethan Bristow replaced Tetek, meaning McIntyre partnered Laurent in the double pivot, and that change at left back provided much more thrust and mobility down that flank. Ironically, Bristow’s forward runs seemed to be covered by first-half left back McIntyre dropping back into that position when Reading were in position. Bristow even had a few sights of goal from set pieces, firing a few powerful strikes at goal when picking the ball up on the edge of the box. He fancies himself as a Berkshire Roberto Carlos, and if he can hit the ball that sweetly, I don’t see any problem.
Although Reading looked the most likely to score - stop me if you’ve heard this before - Palace took the lead. Just after Joel Ward hit the post, Jean-Philippe Mateta was fouled and converted a spot kick.
The Royals managed to go again though, and almost brought it back level when Michael Morrison’s header was cleared off the line. But John Swift went one better, equalising via a well-hit - but deflected - free kick.
At that point you fancied Reading to go on and win the game, but the Royals’ attack lacked the cohesion and intensity to really trouble Palace. Plus, no player really took a hold of the game in the final third. Joao had been nonexistent before being replaced just after the opener by George Puscas, who was similarly ineffective, while triallist Kadeem Harris - who came on with Puscas - offered little. Mamadi Camara added energy and enthusiasm on the right wing at 1-1 when Femi Azeez moved central to partner Puscas, but little quality.
What was essentially the winning goal - Jordan Ayew putting a deflected shot past Rafael after Reading had given the ball away - seemed to knock the stuffing out of the Royals. Palace managed the closing 10 minutes or so maturely, and ultimately expanded their lead with a stunner of a free kick in the final action of the match.
In the end, Reading weren’t great but weren’t all that bad either. When I ran into Olly on the shuttle bus to the station after the game, both of us agreed it wasn’t a ‘3-1 loss performance’ - I was of the mind it was closer to a 1-1, Olly edging to a 2-1 loss. Either way, the scoreline was a tad harsh in relation to what the Royals had offered on the day.
Regardless, there’s clearly a lot that needs to be done in the coming days and weeks. Most obviously that’s in bringing in extra bodies if possible, but whether that happens or not, Reading need more from their current attacking players. That could well naturally come from getting back to the rigour of competitive Championship action.