For a lot of this summer transfer window, it’s felt as if Reading’s hands have been tied behind their back by the EFL: severely restricted in bringing in new players to boost a depleted squad. Against Bristol City on Tuesday night, it was more like Reading had done that themselves.
It’s such a tediously fundamental part of football, but if you can’t defend, you simply won’t succeed. Now, one lapse at the back can be overlooked, perhaps even two, but the three goals conceded were so frustratingly avoidable that the issue can’t be overlooked.
Two instances of poor marking from set pieces early on in the first half, one from open play in the second. Taken in conjunction with the poor defending and sheer number of goals allowed since pre-season (Reading have conceded three against West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Stoke City and Swansea City), being so slack at the back is looking like a serious wider concern.
When this issue is a collective one, on the part of various Reading defenders rather than one specific individual, it’s tricky to find the root cause, if there is an identifiable one. Poor coaching after the loss of John O’Shea and Eddie Niedzwiecki? A lack of confidence leading to a lack of concentration? Whatever the case, simply put Reading need to take responsibility for sorting this issue out - soon - regardless of what happens in the transfer market.
What frustrates me so much about this is that, when you sit back and look at the bigger picture, Reading had enough things to worry about already. We’ve been so busy tearing our hair out over a lack of signings, generally poor finances, injuries and other woes that the relatively new problem of weak defending is akin to twisting a knife that was already lodged in.
The evening started with just the one change: George Puscas in for the injured Lucas Joao. Reading stuck with the 3-4-1-2 shape from Saturday, meaning Puscas partnered Femi Azeez up top. All things considered that made sense - due to a lack of alternative options if nothing else.
But the damage was done early on. Inside the opening quarter of an hour, Reading conceded twice from a set piece: a long throw was headed on and converted from close range on five minutes, before a central free kick - knocked out to the left - was headed back across goal to be tucked away… again from close range.
At that point I feared the worst. Not just a limp defeat, but a heavy one. The visitors were all over Reading in those early stages and were in a position to have a particularly profitable evening.
But the Royals fought back. A formation switch was enacted, with Ethan Bristow shunted upfield from left wing back to left wing, creating something that looked like a 4-3-3. While not perfect, given that Reading’s left flank consisted of a full back and a centre back (Tom McIntyre at left back), it did allow more bodies to be committed forward.
And it bore fruit just five minutes after Bristol City’s second goal. In a similar move to the one that led to his first Reading goal on Saturday, Azeez tucked the ball home at the back post after a delivery from Josh Laurent on the left - albeit after the ball had bobbled away from Puscas in the centre.
Game on, and a previously subdued crowd injected energy into proceedings. But, despite briefly looking like they’d build up momentum, Reading’s play eventually settled into a predictable pattern: a lot of possession in the defensive third, but a lack of ideas to get the ball into the final third and create chances.
How to address that? At the break, Paunovic swapped out Bristow on the left wing for Tom Dele-Bashiru. While also not a natural wide man, the Watford loanee had the energy and drive to cut in from that side onto his stronger foot, and showed this evening that he’s got the ability to play there if required. That said, I’d have liked him to drop deep in search of the ball less often than he did.
I’d thought Reading had learned their lesson (don’t be bad at defending), but the Robins made it 3-1 on 52 minutes. Makeshift left back McIntyre was caught out, the space behind him attacked, before Weimann had the relatively simple job of slotting home from inside the box. The Royals had been cut open far too easily, and it was another reminder of the pressing need to bring in a specialist left back.
Reading had already had to fight back from being two goals behind, and being asked to do so again appeared to knock the stuffing out of them. There was no quick response akin to the one that led to Azeez’ goal in the first half; you could tell the game had been put back to being arm’s length away. There were flashes here and there, like when Moore nodded a Swift inswinging corner over the bar, but little to show Reading had a clear idea of what it took to get back into the game.
As a sign of the Royals’ lack of ideas up top, Jahmari Clarke - a debutant against Swansea City who was celebrating his 18th birthday on Tuesday August 17 - was brought on for Puscas. The youngster had some loose touches (acceptable for a rookie), but creditably put himself about well during his quarter of an hour or so on the pitch and had a penalty shoot waved away at one stage.
The game looked like fading away into nothing... until Moore took matters into his own hands on 81 minutes. The captain had looked poor defensively up until that point, but channelled his inner ‘Michael Morrison from the last time Reading played Bristol City’, charged up the pitch and rifled a shot into the bottom corner from outside the area.
Game on, again, and Reading suddenly looked like they could grab an unlikely point. That wasn’t to be though - the Royals showed the desire to push for an equaliser but lacked quality in the absence of Lucas Joao, Ovie Ejaria and Yakou Meite. In fact, it was the visitors who went closest, hitting the post late on before Rafael stopped the rebound.
A word here for the home support. Reading had been poor for so much of the game, but as soon as there was a sense that something could happen, you could really hear it in the stands - even if it was a small crowd. Fans in the newly moved Club 1871 (now where the away fans used to sit) and the rest of the ground vocally got behind the team, making me feel as if the side could be dragged over the line by sheer force of will.
It wasn’t to be though; despite that late rally, Reading were beaten and deservedly so. On another night, the Royals would have been able to push for an unlikely an undeserved three points with an 11th-hour surge, but criminal defending on numerous occasions earlier on in the match left the Royals with far too much to do.
Getting a result would have been a tall order for full-strength Reading, let alone this one. While attacking substitutes Dele-Bashiru and Clarke did well in their own right, the fact that they were the only realistic offensive options - with Kian Leavy and Mamadi Camara both playing 45 minutes in Newcastle the previous night - once more clearly demonstrates how thin on the ground Reading are.
Puscas has taken plenty of flak in the aftermath of this game. With news of Joao’s injury coming out this morning, there was talk throughout the day about the importance of Puscas performing tonight, so the spotlight was certainly fixed. For me, while he was ineffective and pretty anonymous throughout the match, I see little point focusing too much on him.
He needs service (and didn’t get it) and, in the long term, an actual run of games in the team. We knew both of those things going into tonight and a poor (but not actively bad) performance doesn’t change anything. Anyway, the bigger problem with the team is defending.
Looking ahead, while not winning at the weekend would hardly spell disaster, Reading could really use a reaction at Coventry City to show that this is an inconsistent side, not a poor one. At the least though, we need a clear sign of defensive improvement, and can’t afford to wait until the international break to make progress on that front.