How exactly do you unpack a game like that? Reading’s 3-3 draw with Queens Park Rangers was a topsy-turvy affair: first a depressingly familiar opening goal, then a pleasingly unfamiliar turnaround before a depressingly predictable collapse late on.
Just as importantly, how do you feel about a game like that - glass half empty or glass half full? This match showed some of the key hallmarks of Reading’s failings so far this season - inability to see a result out and poor defending - but for a significant stretch it was also our best performance of the campaign.
My own emotions are decidedly mixed. The disappointment of throwing away a 3-1 lead stings all that bit more when you consider how avoidable that finale was. On the flip side, I saw enough in Reading’s fight-back from 1-0 down and second-half display to suggest better times can and will come.
The irony of course is that probably most of us, myself included, would have taken a point before kick-off. It’s worth remembering that QPR are a strong, in-form side, particularly on the road as they’d won their previous five away matches (across this season and last). Objectively this probably should go down as a good point, but subjectively it still feels like a loss.
The afternoon started with Pauno making three sides to the side that started at Huddersfield a couple of weeks ago. Baba Rahman made his debut at left back, while Alen Halilovic and Ovie Ejaria (recovered from Covid) made their first starts of the season on the right and left wings respectively. Tom Holmes, Andy Rinomhota (injured) and Junior Hoilett were the ones to miss out.
Reading (4-2-3-1): Rafael; Yiadom, Morrison, Moore, Rahman; Dele-Bashiru, Laurent; Halilovic, Swift, Ejaria; Puscas
In all honesty we learned nothing new about Reading from the first half. We’re still bad at defending set pieces and John Swift is still really good at scoring goals.
The opening goal was all too familiar to what we’ve seen earlier in the season: slack defending from an indirect free kick. The delivery was a fairly simple one to the back post, where a bizarrely untracked Rangers player had all the time and space to pick out a header into the six-yard box. In a poor attempt to clear the ball, Michael Morrison instead put it into his own net.
Reading’s equaliser though was gorgeous. With the departure of Michael Olise I’d worried that the Royals may lack a more expansive range of passing from their attacking players, but Alen Halilovic showed his quality in that department with a lovely ball over the top for Swift. Finding space without difficulty, Swifty had the simple job of controlling and finishing. All in all, a true moment of quality.
Besides the goals, the first half was underwhelming from a Reading and entertainment point of view. QPR generally had pretty good control over proceedings and a few chances to extend their lead, while the Royals created little going forwards. Keeping it to 1-0 and then clawing themselves back into the game though were creditable - especially in contrast to the last home game, when Reading went 2-0 behind against Bristol City and were always up against it from that point.
Whatever Pauno said at the break, it seemed to lift Reading. The side looked distinctly more energetic and proactive in the second half, playing with more swagger and the demeanour of a side that looked like it knew it could win the game. From the 64th minute until the 79th, that belief was well founded.
Reading took the lead through Swift shortly after the hour mark with a well-worked team goal. Halilovic and Yiadom combined down the right with the latter crossing for Dele-Bashiru, feeding Swift, who spun and finished. It was a satisfyingly simple goal, executed quickly and ruthlessly - and one we’re capable of repeating.
We did just that 13 minutes later. This time it was the turn of Ovie Ejaria and Liam Moore to link up on the left-hand side; the latter made a rare overlapping run before crossing to Swift - again finding space well in the box before slotting home.
At this point, it felt like everything had clicked for Reading. A 1-0 deficit had been turned into a 3-1 lead thanks to a supreme hat trick by the star man, the team were collectively playing well and the crowd were absolutely loving it. Reading had the game exactly where they wanted it.
With another 13 minutes to go, the priority had to turn to game management. A two-goal lead should have been seen as extra room for error, not an invitation to lose concentration, but that’s what it came to be. Barely two minutes after Swift completed his hat trick, the visitors were back in the game when Andre Gray tucked home from close range, taking advantage of a gap in the backline that simply shouldn’t have been there.
Perhaps attack would have been the best form of defence. Reading had already put themselves in a commanding position in the half by pressing forwards and taking the game to QPR, rather than the more reactive display before the break. George Puscas was agonisingly close to proving the benefits of an attacking mindset when, shortly after QPR made it 3-2, he nodded a vicious Baba Rahman cross just past the post.
Puscas’ time was done shortly after. The Romanian had put in a decent shift thus far, putting himself about well, getting in behind to cause problems and work a few opportunities, and generally being a useful presence up top. So Pauno’s decision to swap him out for Tom Holmes was... very odd.
I always try to see the potential logic in strange managerial decisions, even if you could tell at the time (not just in hindsight) that they were bad. I guess that adding some extra aerial presence at the back made some sense, especially if Pauno anticipated a barrage of pressure late on. But doing that at the expense of our only centre forward was counter-productive: it stalled any attacking momentum we may have been able to generate and denied an outlet if any pressure came our way.
Even without a striker (Swift had the unenviable job of leading the line in the closing stages), Reading should have done better in seeing the lead out. Halilovic opted for an ambitious pass over keeping the ball himself and running into the corner, thereby losing possession, giving QPR the opportunity to break upfield, before getting in behind too easily and scoring.
I can’t help but feel that this is one of those games that will be defined largely by what comes next. It extends Reading’s poor form (now one win, one draw and four defeats), but is still decidedly better than the two losses that preceded the international break. Follow it up with a win in midweek at home to Peterborough United and four points looks like progress; follow it up with a draw or loss and it looks like stagnation at best, regression at worst.
Looking further down the line, this game showed why Reading are a mid-table side. After all, this is a team that’s both capable of playing some great football and scoring goals (hence going 3-1 up against strong opposition), but also imploding defensively and throwing the game away.
The unknown factor in the mix is what more is to come. Reading were missing a host of players who would have helped today: new signings Danny Drinkwater, Scott Dann (neither fit enough), Junior Hoilett (fatigued after international duty) and the injured Andy Rinomhota - besides other long-term absentees.
Plus, those who are fit will need time to gel. We can’t fairly expect top performances just yet from TDB, Rahman and Halilovic (not to mention Ejaria too) when they’re making their first starts of the season in their respective positions. Full harmony doesn’t come overnight, and perhaps that contributed heavily to Reading’s relatively lacklustre first half.
But Pauno himself can’t afford for ‘improvement takes time’ to be the defining phrase for much longer. While he deserves patience, results have to come too. For him, Tuesday night is massive.