There’s no getting away from it, we’re all gutted by how that game ended.
Middlesbrough’s late winner was a gut-punch: simultaneously a goal that completed the sinking of Reading’s unlikely 84-minute resistance, and also one that you could see coming a mile off. It’s far from the first time this season the Royals have conceded late on - you don’t need me to rattle off examples - and it probably won’t be the last. Same old, same old.
Ultimately those two late goals are how this game will be remembered, and really that’s only right as it’s the result that counts. Add it onto the previous two games and Reading’s nightmare week reads “dumped out of the cup by a sixth-tier side, hammered at home, yet another late collapse”.
Leaving it there though would be a tad (although not completely) unfair on a performance that showed a decent amount of promise. Reading were far from at their best against Middlesbrough but would have been good value for a point. That’s not hugely high praise but it’s still distinctly better than what many of us were fearing: a battering in tune with the dire displays against Kidderminster Harriers and Fulham.
Getting a result was always going to be difficult. Besides the general sense of depression that’s swamped the club at all levels in the last week, an injury-battered Reading side (when is it not?) was playing away to a Middlesbrough side that’s been on fire recently since Chris Wilder took over in the dugout. Some kind of defeat seemed inevitable; anything more than that would have been lauded.
So, secondary to the result I was looking for signs of a response to the last two games in the performance. On the whole I’d say we got it. Again, Reading have played much better this season, but at least against Middlesbrough the Royals showed a respectable level of tenacity, commitment and at some points positivity going forwards.
The first two of those played an important part in the Royals holding out for 84 minutes, particularly the first half. Reading couldn’t get going as an attacking force, instead having to absorb plenty of pressure from the hosts which often was directed down the wings, especially the Royals’ left. Boro got a lot of joy out of left back Ethan Bristow, who again looked unconvincing, and Reading’s defending sometimes appeared a bit desperate. Still, plenty of it wasn’t: the back line as a whole didn’t crumble.
Importantly that kept the Royals in the game until the break when the team could regroup and change tack. Reading had been poor at retaining possession or building anything with it in the first half, but improved in the second half and accordingly looked more threatening.
That came to a head (pun unintended) in the 68th minute with a pleasingly simple, logical goal. It’s no secret that Andy Carroll’s biggest threat is as a header of the ball, and he played up to that expertly with a towering finish from Dele-Bashiru’s left-wing cross. Credit to TDB too: you don’t typically think of him as someone who puts in that kind of delivery (you’d normally expect him to run at a defender instead).
The goal didn’t lift Reading to the degree that you felt they’d go on and get a second, but it did seem to remind them that they could be a match for the hosts. With a bit more experience on the pitch (the injured Junior Hoilett had gone off for Mamadi Camara) or midfield options on the bench (three of Reading’s subs were centre forwards), Pauno may have then been able to boost his side with a change.
All of a sudden though, Reading’s advantage was gone. Boro had gone close once with an inswinging cross from the right headed at goal which was very well saved by Luke Southwood, but then went one better in the 84th minute. This time Matt Crooks rose above Andy Carroll to nod home the equaliser.
And, after the boost of Lucas Joao’s return off the bench, Crooks completed his brace and the turnaround. Bristow’s inexperienced was punished on the left: beaten too easily near the byline, allowing a dangerous cross to come in for Crooks to convert from point-blank range.
Full time, 2-1 Boro, another miserable defeat to Reading.
Putting this one into the same category as other late collapses when the Royals have sat too deep feels a bit off. Reading were certainly guilty of surrendering too much ground and inviting too much pressure in the defeat to Blackpool and draw with Derby County, but that doesn’t fit here. I didn’t really feel as if Reading were, tactically speaking, all that negative late on against Boro. Sure, we had to defend against a home side in the ascendancy - as in-form hosts are always going to be - but it didn’t seem there was an intention to sit in.
Instead, I’m largely left ruing the quality Reading had available in their defence. No disrespect intended to any of the individuals, but we’re talking about a back four containing two central midfielders (one of them fairly young at that), a left back who clearly isn’t ready yet and no outright experienced centre half in the mould of Scott Dann or Michael Morrison.
When that defence has the task of holding fast against a creative side that looks to get at teams down the wings, where Reading are particularly vulnerable, it’s bound to have difficulty. Keeping a clean sheet would have been a great achievement in the circumstances, conceding only once would have been pretty good, and twice feels pretty normal. What more could we realistically expect?
Until Reading get better options in defence the whole team will be up against it. While Baba Rahman and Andy Yiadom have further AFCON duty to fulfill, Michael Morrison will hopefully be back in action for midweek. Not joining him in action will be Liam Moore, who was relieved of the captaincy during the course of this report being written.
Absences certainly aren’t all the story. Reading need points and can’t afford just to wait for players to come back; taking the initiative and being positive in games is something that can be worked on regardless. The improvements at the Riverside in that regard provide some promise, but there’s a long way to go.