Another game another defeat. So... same story? In a way yes, in another no.
Much of the post-match chat after Reading’s 4-3 defeat at home to Huddersfield Town has focused on how ‘promising’ this game was from the Royals’ point of view. January has been dire, the worst month this club has gone through in ages, so it’s right to judge this particular match through the lens of whether or not Reading showed signs of progress - particularly from embarrassments in their previous two home fixtures.
My underlying takeaway from this game is twofold:
- There were clear, significant signs of progress in certain areas of Reading’s performance
- In other areas there was a deeply worrying lack of progress that needs to be resolved as soon as possible
Both of those things can be (and are) true at the same time. We don’t need to pick between them and shouldn’t do so.
I’ll start with the worryingly familiar negative note because, ultimately, it decided a contest that could have gone any way. Reading were awful defensively today, both in terms of making individual mistakes and also collectively being all over the place.
For the first goal Reading’s defence was too exposed before Tom Holmes failed to close a man down and Michael Morrison put in a poor side-on block that took the ball past a helpless Luke Southwood. The Royals failed to clear the ball for the second goal before Danny Ward picked up the ball in space and converted from inside the box while Josh Laurent looked on. Southwood dropped the ball from a free kick for the third. I feel less worried about the fourth - a rocket that was hit early from range. Defenders could have got closer to Ward but the quality of the strike was the decisive factor.
Talking more generally, Huddersfield Town found it too easy to get at Reading - more so in the first half and particularly while the Royals were playing with a back three. This is certainly on Pauno. While he can only do so much about unforced errors by his players, the decision to set up in a 3-1-4-2 backfired. It doesn’t matter how many centre backs you have if they’re not protected properly, and Danny Drinkwater (the starting XI’s sole holding midfielder) isn’t the man for that.
Pauno did respond tactically in the first half. Reading appeared (to my eye at least) to drop Andy Rinomhota back a bit to help Drinkwater before later going to something looking more like a 4-4-2 diamond - Laurent pushed up into midfield to help shield a back four. Switching things up did help somewhat but not entirely; Reading still looked disorganised and that’s again on Pauno to instil regardless of what formation happens to be in effect at any given time.
So, no progress here. Worse sides than play-off-chasing Huddersfield won’t score four goals against a defence this bad (Luton Town netted twice) but better ones will run riot - and have done so. A quick note on the Terriers’ quality: it’s important context to point out that Town are a strong side in good form and played really well today. That’s no excuse - Reading shouldn’t let in four at home to anyone - but it’s worth bearing in mind in our post-match analysis.
Putting the defensive nightmare to one side, there were some real positives to take from other aspects of the Royals’ performance.
In an attacking sense this was the best we’ve seen from Reading since the 3-2 win at Swansea City in late November and one of our better displays in this regard all season, given that it’s the fourth time we’ve netted three times. The Royals scored two quality open-play goals and added a third from a set piece (which we hadn’t done since the 1-1 with Hull City six games ago).
While there was some fortune about Morro heading in off a defender from the space that had been handed to him at that corner, there was nothing lucky about the previous two goals. Reading opened up the visitors to fashion one-on-one golden opportunities for front men Lucas Joao and George Puscas, with the decisive creative play coming from Baba Rahman and John Swift respectively.
The second half didn’t have enough in the way of clear chances and Reading did fade when Laurent was withdrawn for Junior Hoilett in a pretty odd attacking change that meant the winger playing centrally. Still, I certainly felt Reading could have got a goal and a 4-4 draw would have been a fair reflection on the hosts’ attacking efforts.
Key to that was the decision to play two up top. It’s something that Reading fans have often cried out for in order to get more out of Puscas and Joao while overlooking the fact that it’s not always worked. This time it did though, with both players looking energised and effective - particularly the former who managed his best performance of the season by some distance. Credit to Pauno for trying this approach.
Paunovic didn’t however have the answers with his in-game changes. In a manner similar to what we saw in the 1-0 defeat at home to Sheffield United, Pauno knew he wanted a back four and two up top (in this case keeping Joao and Puscas on when Carroll was partnering Puscas previously), but didn’t know what the midfield four should look like. Reading ended up with something resembling a 4-1-3-2 (Rinomhota, Hoilett and Swift ahead of Drinkwater) that just didn’t work.
How do you include two strikers, a back four, Swift, a winger or two and midfield balance? Try to square that circle yourself - I don’t really envy Pauno on that one, even if his solution was poor.
And yet, Reading didn’t stop. The Royals have crumbled mentally in previous matches when faced with the task of taking the game to the opposition - sitting too deep against Derby County and not getting going at all in the 2-0 at home to Luton - but that didn’t happen when chasing the game today. Reading’s positivity and energy weren’t enough for a fourth goal but they were there.
So in relation to recent embarrassments, Reading were markedly better for spirit and attacking product. That’s undeniable. It’s also a safe conclusion to say this was the Royals’ best display of 2022, even if that says more about the other displays - it’s not as if this could have been any worse than Fulham or Kiddersminster.
Does any of that matter though? The bottom line is that, however you assess Reading’s attacking play and defensive deficiencies, Huddersfield Town came away with three points and the Royals came away with nada.
Trying to assess the performance as a whole in relation to the result, it’s a stretch to say Reading outright deserved more from the game. You can’t have any complaints when you concede four times due to your own inadequacies. It’s still reasonable though to say a Royals draw wouldn’t have been an unfair outcome - respectable given the quality of the opposition.
Anyway, that’s academic now. What does this game say about the Royals’ prospects in the comings weeks and months? Well, there are reasons to be cheerful and to be fearful. Reading have shown their attacking potential while demonstrating that any such promise can be completely undermined by chaos at the back.
The task now is for Pauno to find the right tactical tweaks and work on Reading’s overall organisation. No small task for a side that’s been in a deep rut recently, not to mention Pauno’s own part in Reading’s problems. Fortunately he has a rare week with no mid-week game in which to improve things ahead of a tough trip to QPR next weekend.