Nowadays it's an odd feeling to head home from the SCL on a Saturday evening after a defeat. It’s a sign of just how far we've come this season that I'm able to say that; Reading had won every Saturday (and Sunday) home game going into this fixture, with mid-week matches against Sunderland (3-0 loss) and Norwich City (1-1 draw) the only blemishes on the winning run. Fortress SCL.
But Reading fell well short of the standard we've seen so often in similar matches in recent months. While the Royals certainly weren’t dreadful (performances against Sunderland, Rotherham United and Sheffield United were all significantly worse), today wasn’t good enough.
Reading had some decent spells over the course of the contest, creating a good number of openings in the final third. On another day, we sneak one or two of those chances in and avoid defeat. Overall though, the performance was too flat, sloppy and lacking in creativity - problems which were particularly exposed in this kind of match.
So often, whether on the road or at home, Reading haven’t had to worry about those things too much. Instead, we’ve been able to win matches by following a different formula: stay resolute defensively, nick a goal or two, see the game out. The bitter irony of today’s defeat is that West Bromwich Albion were able to pull off a similar game plan - frustrating the Royals in their own third while taking some of the few opportunities that came their way.
And therein lies the problem. Reading know how to win games in the manner West Brom did today, but are yet to develop the attacking fluency to break down opponents who are happy to protect their lead.
Looking at today’s defeat through that lens, I’m not too disheartened. It underlined problems we already knew this side has - it lacks creativity and can get punished when it’s off its game - rather than exposing something completely new. Solving those problems in the middle of an injury crisis and intense fixture schedule isn’t easy, but it’s what Reading need to do.
Reading made three changes to the side that lost at QPR. Out came Joe Lumley (ill), Sam Hutchinson (injured) and Tyrese Fornah (dropped); in came Dean Bouzanis, Junior Hoilett and Tom Ince. All in all, that’s a decent trio of alterations to make and underlines the fact that the Royals do have a bit of depth to play with.
Bouzanis; Yiadom, Holmes, McIntyre; Hoilett, Ince, Loum, Hendrick, Guinness-Walker; Joao, Carroll
It would have helped hugely if Reading had been able to put together a quick start, and after more than a week off, the players should have been fresh enough to do so. That wasn’t the case though: West Brom were the quicker of the two sides out of the blocks, threatened much more than the Royals in the opening stages and deservedly took the lead midway through the half.
The manner of the opening goal underlines another of Reading’s weaknesses at the moment. While Guinness-Walker’s done well recently as an attacking threat, doing so again today, he’s weaker defensively. He was beaten by Matt Phillips who, having controlled a long ball, guided the ball in at the near post past Bouzanis, who could probably have done better.
To be fair, Reading responded pretty well for the rest of the half and increasingly took the game to the visitors. However, with the exception of Lucas Joao flicking a Hoilett cross wide of the far post with his head, clear-cut opportunities were lacking before the break.
Reading kept that pattern up for a time after the break too, but were also vulnerable in their own third. The Baggies could well have made it 2-0 after Mamadou Loum lost the ball a few minutes into the second half, or when Tom McIntyre did it shortly after, and eventually managed it in the 72nd minute. Jeff Hendrick lost the ball cheaply in Reading’s half before Taylor Gardner-Hickman rifled it in from range.
Up until then I’d have fancied Reading to be able to find a goal from somewhere, but the game was as good as gone at 2-0. At this stage the Royals needed a proper freshen-up in midfield with another attacking player, and/or to go to a back four, but a lack of appropriate subs denied both options.
Instead, the Royals were generally restricted to long-range shots for the rest of the game, and Alex Palmer had a strong game in the Baggies’ net to hold onto the clean sheet. Reading could also have had a penalty for what looked like a stonewall foul on Guinness-Walker, but that’s pretty much as good as it got.
This is the first time this season Reading have lost two league games in a row, and adding the Norwich draw into the mix, the Royals have won just once since the international break. We’re certainly not in ‘wheels are coming off’ territory, but they’re started to wobble. Reading’s form is beginning to stall and we’ll do very well to turn things around decisively over an intense, difficult run of games before the World Cup with a hefty injury list.
It’s a seven-game period that includes trips to promotion hopefuls Swansea City, Burnley, Luton Town and Watford. While we’d be foolish to be too negative about a side that’s outperformed expectations so far, the next month or so could be a rough patch. Failing to pick up three points against relegation-threatened West Brom could come to look like a missed opportunity.