If you’d said before tonight’s game that Reading would lose 3-2 away to playoff-chasing Swansea City, I’d have been disappointed but not that angry. It’s a tough fixture and we were always up against it.
The manner in which this defeat came though is oh so gutting. On 33 minutes, Reading had done plenty right and given themselves a hugely creditable 2-0 lead. That lead was subsequently chipped away at, eradicated and then overturned entirely on minutes 41, 60 and 74.
What’s more, you could see it happening. For far too much of the contest, even when in the lead, Reading were far too passive. The Royals were always going to have to take a decent amount of pressure from a team that loves to keep the ball and work opportunities, but aggression and proactivity out of possession had to be thrown into the mix.
90 minutes of heavy-metal pressing? Not realistic. Periods of higher work rate and intensity to relieve pressure on our own goal, get the team up the pitch and cause problems? Exactly what we needed, and exactly what was so dearly lacking tonight.
It’s not as if Reading didn’t have the personnel for that. On the contrary, when you looked at the starting XI, it appeared as if the Royals had been set up with the intention of pressing higher up. For instances, out went the less mobile Lucas Joao and Andy Carroll, replaced up top by Tom Ince (moved from midfield) and Yakou Meite.
The full XI looked like this:
Lumley; Yiadom, Holmes, McIntyre; Mbengue, Hendrick, Loum, Fornah, Hoilett; Ince, Meite
Look through that side and you can see plenty of energy and tenacity in the midfield with Mbengue, Hoilett, Loum and Fornah. Ince can add similar qualities higher up the pitch, while Meite is there as a threat in behind when Reading win the ball back quickly. So if the explicit intention in planning was for Reading to press higher, the failed execution is galling.
And yet, 33 minutes in, it didn’t look like it mattered. The Royals had surrendered so much space and possession to the hosts, but were clinical with two chances. In the first real spell of possession, Reading went ahead through Meite converting on the rebound, and he turned provider seven minutes later by winning the ball back high and playing in Ince to make it 2-0.
That should have been the shot in the arm to inspire Reading to up their standards and take the game to the opposition more, but it didn’t happen. The Royals couldn’t even make it to half time (which was further off than usual due to a prolonged floodlight failure that set the game back). On 41 minutes, Harry Darling found it too easy to connect with a corner and nod it in for 2-1.
Again, if there was an intention at half time for Reading to play higher up the pitch after the break, it wasn’t enacted. So much of the second half felt as if the Royals were waiting to concede, not acting like a team which believed it could take things up a gear and score a third, and the hosts’ next goals were pretty much inevitable. Oli Cooper made it 2-2 on the hour mark before Jay Fulton lashed the ball into the bottom corner from range on 74 minutes - a good strike in fairness.
As for a response down the other end of the pitch, it wasn’t forthcoming. Reading have the quality to be able to create chances, and introduced more on 62 minutes at 2-2 in the form of Lucas Joao and Ovie Ejaria. But you’d be hard pressed to work out what the plan was for taking the game to Swansea and getting those two into the contest. Reading have talented attacking individuals but don’t know how to gel them into something more collectively dangerous.
In the end, the game drifted away from Reading. No late surge to really test the hosts.
The defeat leaves Reading in a rut. Three losses in a row is hardly catastrophic, but it’s a sustained downwards trend regardless that needs to be halted. Three defeats can oh so easily become four and then five if we’re not careful. Bouncing back on Saturday when Bristol City come to town is vital.