So, here we are. The bubble has officially burst. We were never going to win the league, stay in the play-off positions or likely to be anywhere close, but to see the wheels coming off as they have done with consecutive defeats to QPR, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City, questions are now beginning to be asked.
The paradox of all of this is that we’re still in the top half of the table, we’re not close to the relegation zone, there is no need to panic. But, of course, we’re concerned, everyone is.
The signs were starting to become clear during the defeat to QPR. Whilst it was a performance that seemed to be accepted in some quarters, the performance was tepid, aimless and bland. If we chalked off another away fixture with a point then fine, another game in the bag, it didn’t matter about the performance. But we conceded a mindless penalty and we went home empty-handed.
Against West Brom, we started as if the QPR game was still in our system. The mind rot was starting to set in. Gone was the pressing, gone was the intensity, gone was any confidence on the ball. As it has been for many games: if we conceded the first goal, then we were toast.
To complete the set, almost every Reading fan would have sensed that if Swansea scored one goal before half time despite us being 2-0 to the good, the hosts would go on to win. We know enough about this team to know what lows we are capable of.
But why? Why do we capitulate so easily? Why do we show a lack of adventure at home? Where has the confidence gone that we had early in the season?
Firstly, the obvious one: the injuries. The tale as old as time that still curses us following on from last season. We still lack Liam Moore, Scott Dann, Naby Sarr, Sam Hutchinson, Dejan Tetek and Femi Azeez. Only Hutchinson from that list has played more than one game this season. Whether we’ll see Moore or Dann again is another matter entirely, however. We lack the options to rip it up if it’s not working. Players such as Tom Ince have lost that zip which made such a difference when we needed to see out games.
Secondly, four of the defence - if Baba Rahman starts any time soon - is the same back four that endured most of the troubles of last season. As it stands, that back four appears to lack the mental capacity to be anything other than firefighters. To be calm, composed and able to soak up the pressure appears to be alien to them.
Then we have the wing-backs that are either not really a wing-back, but are doing a sterling job of it, in the shape of Junior Hoilett and a youngster in Nesta Guinness-Walker who is finding it hard to learn his craft in the brutality of the Championship.
In midfield, what’s in front of that defence? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s all over the place. Behemoth Mamadou Loum needs more time to settle, but we have seen in flashes what he is capable of. Similarly Tyrese Fornah, but he has been in and out of the team as Ince bemoans his inconsistencies as he, like Guinness-Walker, is learning the division. Then there’s Jeff Hendrick and without being unkind, nobody really knows what his role is. Is it box-to-box, attacking midfield, running around wherever the ball goes? It’s all quite random.
As such, that midfield doesn’t offer much in the way of protection to the back three/four. If that defence or midfield does not contain Sam Hutchinson then we seem to not have the right components to pull it all together and keep it tight. The loss of Sam has seemed to have opened the lid on our recent troubles. Lose him and we’ve been variable, at best. He has been impossible to replace since then. Who knew that he would be so pivotal to our form and composure?
It is that composure that we have seemed to have lacked for, oh, seasons now it seems. We seemed to have it earlier in the season when we could literally sh*thouse our way to wins. Halcyon days. But ever since we started to wobble, the bemoaning of the lack of options available to the manager, the never-ending saga of injuries, that composure has been AWOL.
That game intelligence to know what to do at the right time, not just in the moment but the overall game plan, has been bereft. At 2-0 away from home, the plan should be to stay sharp on the ball, play with a low block and frustrate the opponent, but we seem to find this impossible to achieve. Nobody can see beyond the panic and play intelligently.
At home, when 1-0 down to a team that had only won once prior to that, we should have changed shape, noted that our tempo was poor from the start and taken some risks, but none of that happened. Why isn’t this addressed and altered accordingly?
We are drifting towards the same kind of malaise as last season which, until Ince’s arrival, was a turgid plod of a nightmare, for the most part. Performances then appeared to lack heart, fight or even common bloody sense. Are we falling back to those torrid times? We hope not.
Other teams in this division seem to know what to do, when to do it and have a plan. We just seem to wing it game after game and see what sticks. That has worked to a point, but now teams have sussed out our weaknesses, physically and mentally.
Maybe that’s down to a tired workforce and lack of options or a lack of imagination from Ince Snr in his tactics? Whatever it is, we need to find that way of actually controlling halves of a game or even more.
We don’t seem to have that hive mind where everyone acts as one, collectively taking charge, doing the right thing at the right time that actually makes sense and not some punt down the field to nobody in particular.
With only two out of the next six fixtures being at home before the World Cup, Reading need to find their heads, mojo and hearts again. Otherwise, the amazing start to the season could be all for nothing. We can ill afford to wait for December to kickstart a revival. That all sounds like history beginning to repeat itself.