Fresh off the back of one six-pointer, it’s onto another. After Reading earned an impressive 1-1 draw at home to second-placed Norwich City in midweek, now it’s a Friday night trip to fourth-placed QPR. Can we build on Tuesday’s performance and result?
Standing in our way is a side that’s improved on last season. In 2021/22, QPR were fourth until March, only to collapse into mid-table. So far they’re sitting pretty in the play-offs after three wins in their last four, and could go level on points at the top with a win against us.
To learn some more about them, we spoke to Clive Whittingham from Loft For Words. You can find him on Twitter @LoftForWords.
How's the season gone for you so far?
I’ve been very pleased with us so far. The way last season fell apart, of which more shortly, risked a significant hangover into this one, so to be up as high as fourth in the early running is a very pleasant surprise.
Unusually for us, much of the heavy lifting has been done away from home so far with four wins from our last five on the road. At Loftus Road we’ve beaten up Boro and Hull so far, but Rotherham, Blackpool and Stoke have all left with points and we’re yet to score a goal at the Loft End so that’s the next stage of recovery and improvement.
Overall though the team has looked revitalised, it’s playing attractive and attacking football, and the defence has improved in recent weeks since Leon Balogun was added to it, so all good so far.
What do you make of the job Michael Beale's doing?
Mark Warburton had been with us for three seasons, and by and large did a very decent job given the mess he inherited from Steve McClaren and the quality players he lost or sold over that period. The sale of Ebere Eze cleared significant FFP/P&S headroom for us to have a bit of a go at last season, hold onto our best players and add some proven Championship talent, and for a really long time I was sure we would be top six.
When we beat you guys in W12 that capped an unbeaten January, we were pushing Bournemouth for second, and everything looked rosy. Six wins from the final 18 games at that point would have got us there, and we managed three. It just completely collapsed, and while injuries to players like Seny Dieng, Chris Willock and Rob Dickie were important in that, it’s since transpired that a lot of relationships had broken down behind the scenes and really only a promotion would have saved Warbs’ job.
That was all bitterly disappointing. To have your hopes raised, and then not only dashed but properly crushed like that, to think we’ve finally got our act together and we’re a well-run club again, and just see it all collapse and all these stories come leaking out was gutting. I never wanted to see QPR again come May frankly, so it was not a good summer to have a shorter than ever pre-season and back in July.
The search for a new manager took time, and obviously there were still five weeks of transfer window left after the opening day of the season which is never ideal. It’s only through September that I think we’ve seen what a Mick Beale team looks and plays like, and I think we’re all enjoying what we’re seeing. It’s very promising at the moment.
You had "pretty low" expectations for this season when we spoke in the summer but now sit fourth. What's been behind your bright start?
My expectations were low because of all that went on last season. We couldn’t beat anybody – we managed four defeats to Barnsley and Peterborough which took some doing. The team just looked busted. You’re then bringing a rookie manager in and because we pushed the boat out a bit last season and didn’t sell anybody there was very, very little financial headroom to do any surgery on the squad.
Beale has changed a few things. He’s ditched the back three from last year, gone to a 4-3-3, and played a much more attacking style. We’d become very staid, safe, risk averse, frustrating and boring by the end of last season.
I’m sure Mark Warburton would say “he’s got Chris Willock back fit” – his absence was another key part of last season’s downfall, and he’s been absolutely electric so far, a sixth goal in nine at Sheffield United in the week and we’ve never lost on any of the 16 occasions he’s scored for us so far. Willock and Ilias Chair have certainly gone onto another level this year, two of the best players in the division.
With what budget we did have, Beale and the recruitment team did some major surgery at full back, where we’d been too faithful and reliant on some Warbs favourites - Lee Wallace and Moses Odubajo - previously. We’ve got a little Dutch lad called Kenneth Paal at left back now and he looks like one of the Championship signings of the summer, and Ethan Laird from Man Utd at right back who frankly has no business playing at this level any more and is a bit of a cheat sheet for us.
We started the season conceding too many goals, as per last season, but that’s tightened up of late. I didn’t agree with the Balogun signing, because at 34 he’s just dead money and taking up a place ahead of somebody else – QPR desperately need to be developing players and selling them for profit regularly if we’re to get out of the situation we’re in, and you don’t do that picking Balogun ahead of Dickie, Dunne and/or Clarke-Salter – but he’s undoubtedly made a huge difference to the defence back there, and it’s three clean sheets in four games with him in the team now after two in our previous 28.
What weaknesses in this QPR side can Reading get at?
Well the main weakness we’ve got is beyond a decent starting 11 we’ve got next to no strength in depth at all. You’re literally going from Paal and Laird, two of the best full backs in the league, to Hamalainen and Kakay. Willock and Chair are covered by players like George Thomas. Seny Dieng by Jordan Archer. We can basically just about afford to have a starting 11 that can compete with anybody in the league, but nothing beyond that.
It would help if the academy could produce a couple more first-team-quality players but that pipeline rather dried up last season amidst a load of relationship breakdown between the development coaches and the first-team management. Young striker Sinclair Armstrong might be a welcome return to that brief, but he’s injured at the moment. Also financially related, our strikers aren’t up to much and we can’t afford anybody better – Tyler Roberts flatters to deceive a bit, and Lyndon Dykes is running his own miss of the season competition.
Sadly, what might benefit Reading this Friday is that Chris Willock appeared to blow his hamstring out again at Sheffield United during the week (same injury that kept him out of the run in) and Seny Dieng did his thigh in the same game – finished the match, but wasn’t taking the goal kicks. Those were the two injuries that hurt us the most in 2021/22. It’ll be a huge test for the new manager and his new-look side how they cope without those two if, indeed, they are going to be missing for any period of time.
Who are your danger men?
As already mentioned, there aren’t many better combinations in this league than Chair and Willock behind the striker, and Laird and Paal at full back. Teams that try to crowd the edge of the box to keep Illy and Willy out of the picture find themselves exposed out wide by the full backs, and vice versa if they try and cut the supply from wide.
How will the game go and what will the score be?
I’d have been very, very confident if Willock was fit. If he’s not, it changes the dynamic of our attack completely. We’re tracking at 2.22 points a game with him in the team, and we’ve taken one point from nine in the games he’s missed.
Mick Beale’s a creative coach, I’m really enjoying watching his team and how tactically well set up and coached we looked. So I’m fascinated to see what solution he comes up with to this problem if Willock is missing. Nice political answer for you there, that doesn’t go anywhere near touching the question. What I think people in this country are interested in Laura…