As far as mid-season finales go, Saturday’s couldn’t have been much better. A 94th-minute own-goal winner at Hull City brought the curtain down on the first portion of Reading’s 2022/23 league campaign. With 46% of our Championship fixtures now done, it’s time for a month-long break while the Qatar World Cup gets underway.
I’m going to miss watching this team each week. Being able to say that is not something I would have predicted in the summer, when Reading’s season was seemingly set up to be a miserable slog. However, the gulf between pre-season anxiety and mid-season reality is remarkable; far from being the Championship’s whipping boys as many of us had feared, the Royals have exceeded expectations to establish themselves in mid-table.
Reading even broke into the top six after the fifth game (a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough) and sat top of the table the following week thanks to a victory by the same scoreline at Millwall. And despite much weaker form in the last month and a half or so, a collapse into the bottom half of the table has failed to materialise.
Show me a person who says they wouldn’t have taken 12th at this stage of the campaign and I’ll show you a liar.
Some of this season has been excellent, other bits have been poor and much of the rest has been somewhere in between. But I still go into each match - regardless of our form, squad strength or opponents - with a realistic expectation of a good performance and positive result. It’s a modest bar, but after what we had to endure in the first few months of 2022, it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Can Reading maintain that standard over the rest of the season and stay in the division? Given how quickly things went sour 12 months ago, that concern can’t be properly dismissed just yet. Sudden, dramatic collapses can never be ruled out. The signs we’ve seen so far however are positive, and Reading have made a strong argument as to why things will turn out alright in the end; the task for the rest of the campaign is to follow through.
When it comes to results, Reading’s 2022/23 campaign has actually so far been one of extremes. This is a side that - almost without exception - either wins or loses. Just three sides (the top trio) have won more games than us and only four teams have lost more than us, leaving Blackburn Rovers (0) as the only team to have drawn less often than Reading (2).
You can also see a clear divide between home and away form. The Royals would still be a top-six side (fifth) if the table were decided on games only at the SCL Stadium, but we’d be hovering over the relegation places (21st) if only matches on the road were counted.
That binary nature is also evident in the two sections of Reading’s season: before and after the first international break of the campaign, which ran from mid-September to the start of October. The Royals won six and lost four in the first 10 matches (PPG of 1.8) but slipped to a run of three wins, two draws and six defeats in the subsequent 11 (PPG of 1.0).
In the first block of the campaign, for the most part Reading either edged out the opposition by one goal or got battered by several. An opening-day narrow defeat to Blackpool (1-0) and season-high masterclass victory over Blackburn Rovers (3-0) proved to be aberrations from that trend.
The Royals had successfully developed a match-winning formula based on tactical consistency. Having settled on a back-three system in pre-season, this was crystallised in the fourth game (the Blackburn victory) as a 3-5-2 specifically, with the back four only revisited occasionally as an in-game change and just once as the starting setup (the early-November defeat at Vicarage Road).
The 3-5-2 provided defensive solidity thanks to the number of bodies at the back and in midfield. Accordingly, Reading consistently sat deep and made themselves compact to shut out the opposition. Aggressive pressing higher up the pitch worked a treat against Rovers but wasn’t otherwise a feature of the Royals’ style. Offensively, the Royals created and converted few chances, but in conjunction with a mean defence, a free-scoring attack wasn’t required to secure points.
This template certainly wasn’t without its flaws. Reading demonstrated in painful fashion just how badly things could go when tactical vulnerabilities were exploited (Rotherham United away), there was a gulf in individual ability (Sheffield United away) or the players simply didn’t turn up (Sunderland at home).
And Reading’s game-winning formula largely broke down in the second block of the campaign. Having conceded more than one goal just three times in 10 games before the international break, this then happened six times in the following 11. Reading’s ‘goals conceded per game’ rate actually barely changed between the two periods (1.4 vs 1.45), but when you consider that the former number was heavily skewed by three batterings, it’s clear that the defence became consistently weaker.
There was no significant uplift at the other end of the pitch to counteract those defensive deficiencies. Having scored at a rate of 1 goal per game in the first section of the season, Reading managed just 1.18 in the second - a real-terms difference of two extra goals. I wrote during the international break about the Royals’ need to become a better attacking force, but despite a relative wealth of striking options being available, offensive improvement is yet to materialise.
It’s certainly not the case that Reading were a very good team earlier on in the season and a bad one later. It’s more that the Royals had been effective at consistently getting on the right side of fine margins - up to, including and exemplified by the gritty 1-0 win at Wigan Athletic - but from October onwards the shoe was on the other foot.
After all, when Reading lost games in the second block of the season, it wasn’t in the same manner as defeats in the first. None of the six ‘second block’ losses were hammerings akin to Rotherham United or Sheffield United, all being settled by a two-goal margin at most. Instead, the Royals have tended to be edged out by a solitary goal by a promotion-chasing side (QPR away, Swansea City away, Burnley away, Preston North End at home).
A more solid defence would certainly have helped in that run, but the back line has been badly affected by injuries in the last month and a half. That’s demonstrated by the absentee list for the trip to Hull City: Sam Hutchinson, Tom McIntyre, Naby Sarr, Scott Dann and Liam Moore. Collectively they’re probably a workable Championship back five... if they can stay fit that is.
Fatigue has undoubtedly built up too. Paul Ince was right to criticise the fact that Reading were forced to play three games in six days not once but twice, which was bound to take its toll on a relatively old and small squad that relies on certain individuals in their 30s: Andy Yiadom, Tom Ince and for some reason also Jeff Hendrick. While the gaffer could well have made better use of his squad (failing to do so for the Preston game really grated), rotation isn’t a cure-all. After all, Reading are much better equipped to rest strikers than they are midfielders or defenders.
Reading are also tired tactically - a phrase I’ve kept coming back to in my mind in recent weeks. The Royals don’t have stand-out individual attacking ability as was the case in recent years, so an effective offensive structure is required. That could constitute using the wings, creating combinations in midfield or playing balls in behind. In reality, no such hallmarks are evident. It’s hard to work out how Reading want to attack teams in open play - beyond relying on Tom Ince as the only real creator in the XI and hoping that the chosen strike pairing for that particular match works.
To be fair, there have been some promising tactical ideas. Yakou Meite/Tom Ince was an effective away-game pairing that went some way to solving a prior problem: Reading’s inability to score goals in open play on the road. I also appreciated the idea of the attacking midfield setup at Luton Town, with Jeff Hendrick behind Tom Ince and Ovie Ejaria, even if it didn’t yield a win, and Amadou Mbengue’s Swiss Army Knife-like transition into a centre back has been a highlight in recent weeks.
Overall I’m not all that upbeat or downbeat. Reading went through a better period, then a worse one, and now need to solve the problems that have been identified in time for the next phase. Ups and downs in campaigns happen and don’t require drastic overreactions.
It’s tricky to work out how good this team actually is. While Reading probably weren’t ‘6 wins in 10’ good in the first part of the season, we weren’t ‘6 defeats in 11’ bad in the second part either. The truth is somewhere in between.
The long and the short of it is that Reading are essentially a mid-table side. We’re better at some things, worse at others, and overall the positives broadly cancel out the negatives. That’s a pretty middling conclusion to reach, but if you’d offered me a middling season, I’d have gladly taken it.