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TTE Roundtable: The Highs And Lows Of Reading’s 2022/23 So Far

Some of TTE’s finest minds got together (virtually) to unpack the first half of the 2022/23 season.

Reading v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

With pretty much half of the season done, we’re reviewing the highs and the lows of what we’ve seen so far. To do that, some of our writers got together to have their say on their favourite and least favourite games, players and more: Marco Bader (MB), Sean Burgess (SB), Harry Chafer (HC), Adam Jones (AJ), Marc Mayo (MM), Simeon Pickup (SP), Ben Thomas (BT) and Ross Webber (RW).

We did a similar roundtable to preview the season back in late July, which you can find right here.

What’s been your favourite game so far?

MB: Although there might have been more interesting matches and definitely also better performances, I’ll go for our home win against Bristol. It was a difficult game with some pressure on us. Even if not everything worked out, the Royals gave their all. And that’s the kind of spirit I love to watch. To kill the game off with that second goal from Carroll and the great assist by Long was just fantastic!

SB: Easy one this for me: the Blackburn result but especially the performance was superb. We utterly dominated Blackburn from start to finish, who I’m pretty sure were unbeaten at the time, and were aggressive and on the front foot all match. We’ve had some good away wins this season - Millwall, Hull, Wigan - but this performance for me is the best of the year, if not the last couple of seasons.

HC: It has to be Blackburn at home doesn’t it? It was the best performance from a Reading team I’ve seen since Jaap Stam’s first season in charge. It was just the complete performance. We dominated Blackburn, who had made a flying start to the season, from the first whistle to the last.

Three really good goals, the SCL was bouncing, and it showed us all the potential this team has if they put their mind to it. It was my favourite game of the last few years, let alone this season.

AJ: Has to be Blackburn. There was an unbelievable five-minute spell in the opening 45 that had us off our seats, it was incredible. That was probably our best performance in years - and it’s just a shame we haven’t managed to match those levels for the majority of our games this term despite our good start to the season! It was a special display though.

MM: Reading 3-0 Blackburn was good fun, the then-leaders thoroughly walloped by a dynamic, forceful Reading team that was also Shane Long’s true homecoming performance.

SP: Blackburn, definitely. It was one of our best displays in recent years - a truly complete display - and a thoroughly enjoyable evening to be present for. The way the aggression out of possession, organisation, spirit and attacking flair clicked was sublime.

Reading v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

An honourable mention too though to Millwall away. Less so for the game itself - a fairly bog-standard scrappy 1-0 victory in a similar mould to Middlesbrough (H) and Wigan Athletic (A), but more for the wider significance. It demonstrated that this Reading side could really scrap for points and win somewhere that had carried a bit of a curse in recent years. Oh and it put us top of the table. Not bad at all.

BT: Blackburn was phenomenal. We could have hit five or six that game. Free-flowing football at its finest and a perfect response to the utter humiliation of Rotherham away. I’d also argue that Norwich was a very resilient and determined performance - both games left me with that warm, fuzzy feeling that we’ve rarely felt over the years.

RW: Reading 3-0 Blackburn. The season was getting off to a better start than I expected anyway, but then we battered an unbeaten team (who are still riding high by the way). This was the moment my sense of impending doom about 2022/23 began to dissipate.

And your least favourite?

MB: Swansea away. After the bad performance against West Brom and a 2-0 lead against the Swans, losing that game was definitely my low point.

SB: It was tough to not pick the Swansea defeat with the totally inept way we threw away a two-goal lead, but the Rotherham game just takes it given I travelled up there. The way we capitulated in the first half was horrendous - individual mistakes, a lack of fight, the less said about it the better. The way we bounced back against Blackburn was brilliant though, and that’s been a trend this season.

HC: There’s been a few, particularly recently. However, the worst of the lot for me was one of the very first games of the season up at Rotherham. We’d just come off the back of a good win against Cardiff, it was my first game of the season and my first time seeing Shane Long back in a Reading shirt, so I was in an upbeat mood. But not for long.

We were poor going forward, awful defensively and Joe Lumley had an absolute howler leaving us 4-0 down at halftime. Yeah, the less said about the day the better.

AJ: It can’t be anything other than Rotherham for me. That opening 45 minutes was a farce and it was a half that left many people incredibly angry. It was pretty humiliating. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong - and no one could really come out of that game with any form of credit. The Sunderland clash was also a big disappointment along with Preston.

MM: Reading 0-3 Sunderland was a night when it all went wrong. Poor start, disastrous tactical change by Paul Ince, individual errors, drab atmosphere throughout the second half.

SP: Sunderland at home. Reading were dreadful from start to finish and never looked like getting anything out of the match, tactical switches backfired or were ineffective, and we were ruthlessly punished. It was a miserable evening, and given that it came in such stark contrast to what we’d previously seen at the SCL, it hurt even more.

BT: West Brom left me the most annoyed. We were really poor against a side who, at the time, had won once all season. See also Swansea when old habits came flocking back like seagulls around an isolated chip. 2-0 up and losing 3-2 is never, ever a good look.

RW: Swansea 3-2 Reading. This reverse felt like a microcosm of the limitations that having Paul Ince as manager places on our team. The team bailed his poor tactics out with a clinical first-half display, then he shot them in the foot tactically in the second half.

Who’s been Reading’s best performer?

MB: For now, I’ll go with Tom Ince. Offensively our key player, very lively and dangerous for us in nearly all of his games. Behind him in second place I would take Tom Holmes. Solid and pretty mature in defence.

SB: No need to overthink this, Ince is our best and most important player at the moment. He’s our top goalscorer, the most creative, but possibly more importantly he sets the tone with his work rate. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone run more since Shane Long’s first spell at the club. He’s surely the first name on the teamsheet and has proved to be an incredible signing on a free.

HC: I’m pretty sure the answer to this question will be unanimous among my fellow TTE contributors. Tom Ince has been our player of the season so far without a shadow of a doubt. He has embodied everything his dad is trying to make us: nasty, aggressive and full of energy.

He never, ever stops running and leaves every bit of him out on the pitch every single game - which is the quickest way to a football fan’s heart. I love the man.

AJ: Tom Ince has been unbelievable, fair play to him. Following a disappointing spell at Stoke, it was unclear whether he would end up being a good addition but he’s been exceptional since January and has taken his game to new levels this season. I just worry about how we’ll perform if he goes through a sticky patch of form.

Reading v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

MM: Sam Hutchinson. I very nearly gave this to Tom Holmes, who perhaps we’d miss more if he occasionally sat out a game, but you really feel Hutch’s absence. A class player who only lacks the injury record and maybe a bit of luck to have gone higher in his career.

SP: Tom Ince has been head and shoulders above the others and exemplifies this Reading side at its best: not the best in the final third (although capable of real quality), but with a reliably hard-working and determined attitude. Getting him in on a free transfer’s got to be one of our best bits of business in recent years.

BT: Ince Junior. If the season ended now, who would you vote for as POTS? That’s right, Thomas Ince. He plays well, we play well. He doesn’t, we don’t. It really is that simple.

RW: Tom Ince. I’m sure everyone has said that, but it literally feels as though he himself has picked our team up by the scruffs of their necks and dragged them back into competitiveness.

How about our most underrated player?

MB: I’m not sure if you can call Amadou Mbengue still underrated. I think at least not by the Reading fans who are rightfully impressed by his performances. So, I might choose Tyrese Fornah. Although he is still too inconsistent, Fornah has shown some great qualities. He was left out of the starting line-up in seven games, we only won two of them.

SB: Mbengue has been praised recently, but nowhere near enough. I’m sure when he signed we all had the same reaction - head to Google! I was unreliably informed he was a defensive midfielder, which might be just about the only position he hasn’t played. He’s played right back, right and left centre-back in a three, centre back in a two, and hasn’t looked out of place anywhere.

Okay, he may have one or two heart-in-mouth moments but he’s still only 20 - I hope he’s tied down to a long-term contract ASAP. Honourable mention to Nesta Guinness-Walker here who’s been brilliant too.

HC: I don’t think there is anyone who is underrated at the club as such, but in terms of going under the radar with their performances I think I’m going have to say Junior Hoilett. He’s been magnificent, bearing in mind that almost all of his appearances have come at either left- or right-wing-back - positions I don’t believe he’s ever played in properly before.

He’s just a safe bet, and very rarely lets anyone down. In an ideal world I’m sure Ince wouldn’t want to play him where he is playing at the moment, but he’s doing a fantastic job at it.

AJ: Nesta Guinness-Walker has been praised for his performances this season but I feel he has so much to offer and has gone under the radar because of Baba Rahman’s starts. Going forward, I believe he can be a real game-changer and is arguably a better option than Rahman. Tom Holmes has also been very good at times, improving on last season and is currently on course to fulfil his potential.

MM: Joe Lumley. Rotherham aside, he’s been far from the Calamity Joe predicted.

SP: There are a few possibilities here, but I’ll go with Andy Yiadom. He’s adapted to his new(ish) right-sided centre half role really well, adding experience, balance, defensive quality and attacking threat (usually in support of Hoilett at right wing-back) to our back three.

BT: I can literally see you rolling your eyes, but it has to be The Sweet Canadian Prince. Reaching the twilight of his career and continually playing out of his “natural position” can’t be easy. Of course, he’s had some bad ones, but by and large he’s been pretty consistent.

RW: Tom Holmes has matured into a man in front of our eyes. He’s now just a straight up solid Championship defender.

Who’s been our worst performer?

MB: Jeff Hendrick would be an option, although it might be a bid harsh to call him the worst player. I just think he hasn’t done enough to deserve to start every game. Overall, I might take Nesta Guinness-Walker. He tries hard, but for now, his performances haven’t been on Championship level.

SB: I don’t like singling out players but it’s hard to argue Hendrick hasn’t been the worst player this year. One of my bold predictions before the season was Hendrick would be player of the season, so it just shows how much I know! In fairness he’s played better in a few recent games, but has just been anonymous and underwhelming in a few too many matches this year.

HC: I have an unfortunate feeling this one’s going to be pretty unanimous, too. Jeff Hendrick just hasn’t lived up to any of the expectations, has he? I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of him being really bad every game, I just don’t know what he brings the team that anybody else couldn’t offer.

Apart from the Norwich game when he grabbed his goal, I’m struggling to think of a game where I’ve left the stadium thinking ‘yeah, Hendrick had an impact on the game today’ or ‘Hendrick had a good game’. Which is a bit of a shame really.

AJ: This is a difficult one. The two clear ones are Baba Rahman and Jeff Hendrick, with the former failing to offer enough going forward and defensively. Hendrick has often been bright going forward, but he has been part of a midfield that has gone missing at times.

Reading v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Rob Newell - CameraSport via Getty Images

Ovie Ejaria has only had a limited amount of time on the pitch this season - but I haven’t been that impressed with him again and Lucas Joao hasn’t been brilliant either but you have to wonder whether the style of play has played a part in that.

In terms of Ejaria, he hasn’t been great for a while now. Defensively, you can tell he works hard but he’s offering us little in the final third at the moment and that’s frustrating. Mamadou Loum also needs to improve his passing - but I’ll probably go with Rahman as our most disappointing performer of this term.

MM: Jeff Hendrick. A toss-up between Hendrick and Loum, for me. Neither have been absolutely awful every week but both have put in some real dour displays. At least with Loum you know what you’ll get; with Hendrick I’m still not sure what his best quality is.

SP: As much as I want to say Jeff Hendrick, the more I think about it, the more I edge towards Ovie Ejaria. Although he’s had injury trouble, he’s had opportunities to break into a side that badly needs his (theoretical) creativity but has consistently fluffed his lines. This was his season to really come into his own, but he’s been off the pace.

BT: Oof. These are deliberately controversial questions. I don’t think Baba has lived up to the performances of last season and would also chuck Hendrick (to a point) in that mix.

RW: Jeff Hendrick. Maybe Paul Ince hasn’t worked out how best to use him yet but he’s had a half season of uninterrupted playing time now. If it’s not obvious what Hendrick contributes yet... will it ever be?

What do Reading need to improve on in the rest of the season?

MB: I would say our central midfield. Hendrick hasn’t really convinced. Loum only in parts. Whether a new signing or someone from our current squad (Tom McIntyre?), a new face in the deeper midfield position would be worth a try.

SB: Football seems a bit too vague right? I’m being facetious - in fairness we’ve done far better than most would’ve expected this year. But I just think we set up far too negatively in too many games. It feels like out of possession we set up in our shape behind the ball and try to be hard to break down. The problem then is we still aren’t hard to break down.

I’d love to see us be more aggressive, on the front foot, press from the front and really have a go at teams. Sure, we may get turned over by the better teams in the league, but surely we’d beat enough of the lower teams to stay well clear of relegation.

HC: Picking one thing here is difficult. It’s fair to say that there’s a few things that need working on considering recent results. I’m going to go with something we don’t necessarily need to improve on, but we just need to restore - and that’s our aggression and nastiness.

Earlier in the season, you could tell teams didn’t like playing against us. But in recent weeks we’ve become a bit too easy to beat for various reasons. This has led to us losing leads and losing games. I just want to see us get that aggression back.

AJ: The midfield needs to be looked at because we haven’t been enough of a force in the middle of the park at times. Our quality in the final third needs to improve too - because we aren’t creating that many chances and that’s a bit of a worry.

MM: Attacking coherency. We have four good strikers and seldom a real sense of flow up top. We only look confident of a gameplan when it’s lumping it up to Andy Carroll, and that’s a rubbish tactic most of the time.

Reading v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

SP: Reading need some attacking clarity. Too often this season we’ve seemed haphazard going forwards, more as if we’re making it up according to whoever happens to be playing at that point. I’d like to see some consistent offensive ideas, whether it’s really making the most of the wings, getting in behind more, something centrally or - ideally - a few things at once.

BT: I’d like to see some consistently solid performances (or any sort of stability) in the central midfield spots. It’s been a bone of contention for many years and during the early part of the season, we’d seemed to have cracked it with Loum. However, his performances have slipped recently and no one is grabbing that spot for me. I think, if he could stay fit, Hutch would be a lovely option in that CDM role. But it’s a big “if” currently...

RW: Picking up a third goal in games. We’ve only scored more than two goals in two games so far which is stifling our ability to kill teams off.

Where will we finish the season?

MB: 10th.

SB: 18th. This is hard as it genuinely could be anywhere. Some will think we could push for a play-off spot with a good run, others will think we’ll be dragged into a relegation fight. For me, we’ll pick up wins just about often enough to avoid being dragged into a proper relegation fight, but will slip down the table and end up in another low position. Still, staying up this season has to be considered a success.

HC: Although we haven’t been great recently (far from it in fact), I’m a lot more optimistic now than I was at the start of August. I predict anywhere between 18th and 12th.

AJ: I will happily take 17th at this point because there’s still plenty to play for and that isn’t a great thing for the Royals who will be hoping to stay up!

MM: 18th. We’ll continue our upsy-downsy form for a little while then drop off with the finish line in sight.

SP: 16th. We’ve got the quality, organisation and spirit to stay up, but I don’t think we’ll kick on enough tactically to lay down consistently impressive form. We’ll have better runs and worse ones, but ultimately be able to grind out enough wins to keep the relegation places at arm’s length.

BT: I’d take 12th as an excellent season. But ultimately, anything above 21st is mission accomplished. I know it’s boring, but we’ve already proved we are capable of highest highs and lowest lows (in form terms anyway), which averages out to... well, an average-looking season.

RW: 14th - if our season is effectively over by March I will be thrilled.