That’s two games in a row now when Reading have let a realistic three points slip due to a lack of attacking endeavour. After Tuesday’s scrappy 0-0 at Luton Town, on Friday night the Royals were beaten 2-1 at home by Preston North End in a similarly tight, low-quality contest.
On paper it was slack defending in the second half - twice - that consigned Reading to another defeat, overturning Lucas João’s equaliser from the spot. But the bigger issue was just how unconvincing the Royals looked going forwards, whether in deeper build-up play or in the final third.
This wasn’t a game for a reactive approach, but for Reading to take the initiative. The Royals needed fluency and incision, whether through wide play, going direct into the frontmen or building through the middle. In reality, there was little evidence Reading knew how to do any of those things.
For the first hour or so, you’d have been hard pressed to find any clear sign of what Reading were trying to do. Bar the odd half chance, the hosts came up with nothing of note. The only saving grace was that the visitors had little themselves, in the first half at least.
However, it didn’t take them much improvement after the break to take the initiative. First Ched Evans flicked home a header to open the scoring in the 51st minute, then he completed his brace to restore Preston’s lead in the 79th.
Reading looked tired tonight. Not just physically, but tactically too. That’s exemplified by Paul Ince’s odd decision to start Yakou Meite and Andy Carroll a few days after doing the same at Kenilworth Road, when Lucas João and Shane Long were both available. As well as the issue of fatigue (Meite and Carroll didn’t affect the game well enough individually), playing Carroll seemed like a hackneyed approach. It was as if Reading assumed he’d be an aerial threat by default, but without a clear plan on how to use him as a target man or recipient of crosses.
To his credit, Paul Ince did change things drastically at 0-1 before the hour mark. Off went Carroll and Meite for João and Long, while Jeff Hendrick dropped deeper in place of Mamadou Loum, who was withdrawn for Tyrese Fornah.
That had an impact, for a time at least. Reading managed to up the tempo and, with one of the few incisive bits of open play, created the penalty. Tom Ince slipped Andy Yiadom in behind down the right before he was taken out. That should have been the kickstart to a proper fightback, and perhaps would have led to something more if Evans’ second hadn’t knocked out Reading’s confidence.
Instead, after Preston’s 79th-minute winner, Reading didn’t look like getting the game level once again. The best the Royals could muster was the odd long-range effort, with only one (an Ince effort from the edge of the box that whistled past the post) looking dangerous.
Ince said after the game that Reading looked tired. While I’ve often got sympathy for that aspect of things, it’s no excuse this time. It was clear as day that the Royals would suffer from playing three times in six days, and while wholesale changes weren’t realistic or desirable, more could have been done than to simply bring back Tom McIntyre and Mamadou Loum, who’d previously been injured and suspended respectively. Both were poor against Preston anyway.
João and Long should have started together, to provide fresh legs up top in place of Meite and Carroll after they’d started at Luton. Baba Rahman has looked off the pace recently, perhaps still lacking full match fitness, so should have been rested for Nesta Guiness-Walker. Tyrese Fornah was also an option to throw into the midfield.
This result leaves Reading in real need of a result or two in the next week or so - no mean feat given that the issue of fatigue won’t get any better in that time. The Royals have managed just two wins and two draws in the last nine games; add to the tally of defeats at Watford and Hull City and the pre-World Cup drop-off may look like more of a collapse.