Reading ended 2022 as they started it: with a draw – which, for this season at least, was an unlikely result, this being only our third. It bore all the hallmarks of what makes the 2022 model a really odd vintage: tenacious, spirited, yet weirdly flat at the same time. Maybe flat is a bit harsh but safer than anything else.
The first-half performance, like many away performances, screamed DON’T LOSE as opposed to trying to win. With Norwich being managerless and with a crowd that seemed a bit edgy, it would have been nice to see us go for the win, but instead we saw a paint-by-numbers half when if a pass was on it was played. No invention, no looping balls over defenders, just regular A-to-B passes.
That being said, there are mitigating circumstances for safety. Firstly, we still have the same midfield three playing week in week out. We don’t have Sam Hutchinson to take the place of the erratic Mamadou Loum. We don’t have Tyrese Fornah to replace Jeff Hendrick and we certainly do not have another Tom Ince. Physically, we have no options until Sam and Ty become fit again. Who knows when Ovie Ejaria may feature again, if at all, and even if he were available, is he in the right mood to contribute?
Secondly, we have the fixtures coming thick and fast - as is the norm at this time of year - so the attacking verve might have to drop down a notch or two, so as to not expend that crucial energy which is needed to finish matches without over-stretching.
That said, Norwich were there for the taking. They weren’t the best Championship side we’ve seen, they weren’t even close to the best version of themselves, but we played so conservatively that only a goal would change our mode, and so it proved to be true.
The DON’T LOSE mantra gained a more positive spin and suddenly with the introduction of Yakou Meite we started to impose ourselves more. Maybe that move to bring on Yakou for the very ineffective Lucas Joao could only be positive. Joao had a stinker individually, and his partnership with Andy Carroll was yet again blunt.
Although, to be brutally honest, what system or partnership will bring the best out of Joao currently is uncertain; he’s so lost this season. He may get the odd poke home but he's miles away from his best form. Manager Paul Ince rightly can’t trust Lucas to lead the line and intelligently respond with maturity. Picking him is based purely on hope and not on form. To be fair on Lucas, when a system is designed around him he can be deadly, but we rarely have had that luxury or squad to be able to do so.
At this rate, even if it were financially viable, re-signing Lucas another two years seems increasingly unlikely on form alone. Undoubtedly, he will go on to score goals elsewhere, that’s almost inevitable, but to Ince he could well seem like a financial risk we can well do without.
A risk we did well with was the introduction of Nesta Guinness-Walker for Tom McIntyre at left-wing-back. While Tom did OK in his most unnatural of positions, bringing Nesta on gave Norwich new problems playing high on the left-hand side. Norwich were fading and the game began to stretch. NGW was finding a lot of space and duly won a dubious penalty, but one which was suitably dispatched by Andy Carroll for his fourth goal of the season.
The current school of thought of many is to bring Nesta in at his naturally best wing-back position, but that would upset the delicate balance of the safety-first mantra. Nesta is young, exuberant, naïve and much more offensively focussed than defensively minded. Maybe if the back three with Naby Sarr becomes more mature and positionally aware then Nesta could be afforded his freedom. But this seems to go against Ince’s natural instincts as a risk-taking manager.
With not yet enough points in the bag, Paul will undoubtedly not go chasing results with outlandish formations away from home. Pragmatism will still be key, so it’s difficult to see Nesta being allowed to flourish. Only time will tell.
And so on to a new year and yet more twists and turns in what is becoming yet another classic Championship. A division where we sit second in the home form table and second bottom in the away form table. A division where the fourth-placed team has won just four games at home. A division where the relegation zone and play-off positions are, in baseball parlance, just four games apart, roughly speaking. A division where Reading are just one and a bit games back from third! THIRD! Or a division where Reading sit joint-sixth, if that’s your thinking.
So, as we end 2022, we can marvel at what has been achieved with the state of the club as it is. A wounded beast that’s now in recovery mode. A mode which is proving its worth and proving itself to be more than a match for what most of us envisaged at the start. It may not be pretty, but we’re still able to get the job done. And we wouldn’t change it for the world.