A pleasingly gritty 2-1 win, a late collapse in a 4-1 rout, a frustratingly passive 1-0 home defeat, then an all-too familiar second-hand capitulation after promise before the break. One win from four, three goals scored and 10 conceded.
Paul Ince's first four results don't make for pretty reading. What's more, I'm finding it hard to escape the conclusion that it's pretty much exactly what we may have got had Veljko Paunovic still been in the dugout.
And underneath the overall form, signs of clear improvement to the team's performance have been in short supply. Reading's shape was good in the first half against Millwall, limiting the visitors to chances from set pieces... but nothing else comes to mind. No other positive points in recent games have felt like they've come as a direct consequence of Paul Ince's arrival.
To be fair, we've also seen some tactical evolution under Ince. Going 4-5-1 at the City Ground with Andy Rinomhota, Danny Drinkwater and Josh Laurent across the middle - as opposed to shoehorning one into the number 10 role as Pauno would have done - was new. Then again, not going out of your way to put a square peg in a round hole is only worth so much praise.
There also seems to be a distinct plan B when Reading have been looking for a goal, evident at Blackpool and Forest. Each time, Ince deployed a 4-4-2 with Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite up top and an attack-minded central-midfield pairing - John Swift and Danny Drinkwater at Blackpool, Ovie Ejaria and Josh Laurent at Forest.
The biggest theme though is what hasn't changed. The same issues that plagued Reading under Paunovic have kept going strong under Ince: poor mentality, defensive weakness and late capitulations. Not only could the last four results have come under Paunovic, but they also would have probably come in exactly the same way.
That's deeply concerning. We'd put pretty much all our eggs in the basket of managerial change, hoping the arrival of a new man in the dugout would be the kick Reading needed to finally wake up and arrest its sleepwalk to League One. Instead, with a draw at Peterborough United and win at Preston North End, we actually got more of a lift from Paunovic’s impending departure (in points) than from Ince’s first four matches.
Sure, Ince hasn't had enough time to make sweeping changes. But, four games in, and with two match-free weeks in the last fortnight providing time on the training ground, we're at a point where we can reasonably expect some clear signs of development, even if incomplete. We're still waiting for the new-manager bounce.
The biggest wins from Paul Ince's arrival haven't actually ended up being for him or Reading Football Club. The only significant progress of note has been for Pauno's mental wellbeing, who I'm glad is now out of the firing line after becoming a lightning rod for many people's anger, and for the fanbase, which had been becoming increasingly toxic. But all of that would have come from any managerial change, regardless of the new man in the dugout.
Despite my concerns, I really don’t envy the job Ince has on his hands. Getting organisation and commitment out of this particular group of players is like herding cats - although a herd of cats would probably have held better defensive shape than Reading managed at Forest on Saturday.
The team’s mentality has been poor for most if not all of this campaign, the mood has grown increasingly negative due to a litany of problems on and off the field, while the impending mass exodus of out-of-contract players in the summer only makes rallying the squad more difficult. Naturally, many aren’t as invested in the club’s long-term future as they would otherwise have been.
The same deep-rooted, long-term challenges faced Paunovic and would have been on the cards for any other manager Reading could have appointed as successor. There are no easy answers for Paul Ince in resolving the quandary in which Reading Football Club finds itself..
...but there are still bad answers, and those are the ones which Ince has been picking.
The obvious place to start is with his substitutions, which have been frustratingly poor already. Changes were too little, too late in defeat to Millwall - particularly with regards to how long it took to get Yakou Meite on the field and then the decision to introduce Scott Dann as an attacking player when others were available. Leaving Meite (who’s still not at 100% following long-term injury by Ince’s own admission) on the pitch for the full game at Forest - even when the match was done as a contest - was just as bizarre.
Ince's approach to Reading’s overall style also feels pretty incoherent. He actually started off with an assessment in his first interview with the club, posted after the Preston North End win, that I thought was spot on (OK, maybe not the Barcelona bit).
“I watched the first half against Preston and thought we were like Barcelona! There’s not a lot that needs to be done to this team, it’s fantastic playing wise. But there’s tweaks here and tweaks there that need to just get them… we’re conceding too many goals, -23 (goal difference), that’s your problem straight away.”
(I’ve bolded for emphasis).
So, in other words, don’t change much about the style but do focus on tightening things up at the back. ‘Tweaks’ is the right word to use: Ince didn’t have to do anything drastic, for example going to an overtly counter-attacking, possession or pressing system, but he did have to make subtler alterations to address the goals-conceded column.
It wasn’t all that long though before he pulled a 180, turning to a vacuous, outdated jibe in his post-Forest comments:
“This is a team that spent the last two years playing lovely football and all of a sudden they’re in a dog fight. I’ve told them, forget all the tippy-tappy crap you’ve been doing for the last few years, it’s not working. You have to roll your sleeves up and fight and there weren’t enough of them that did that.
(Again, the emphasis is from me).
I presume he’s referring to the practice of playing the ball through the lines and on the deck - perhaps he’s not, in which case he’s inadvertently giving off a confusing message, which isn't any better.
Being able to play patient possession football and working the ball forward to create an opening is common practice, is certainly nothing new in the Championship, and has worked for many teams at the highest level of this division. It’s certainly not mutually exclusive with “rolling your sleeves up and fighting”.
At Reading, the principle of trying to play the ball on the deck and through the lines has been accepted (although interpreted differently) by each of Ince’s five predecessors over the past half a decade.
It was present in the Royals’ best two campaigns (finishes of third and seventh) and the respective subsequent drop-offs (2017/18 and this season), so there’s no obvious correlation between style (in principle that is) and success. Even Mark Bowen, who seemed less hot on “tippy tappy” football as other Reading managers, still saw the merits of playing through the lines - going so far as to use Swift as a deep-lying playmaker and commit to a possession style in the summer 2020 pre-season.
After all, this approach suits the personnel Reading have had for years now: technical players across the pitch who want the ball to feet. Try playing more direct football with this group, whether in a Barnsley 20/21-esque high press or Neil Warnock-esque low block, and see how well that works.
The actual issue is how well the style is implemented, and that's a far more complicated, multifaceted topic to analyse. The fact though that Ince reduced all of this to “tippy-tappy crap [Reading have] been doing for the last few years” suggests most of this has gone over his head. It’s no surprise that a manager who’s been out of work for eight years isn’t up to speed with the modern game, even if he doesn’t think he is.
“The game’s changed but has it changed that drastically? It’s still four corner flags, two goals, the pitch hasn’t changed. And the players are no different to the players I’ve managed before.”
On the surface that’s a reasonable comment, but be honest, a manager with an in-depth understanding of the modern game doesn’t reduce his analysis to talking about the layout of the pitch. It’s the kind of surface-level, basic comment that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ron Manager sketch.
You can tell a fair amount about a manager from how they approach post-match media duty. Pauno for instance took plenty of flak for going soft on players even after poor performances, perhaps deliberately opting to protect his squad by dialling down criticism and taking the pressure himself.
Ince takes a very different approach. In the context of how Pauno would probably have spoken about the Forest defeat, the new boss’ tone was refreshingly blunt, simply calling the second half “embarrassing”. It doesn't come at the expense of praise though: Ince has made sure to highlight positives when appropriate.
So far he's generally reached the right balance of positivity and straight talking. That mix could well be what’s required to give the players a bit of a kick to improve the standard while still encouraging them, so I’ve no complaints in this regard.
So it was a shame that his approach has been undermined a couple of times already.
First, Michael Gilkes unexpectedly took post-match media duty after the Millwall defeat, giving the impression - fairly or unfairly - that Ince had shirked his job due to the result. While that probably wasn't the case, skipping questions from journalists just three matches into his tenure - and not saying until a few days later that it had been pre-planned - was poor optics.
As was referring to his own team in the third person after defeat at Forest, saying “they” half a dozen times or so. To be fair he didn’t use it often, appropriately using “we” far more frequently, but that’s still half a dozen times too often. While it’s hardly proof Ince isn’t fully invested in his team’s fortunes, again it’s poor optics, and that’s important when you’re trying to lead players and fans alike forward. How he presents himself to the media should be a big asset, but small missteps can chip away at the personal authority required to make that work.
I’ve no good reason to believe he isn’t actually invested in this team’s fortunes. I respect the fact that he’s taken on a difficult job which, if it doesn’t pan out well, could be the final nail in the coffin of his managerial career rather than the start of its resurrection. For Ince, coming to Reading is a gamble.
And we certainly all want him to get the job done. Ince’s success this season is success for Reading Football Club as a whole and everyone associated with it. That’s not mutually exclusive with having serious doubts over his quality as a manager though. For instance, I have no hesitation in thinking Paul Clement was the worst manager Reading have had in my time as a supporter, but he still holds the legacy of keeping this club in the Championship. Clement deserves respect for doing so, and I really want Ince to carry that same legacy, regardless of anything else.
As long as Ince is here I’ll back him in his task, but I’ve got serious doubts over his ability to succeed. Reading have at least given themselves leeway with Ince’s official tag as ‘interim’ manager, inadvertently or not, to move him out for someone else, which would be the right call. With an international break coming up in a week’s time, preceding the crucial final eight games of the season, there’s an opportunity to call time on Ince’s Reading spell.