While last season Reading were concerning themselves with the fight to reach the playoffs, we are now back to worrying matters at the wrong end of the standings for the third time in five years.
A four-way battle to avoid relegation has been brewing for a while now, with Reading competing against Barnsley, Derby County and Peterborough. We are certainly in the strongest position with 10 weeks to go, sitting above the dotted line and six points ahead of the 22nd-placed Tykes who have a game in hand. We are then eight points ahead of Derby (23rd) and Peterborough (24th), having played one fewer game than the Rams and one more than Posh.
Championship bottom four, correct as of March 2
It is the business end of the season where every fixture is analysed in detail and every point picked up could be worth its metaphorical weight in gold. So let’s take a look at how Reading can navigate their way to safety...
What do Reading need?
Over the past 10 seasons, teams which have stayed up in the Championship have needed as few as 41 points and as many as 55. Due to Derby’s deduction of 21 points and how poor Peterborough and Barnsley have been, Reading are likely to need a tally somewhere on the lower end of that spectrum.
We may even be able to stay up with under 40 points given how the table is currently forecast to finish in comparison to previous campaigns. At this stage last season, the bottom three clubs had 32, 28 and 23 points respectively. This time around those numbers stand at 23, 21 and 21 respectively.
But just to be on the safe side, we’ll use the average number of points needed to finish 21st over the last 10 years: 45. That means Reading need 16 points from their final 12 matches, a rate of 1.33 per game. So far this season we have picked up points at a rate of 1.03 per game, so a slight improvement is required. Essentially, we need to be picking up just under an extra point every three games than we have done so far.
Where will the points come from?
16 points can be picked up from 12 games in four different ways:
- Five wins, one draw and six defeats
- Four wins, four draws and four defeats
- Three wins, seven draws and two defeats
- Two wins, 10 draws and no defeats
Reading have drawn the fewest games in the Championship this season (five), so the draw-heavy strategies seem to be the least likely routes that will be taken. The Royals have shown over the last 10 days that they are just as likely to be in control and win a game as they are to fall apart and lose.
Reading’s final 12 fixtures contain five games against teams in the bottom half of the table that should be considered target wins. Those are home matches against faltering Stoke City (15th) along with Welsh pair Cardiff City (18th) and Swansea City (16th), both of which we beat away earlier in the campaign. Then there are away games against Hull City (19th) and, most crucially, relegation rivals Barnsley (22nd).
Reading also have home games against Millwall (11th) and West Bromwich Albion (13th), who look set to finish mid-table but still have the quality to hurt opposition. A point would probably do the trick in these matches, making them target draws.
That leaves five bonus games against teams challenging for automatic promotion and the playoffs, where any points picked up would be a pleasant surprise. Those are away trips to Nottingham Forest (9th), Bournemouth (2nd), Sheffield United (7th) and Luton (6th) and the home game against Blackburn Rovers (4th).
It’s worth pointing out that three of these bonus games - Forest, Bournemouth and Rovers - come in the space of seven days later this month. It could be a potentially demoralising week for Reading that leaves them right in the thick of the relegation battle, so it will be important to keep perspective. All five of Reading’s target wins then come in the space of three weeks in April; that period will define the club’s Championship status.
How do we compare to our rivals?
Run-in analysis based off points per game from SoccerSTATs.com
As the table shows, Reading statistically have the easiest run-in compared to Barnsley, Derby and Peterborough. The points-per-game value of our remaining opponents (1.30) is significantly lower than that of the other three teams. In fact, out of the whole division, only Blackburn, Millwall, Swansea and Birmingham City have a statistically easier set of final 12 fixtures.
It would be naive though to write off any of the three teams below us, who may all have trump cards to use. Derby continue to defy the odds with their spirit and unity, while Peterborough’s reappointment of Grant McCann could spur them into life.
But perhaps we should be most fearful of Barnsley, who are back from the brink following three wins in their last four matches. The Tykes have a game in hand over Reading (to be played at home against Stoke on March 8) and only have three of the current top 10 left to play, compared to Reading (five of the top 10 to play), Derby (five) and Peterborough (seven).
Poya Asbaghi’s side also still have to play all three of the teams around them, whereas Reading, Peterborough and Derby have all already played each other twice. If Barnsley can beat their relegation rivals, then they may take control of the fight.
On the final day of the season, if it comes to it, Reading travel to Luton (6th), Derby host Cardiff (18th), Barnsley travel to West Brom (13th) and Peterborough host Blackpool (14th).
There will of course be twists and turns in the next 10 weeks that the numbers cannot account for. But ultimately, the situation is clear: Reading’s fate is in their own hands. They know what they need to do and they don’t need to rely on anyone else to do it.