Some things in life are like riding a bike: once you've learned how to do it once, you'll remember it for the rest of your life. Other skills disappear without practice though - over the course of time, the memory weakens. How much time though? Well, in the case of knowing how and when to make a substitution, apparently eight years was sufficient to wipe Paul Ince's memory.
Reading's 1-0 home defeat to Millwall was a classic case of "nothing is working". Try as they might, the Royals couldn't find a way to unlock the Lions' defence. Whether in the first half or second, via counters, set pieces or open-play attacks, Reading came up short.
It happens. We've seen this film before and are well used to how it goes. The most predictable plot point though is the stage at which the manager decides he's seen enough and looks to his bench to alter things. Typically it's around the hour mark, and (barring mitigating circumstances) it’s strange if you’re waiting past the 70th minute.
But the hour mark came and went. We waited for Paul Ince to intervene in proceedings... and we waited... and we waited some more (some fans even passed the time by chanting “Incey, make a sub”)... until it finally happened. For him to hang around until the 79th minute though, only making one substitution at that point and it not being serious goal threat Yakou Meite - it really beggared belief.
It wouldn't be until the 86th minute for Meite to enter proceedings, and then the 94th for a third change. Even then it was Scott Dann, thrown on in a forward position, a move that felt as bizarre in its lack of timing and tactical merit as it did insulting to the actual forward players sat on the bench. A penny for the thoughts of Tom Dele-Bashiru, Jahmari Clarke and Brandon Barker, all left to shiver on the bench.
And that makes Ince's inaction (Inceaction?) all the weirder. Unlike on the vast majority of other matchdays this season, Reading's manager couldn't complain about a lack of offensive options on the bench:
- A more creative central midfielder for the double pivot: Dele-Bashiru
- A playmaker for the left side or as a number 10: Ejaria
- A wide player or striker: Meite
- An out-and-out winger: Barker
- A centre forward: Clarke
We could even afford the absence of Alen Halilovic, who missed out despite returning to the squad at Blackpool last Saturday.
Maybe more intervention from the dugout would have done the trick and prompted a turnaround, maybe it wouldn't have. There's certainly good reason to believe it wouldn't have been enough - Reading are more than capable of coming up short even when substitutions are done right.
But making good attacking substitutions is a card that had to be played, and in the circumstances it felt easier to play that card well than to play it badly. The blatant shortcoming in this regard makes this loss feel all the more frustratingly avoidable.
"Frustratingly avoidable" is an apt description for the nature of the winning goal, too. Reading again conceded from a set piece, this time as Jake Cooper rose highest to nod home a corner in front of the Dolan Stand. Conceding from a set piece has long since become an inevitability. Some things never change, do they?
To be fair, others do. If there's a positive to be taken from this game, it was in Reading's first-half defensive structure. Paul Ince has talked a lot about team shape since his arrival, and improvement in this regard was evident. Bar the goal, Millwall didn't really look all that much like scoring; Reading were stubbornly tough to break down after an apparently productive week on the training ground.
In theory it gave the Royals a platform from which to build. "Don't concede sloppy goals, nick a goal or two down the other end and grab a result" may well have been how the team talk went. When the structure is good, that approach is feasible; it's certainly a safer option than playing gung-ho football. Of course, it still depends on the fundamental points of not conceding from set pieces and managing to actually score.
Reading now have another week on the training ground, a period which Paul Ince will hopefully use to reflect on how to use his bench properly. In all seriousness though, some of that time needs to be spent on developing attacking patterns of play: the Royals struggled to get Lucas Joao and John Swift into the game in dangerous areas today, generally looked short on ideas, and sometimes resorted to too-direct football (against the least suitable opponent for that tactic) as a result.
While there’s enough to be gleaned from Reading’s defensive shape to give me some cause for optimism, in my mind I keep coming back to the lack of proactivity in Paul Ince’s subs. While not completely indefensible (although the ‘interim’ manager left media duties to Michael Gilkes), an inability or unwillingness to affect the game from the dugout is cause for concern.