Substance over style
For the first 10 minutes it was apparent that Reading had “worked on a few things”. The back line were all singing from the same hymn sheet by being level with each other during the phases of open play. When Tom Holmes and Michael Morrison shifted up, so did Tom McIntyre and Andy Yiadom – it was quite refreshing to see. But... and there’s often a but or few after a defeat, the problem with adhering to these rules is that we seemed to lose all momentum going forward.
Granted, McIntyre is never going to be a marauding full back a la Baba Rahman, but on the other flank, Yiadom seemed woefully underused in the first half. For all the niceties of having a solid defensive shape, by concentrating on improving the negatives, they forgot how to be positive when in possession. Oh, and we still conceded from a corner. Plus ça change.
We all know what the ‘definition of madness’ is: repeating the same thing when nothing will change. And that’s what the entire game felt like. We had no plan B; this sounds shockingly familiar, stop me if you’ve heard this one. With Lucas João being marshalled very well by Reading academy alum Jake Cooper, we struggled to either get the ball to him or when it did, have anyone to lay it off to.
Time and time again, we tried the same thing – get the ball to João, lay off to John Swift, find the width out wide. We didn’t invite João to come deep to receive the ball and pull Cooper out of position, we didn’t push the full backs on to divert the play elsewhere and bring Lucas into the game via another route, nor did we use or create space behind at any point. Utterly repetitive and pointless. Oh, and substitutes. Later friends, later.
Which leads on to a general lack of match intelligence - do we have any? Apart from being drilled to have more defensive cohesion, there was little else to show. Every player bar one or two moments seemed flat. The tempo was painfully slow, the passes either half-hearted or thundered inexplicably (looking at you, Danny Drinkwater).
Nobody seemed to notice that we were sucking the life out of the game and the fans alike. As reported on the post-match show on BBC Radio Berkshire, Millwall had two defenders on yellow cards in the first half. Where were the ‘dark arts’ to draw fouls or worse? There are many ways of gaining an advantage, use them!
Worryingly, we did not seem to want the result badly enough. When playing at home, why be so placid when the remaining home games are the best chances of getting vital points? If you’re losing, and with our goal difference, it makes no difference to lose 0-2 than it is to lose 0-1. Go for it. Risk and reward. Do something.
Which leads nicely to substitutes, or clearly the lack of them. Watching how the first half ended, most fans would have noticed a need for some elements to change, otherwise we would just be falling into Millwall’s well-executed trap. Just be solid and Reading couldn’t harm them. The minutes dragged on and on, our attacks were bland and repetitive.
Even as early as the 55th minute, it was clear that nothing had changed. The scoreboard hadn’t changed. Millwall barely bothered to attack; they knew they’d got the game won even by this point. The low likelihood that we’d score once or even score twice far outweighed their requirement to get a second goal to kill the game. They simply didn’t need to.
How, interim manager Paul Ince could not or would not risk making the game-changing substitutes was baffling. Change nothing and nothing will change. By the time Ovie Ejaria appeared, the game was beyond our reach. As mercurial as Ovie can be, he had barely played in months. It was such a tall order for him to have any effect after such a period on the sidelines.
Similar for the entry of Yakou Méïté, and the less said about the introduction of Scott Dann the better. If changes are to be made, make them when they at least make sense and with enough time for them to be effective?
Under the bus
The last in the series of ‘things that didn’t make sense’: the introduction of a Reading legend to have the dubious honour of dealing with the press. This smacked of interim manager Paul Ince dodging the bullet of the second defeat in succession and throwing Michael Gilkes under the bus. A club legend could deflect away the result, being a new face for the media he could not be put under scrutiny as much. One would doubt that Gilkes would be in the same position if we had won the game, one would suggest.
What was worse was that even Gilkes, who has been with the club for decades, only provided dull ‘toeing the company line’ answers that would only appease his Guv’nor or bodies above him. It seemed that everything was stale on and off the pitch.