The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We may have started a new campaign, but the manner of Reading’s 1-0 defeat at Blackpool on the opening day of the 2022/23 season was oh so familiar. An injury-hit Royals team, with a few players shunted into unideal positions in order to compensate, was frustratingly edged out by distinctly OK opposition. If this were a TV show, we’d be criticising the writers for reusing 2021/22’s material.
Then again, associating today with last season too much would be unfair. Reading were pretty good, lacking execution rather than effort, and would have been good value for a point if we’d managed it. The game was ultimately decided by Blackpool taking one chance - Callum Connolly slamming home a loose ball after an effort had well saved by Joe Lumley.
Ultimately, the issues holding us back today felt more like teething problems than they did deep-set structural weaknesses. Remember: this is an unfinished XI, let alone squad, which is still working through a new system. Reading aren’t going to be at their best at times like this.
Paul Ince set his side up in a now-familiar 3-4-3, but with some unfamiliar positional choices. Injuries to Sam Hutchinson and Lucas Joao meant Andy Yiadom was drafted to right centre-back (Tom Holmes shunted into the middle) while Junior Hoilett took up the right wing-back role. Yakou Meite led the line ahead of Tom Ince and Ovie Ejaria, with Nesta Guinness-Walker at left wing-back.
Lumley; Yiadom, Holmes, McIntyre; Hoilett, Hendrick, Fornah, Guinness-Walker; Ince, Meite, Ejaria
In the context of how Reading have been preparing over pre-season and the injuries we’ve since sustained, that XI made sense. Everyone can play those roles and have done so before. But it left the Royals with some less-than-perfect outcomes:
- No experienced centre half in the middle (which would have been preferable albeit not crucial)
- Yiadom was, as an attacking threat, wasted as a right centre-back
- Guinness-Walker is untested at this level and it showed, whether in individual errors or a general lack of product
- Meite as a lone forward lacks the hold-up to bring others into the game
Reading have certainly had much worse cases of square pegs being unceremoniously squeezed into round holes, but the above issues added up. The Royals lacked fluency today, whether it came in the form of consistently productive width or proper presence in the final third.
Fluency was more of an issue in the first half - a below-par one from the Royals’ point of view.
Blackpool started the half the better of the two sides and could have gone ahead a couple of times, were it not for some fine Lumley saves. However, the second of those stops immediately preceded the opener, with Connolly first to the loose ball and rifling it into the net.
Reading did improve as the opening period went on and managed to work some openings; they tended to come from the Royals winning the ball relatively high before pouncing. Ince did that once, driving upfield before letting fly (winning a corner), while Ejaria followed suit, passing to Jeff Hendrick who slid in Meite, only for the Ivorian to come up with a tame finish.
While Reading didn’t make any half-time subs, they did up the tempo after the restart and looked - convincingly - the more dangerous of the two sides in the second half. However, bar Hoilett being unable to beat the ‘keeper from close range at the end of a low cross, clear-cut chances couldn’t be created.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Blackpool could have made it 2-0 after a pretty cheap error early on in the half but hit the post, and Reading were again on the ropes after a poor Guinness-Walker mistake later on. Andy Yiadom also had to be on hand to cut out a Tangerines opportunity, which he did with an excellent last-ditch challenge - something that’s certainly in his locker but perhaps gets overlooked for a player highly regarded for his attacking side.
Even at the break, it felt like a matter of time before Reading went 3-5-2. After all, the Royals had used that formation in pre-season and even specifically as a mid-game switch in the defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion. Doing so today would have meant swapping Fornah (the game passed him by for the most part) for a second centre forward and rejigging the midfield three.
Paul Ince didn’t fancy it though. In fact, it wasn’t until the 83rd minute when a change happened - Shane Long coming on for Ejaria - and that was a direct swap in the 3-4-3. Long appeared to play in Ovie’s left-sided number-10 spot rather than as an out-and-out striker. While options on the bench were limited (in a nod to 2021/22, most of the subs were academy players), Reading needed new ideas as early as the 70th minute and should have brought on a second striker.
In the end, Reading simply ran out of ideas today. They certainly didn’t down tools - the attitude throughout the second half was encouraging and suggests the whole squad are pushing in the same direction, just as they must do if this season is to be a successful one.
Hopefully the Royals can make pretty immediate improvements next Saturday - in the first home game of the season - through personnel alone. While none of the injured contingent look likely to return, Reading will hopefully have new signings Mamadou Loum and Naby Sarr available, and maybe a new left wing-back if we can get one in. Adding the first two will provide some nicer balance in the back three, push Yiadom out to wing-back and bulk up the midfield a tad.
Beyond that there’s not too much to be said about today. This is the first step in a long campaign that could end up any way at all, and drawing too firm conclusions too early on would be unwise.