Reading are out of the League Cup after a late 2-1 defeat at home to Stevenage that was part frustrating, part promising. The Royals played poorly in the first half and were deservedly a goal behind at the break, but eventually improved in the second half and were in the ascendancy after Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan’s equaliser, even looking like grabbing a winner. However, another slack moment at the back was punished in the dying moments to know the Royals out of the competition.
As is seemingly now the norm with Reading and cup competitions, this game will inevitably be consigned to history immediately. After all, it was a young and new side that was put out more for the sake of rotating who got game time than it was for the aim of winning the contest. So neither Paul Ince nor supporters will shed many tears over this result.
It’s still disappointing though to see Reading go out with a performance that, to a large but not complete extent, left a lot to be desired. My overriding impression from this game is that plenty of these youngsters are badly lacking senior experience which, ideally, would have come from a loan spell or two by now.
First-team action of any kind, let alone starting against professional opposition, is a rarity for the Royals’ current crop of under-21s. As a result, Reading were kept at arm’s length for much of the contest, and only really looked like convincingly threatening Stevenage in the second half after the introduction of Mamadi Camara and Jahmari Clarke from the bench.
The nature of the goals conceded was frustrating, with Stevenage twice pouncing on slack defending before slotting home. The latter was particularly galling - the ball finding its way across goal before being knocked in at close range. However, given the makeshift and inexperienced nature of the defence, you can understand gaps opening up.
Further, Reading's second-half promise is worth noting. When the Royals gained some confidence and played with a bit of swagger, they realised they could hurt the visitors. That typically came from Camara, playing in seemingly a free 10 role behind the front two, but the uplift in display was visible across the team in the final half an hour or so.
On another day, that would have been rewarded with a win. Reading had chances in the closing stages of the game through Clarke, Ehibhatiomhan and Loum; had any of those gone in, a theoretical 2-1 victory wouldn’t have been an unfair result.
Tactically, Reading started with a 3-5-2 formation that was seen in pre-season. Holmes retained the central centre back role to add some organisation in a makeshift back three that surprisingly included wingback Guiness-Walker, although the result (pushing rookie Clarke to wingback) was sensible.
In midfield, Loum was very much the deepest of a three, behind two more advanced players in Fornah and Leavy, although they weren't so high as to be 10s in the mould of Ovie Ejaria and Tom Ince in the 3-4-3 setup.
Bouzanis; Holzman, Holmes, Guinness-Walker; Abrefa, Fornah, Loum, Leavy, Clarke; Ehibhatiomham, Tuma
A halftime change had Holmes swapped directly for McIntyre, perhaps intended to give McIntyre experience as that central organiser.
The most effective swaps however came later in the second half when Leavy and Tuma were withdrawn for Camara and Jahmari Clarke. That meant Reading slipping into a 3-5-2 - Camara behind two big frontmen - and yielded our best spell of the contest.
Simultaneously, and wisely, Fornah dropped back alongside Loum. That helped Fornah, who seems more comfortable playing deeper - something emphasised by Salopcast when we spoke to them in the summer after Fornah's arrival.
Rounding off the changes was the introduction of Michael Craig. The young defensive midfielder replaced Fornah in a straight swap late on.
My star man from the evening was Mamadi Camara (8/10) – Reading’s best creative outlet across the whole game despite only being introduced in the 55th minute.
He looked bright and positive in possession, and had end product too. The first example of that came with the equaliser, when he expertly slid a pass in behind for the onrushing Ehibhatiomhan to control and convert from the left channel, before setting up Clarke with a similar, quality opportunity (shot blocked) in the right channel. Camara also turned provider from a set piece, putting a corner onto the head of Loum (just wide).
A word too here for the other stand-outs: Ehibhatiomhan and Loum (7/10).
The former opened his Reading account with a lovely finish, capping off a performance in which he’d shown his physicality as a lone striker without getting much service. He could actually have had a second, only for his header (via Nesta Guinness-Walker’s cross) to go just over the bar.
Loum on the other hand showed his class in a holding-midfield role. He’s been billed as a bit of an enforcer (Paul Ince loves his physicality), but it was his use of the ball which impressed me. Loum is very comfortable with the ball at his feet, being able to ride pressure (including with a few gorgeous bits of skill) and keep it moving. His passing is sharp and effective, although he’s not that adventurous. He looks a lot like a good partner for Jeff Hendrick, being able to do the dirty work and keep things simple so that the Irishman can hopefully express himself more.
Otherwise, I’m not too down on any individuals – I don’t think anyone was outright bad, it’s more that some looked more out of their depth than others.
6/10: Dean Bouzanis, Louie Holzman, Tom Holmes, Nesta Guinness-Walker, Kelvin Abrefa, Jahmari Clarke (sub), Tom McIntyre (sub).
Bouzanis didn't have all that much to do bar picking the ball out of his net a couple of times. The defence in front of him looked pretty steady and dealt with most of what came their way, albeit not against the strongest opposition.
Substitute Clarke played his part in giving Reading extra threat in the final half an hour or so. As an additional 'big man up top' he made the Royals look more dangerous when going direct, which has previously been fruitless. But he put himself about effectively as a more mobile frontman too, and almost made it 2-1 when slotted through by Camara.
5/10: John Clarke, Kian Leavy, Basil Tuma, Tyrese Fornah
While I don't think any of these four were that bad, they failed to impose themselves enough. That was particularly true of midfielders Leavy and Fornah, playing much of the game just ahead of Loum, who were mostly anonymous.
Clarke and Tuma on the other hand looked pretty raw. That's understandable given that this was their first proper taste of senior football, so it was bound to be a stark learning curve. Still, I can't fault their attitude.
N/A: Michael Craig.
Who was your MOTM against Stevenage? Vote through this link.