There comes a time when you’ve watched enough football to know a tired player from one that has all cylinders flying, and for the minutes between the moment Stoke City had bundled in their equaliser and half time it looked for all the world that many of our players looked utterly gassed.
It would hardly have been a surprise considering the players that had been selected. All of them, to a man, had played a good proportion of the games played thus far. Any rotation that could have been made was cut off at the calf and groin by the loss of Naby Sarr and Mamadou Loum, respectively.
Whatever Go-Go juice had injected into the players at half-time rejuvenated the unit. Lucas Joao had one of his most energetic games in a long time (maybe powered by sugar after choffing a few birthday cakes, perhaps!) Tyrese Fornah blasted around the opposition half at any opportunity, Sam
Shady Hutchinson proved to be tireless, lest we forget the human dynamo that is Tom Ince. More on that later.
Equally, for what Reading appeared to lack at the tail end of the first half, Stoke appeared to wilt hugely in the second. Whilst Reading gained momentum, Stoke sunk into the soil. We suddenly looked spritely, energised and the much sharper team by the end. Opposition boss, the newly appointed Alex Neil, cited that their six or seven injuries put paid to their chances as his played looked off the pace and leggy. Oh, how we laughed! Welcome to our world, Alex!
Moments in games, like the penalty won and brutally converted by Joao, can mentally and physically change matches so quickly. From the moment Reading regained the lead, there was only one winner.
This season at home, thus far, we are a much different prospect than in recent seasons. Once ahead, the steel and organisation are very apparent. At times the voices in the crowd ask for more closing down but we’re happier to let the opposition have the ball and maintain our shape.
If, say, Jeff Hendrick chose to engage the player, this would create space that could be exploited - but he refuses, he stays in situ, keeping the midfield compact, as does the defensive line behind him. This small tactical change alone is a big sign of an improvement and it is paying off hugely.
In the latest of utterly never-ending injuries, Mamadou Loum fell foul of a groin knack to join fellow newbie Naby Sarr on the injury table. As a result, Shane Long was drafted in alongside Lucas, whilst Tom Ince dropped back to replace Loum.
Not the kind of tactical swap Ince Snr would have liked to have made, but once again, necessity meant that what few cards the manager had left to shuffle made it look like we’d gone with two up top, but in reality Ince played all the experienced players he had left at his disposal.
Yet it is a testament to this bunch of youth, freebies and loans that they continually prove to overcome these obstacles. That is typified by Tom Ince who, once again, showcased his tenacity and willingness to defend from the front. Already a contender for player of the season, he has continued and improved since his move from… Stoke City.
How they would have missed a player with his energy and determination in that second half. Did Tom have a personal point to make? Possibly. But it is now a treat to see him in blue and white, hauling his team onto greater things week in, week out.
Lucas Joao celebrated his 29th birthday in the best way possible with a goal that would have likely ended up on a DVD of goalkeeping howlers back in the day, and a penalty stroked home with aplomb. Recently there had been criticism of Joao’s effort and work rate, perhaps in comparison to the rest of his team mates who have been running through brick walls for each other.
Tom Ince stated in his interview on Sky TV that he’s happy to do all the running if Joao puts them away. That does Lucas a bit of a disservice as he did put in a much more energetic shift than in recent weeks. He will never be a Tom Ince, but he certainly played his part as a genuine team player and not just the clinical goal scorer that we’ve known.
Lucas typifies the personality of a “confidence player” - one that needs equal amounts of metaphorical kicks up the backside and physical arms around the shoulders, but nothing lifts a mood better than a brace on your birthday. When Lucas is on fire, he can be unstoppable, it’s now a case of maintaining that level as we attempt to accrue as many points as possible to stave off thoughts of relegation.
After eight games played, winning five of them, we are now starting to see the style and traits of the new Reading FC appear. In the words of the previous manager, the new non-negotiables, if you will. Whilst we are set up in very similar ways for home and away games (as physically we have few options), it’s at the SCL where we hope to obtain a huge chunk of points to keep us in the Championship. Already, it could be said that we’ve won a third of the wins required to do just that.
What is also clear is the huge amount of effort which has been made to make us better than the sum of our parts. The defensive line, the low block, the general shape when not in possession – all of these intrinsic basics of football are now present.
Recently, two managers – Alex Neil and Chris Wilder – have claimed after defeats that their own teams looked slow and ponderous against us. This would be a testament to how Ince and his staff have drilled the team to be hard to get behind or to minimise any gaps that would appear. This in turn slows the game down and would create that view of inactivity on their part. Truth be told, it is those non-negotiable basics that we now show that we’re much harder to beat, at home at least.
It might not be pretty, but after seasons of trudge and despondency the fans now appreciate all that has gone into a team that really is punching way above its level currently. Who knows what we are capable of when we may get some injured players back, but for now, third place in the league is not a bad place to be.