Reading blow a two-goal lead (earned by a midfielder’s brace, one of them a screamer) in their first home league game of the year to draw 2-2. Reading blow a two-goal lead at home to QPR. Reading blow a half-time two-goal lead to a side managed by Neil Critchley. Whatever way you look at it, we’ve been here before.
The frustrating thing is that I didn’t think we’d be back. Reading have been so very good this season at holding onto leads at home, consistently showing great game management to edge matches by one goal, sometimes two. With Reading 2-0 to the good at the break thanks to an unlikely Jeff Hendrick double, seeing that lead through to full time looked odds on, but instead we got a second-half capitulation to an admittedly spirited and dangerous QPR side via Tyler Roberts in the 65th and 80th minutes.
While the overall trend of Reading being strong at holding onto home leads this season remains, the record falling from 100% to 88% is still frustrating. Seeing that happen with such a poor collapse against QPR is even more galling, especially as it followed a depressingly familiar pattern. Reading did all the hard work in the first half but simply weren’t at the races in the second.
From confidence, focus and proactivity before the break to dejection, sloppiness and passivity after it. This was a collective failing - the result of too many players falling short, not simply a freak occurrence originating from a momentary slip. Everyone in the stands could see the momentum of the match decisively moving into QPR’s favour in the second half, but not so on the pitch.
Onto the manager’s part. I deliberately mentioned the players first as, for me, that’s where a hefty chunk of responsibility for today’s collapse should lie. Reading had the experience and quality to see the game out. Still, Paul Ince should take plenty too. He’s come in for a lot of criticism after the game, most of it fair but some of it slightly wide of the mark.
First and foremost, it’s certainly true that there’s a long-standing theme under Ince surrounding Reading being reactive rather than proactive when looking to protect a lead. The Royals prefer to sit off and hold what they have rather than looking to kill matches off. That generally hadn’t been a problem this season at home, but there was always the danger that the Royals would be punished at some point. That ended up being at the hands of QPR.
So seeing Ince apparently wash his hands of responsibility for Reading’s reactive mindset in the second half in his post-match comments struck a nerve for many, myself included. He’s spoken about this issue before so we know he’s aware of it, but he failed to front up for his own part in the team’s shortcomings.
He also got a key personnel change wrong, unwisely bringing Scott Dann on for Junior Hoilett just after the hour mark (at 2-0), thereby creating an immobile back three of Dann, Tom Holmes and Naby Sarr. It was badly suited to deal with a quick and slick QPR attack which struck back a few minutes later before eventually drawing level. It could well have found the net more times than that. Withdrawing Hoilett was the right call, but the rapid Amadou Mbengue would have been a better substitute, allowing Andy Yiadom to remain in the back three. Ince’s trust in Dann’s experience (the probable thinking behind the change) smacks of naivety.
I’m less convinced though that this double change (Tom McIntyre also coming on for Mamadou Loum) was deliberately negative. It felt more like a flawed reorganisation of Reading’s defensive personnel - justifiable given that QPR were already getting forward more convincingly before the subs - and less like a conscious attempt at parking the bus. After all, the Royals had been in a 3-4-1-2 before the arrival of Dann and McIntyre and remained in it afterwards - just with different personnel in four positions.
There’s also the added foolishness of simultaneously using two centre backs who, by Ince’s own admission, are still getting back to sharpness. Clearly Sarr and Dann aren’t ready - regardless of anything tactical, individually they fell short.
Anyway, let’s rewind back to better times: the first half. For all the frustration of the second period, there had been promise earlier on.
When Ince named his XI it was hard to work out who would be slotting in where. Reading could quite feasibly have been playing a 3-5-2, 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1. In the end it was none of those; the Royals had returned to the 3-4-1-2 that was used in the FA Cup match against Watford, just with different personnel. Here’s how it looked at the start of the game:
Lumley; Yiadom, Holmes, Sarr; Hoilett, Hutchinson, Loum, Rahman; Hendrick; Ince, Carroll
Note the rearrangement in the middle of the park. While Reading were playing a similar shape to the customary 3-5-2 (with Tom Ince partnering Andy Carroll up top), Hendrick was given a dedicated attacking role while two others (Sam Hutchinson and Mamadou Loum) sat deeper.
It didn’t really pay off all that well. For the quarter of an hour or so that edition of the 3-4-1-2 was in use, Reading failed to build up much momentum. However, the forced withdrawal of defensive midfielder Hutchinson allowed a rejig; on came Shane Long to partner Carroll, with Ince dropping back into the 10 role and Hendrick doing likewise to slot in alongside Loum.
There was more promise from that point. Long made some sharp runs into space which Rahman couldn’t find due to sloppy passing and Ince added purpose with driving runs upfield. Perhaps that more advanced, dedicated 10 role gets more out of him than the deeper one he usually has in the 3-5-2.
The deadlock was broken in the 28th minute, and in quite some style. When the ball fell to Hendrick around 25 yards out he was implored to hit it and he obliged, sending a tracer bullet of a strike satisfyingly into the bottom corner. Delicious.
And after a couple more bright attacks - Ince having a shot blocked and Long almost getting in on goal - Hendrick doubled his tally. A cross from Ince on the left wing came to Yiadom whose shot, saved by Seny Dieng, fell for Hendrick to tap in from a yard or so out. It was the polar opposite of his long-range screamer from earlier, but a great moment nonetheless for someone who’s struggled to win the fans over this season (myself included).
Today certainly wasn’t the worst performance Reading have put on this season, not even at home. It was probably the most frustrating home performance though: the Royals showed potential in the first half and were seemingly on track for another three points, but fluffed their lines in the second half.
As alluded to above when I mentioned Reading’s record of holding onto home leads this season, today should go down as the Royals falling short of their high standards. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but it is a reminder that this side needs to move forwards if it’s to avoid falling backwards (or pushing forwards if it’s to avoid dropping back, if you like).
That formula of snatching a lead from somewhere and doggedly holding onto it has served Reading well this season. The league table and home record attest to that. But the Royals have to be better at establishing and reestablishing influence over games, not to mention scoring goals from open play. One of those in the second half would have done the trick, but if we’re not finding the net from a long-range short or from a tap-in after the ball’s happened to fall to one of our players (see also: Birmingham City away), we’re largely incapable of breaking teams down.
Besides the obviously pressing need to sharpen up defensively and on game management after today’s capitulation, Paul Ince would be wise to look to improvement on this front also.