Reading have just started the New Year with a narrow defeat on the road, and I can’t help but feel it’s the opposite side of the same coin for how we ended the old year.
On Friday night the Royals fought back to secure a late 1-1 draw at Carrow Road thanks to Andy Carroll’s penalty; on Monday afternoon West Bromwich Albion held onto their 1-0 lead to edge Reading out. Had events gone just a little differently, the Royals may have lost at Carrow Road or drawn at the Hawthorns and the mood right now would be very different.
So seeing us fall short today leaves me feeling frustrated (obviously) but not all that distraught. There’s no great shame in Reading not quite having enough to get a result on the road in a tough match. After all, the Baggies have some stand-out talent for this level (including a certain former Royal who proved influential in this game) and were in excellent form heading into 2023.
Reading have qualities of their own (hence finishing 2022 in the top half) and had built up some decent form too (ditto), but aren’t yet at a level where a positive result in a game like this should be expected. We’re a decent but limited side that will lose matches such as these, and they won’t determine whether we get relegated, so there’s no need for an overreaction.
Paul Ince made three changes to the side that drew at Norwich, drafting in the rested Yakou Meite, the currently popular Nesta Guinness-Walker and the forgotten Scott Dann. The latter hadn’t played since March, his only appearance for Reading under the current gaffer. It meant Lucas Joao (ineffective on Friday) and Naby Sarr (generally poor on Friday) dropping to the bench with Tom Holmes absent completely.
Ince also went for the 3-4-3 setup which he’d used against Swansea City. Meite and Tom Ince took to the wings (dropping back to make a 5-4-1 out of possession), with Andy Carroll the lone striker and Dann the middle centre back in Holmes’ stead.
Lumley; Yiadom, Dann, McIntyre; Hoilett, Loum, Hendrick, Guinness-Walker; Ince, Carroll, Meite
If he was hoping those changes would nullify the hosts, Ince was mistaken. The Baggies ran the show in the opening stages - dominating possession, pushing upfield and fashioning good chances. It was only a mixture of poor finishing, Joe Lumley and the woodwork which kept the scores level, and you had the worrying feeling that it was only a matter of time before their pressure paid off.
However, Reading somehow held on, albeit more by luck than design. And as the half progressed, the Royals gradually regained more control of their own third and started to creep up the pitch. It was little more than that; bar one opening when Junior Hoilett had a shot cleared off the line and another when Carroll headed an Ince cross straight at the ‘keeper, Reading didn’t lay a glove on the hosts.
A mid-game switch from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 helped, effectively adding another body into the middle of the park. The Baggies found it more difficult to exert control in Reading’s third, although they did have sights of goal later in the half, such as when Daryl Dike almost crept in behind past Scott ‘old as time’ Dann. Still, regardless of formation and how many strikers happened to be playing up top, Reading struggled to get them in the game.
On the basis of the first half there was only one justified winner today and it wasn’t Reading. In the first half the Baggies hadn’t made their dominance count, but they finally did so - to match-winning effect - an hour into the contest. Paul Ince will surely have been infuriated by how easily Dike snuck in to head home a delivery from the right, finding a pocket of space just yards out.
Reading had been better after the break (bar the goal) but still weren’t doing enough to threaten West Brom. Substitutions were required if that was to change and they finally came around 10 minutes after Dike’s strike. On came Shane Long, Lucas Joao and Baba Rahman; off went Yakou Meite, Andy Carroll and Nesta Guinness-Walker.
Swapping out the centre forwards in particular made sense and, really, I’d have got Meite and Carroll off the pitch a lot earlier. Freshening up on the left had its merits too: Guinness-Walker hadn’t been able to replicate his penalty-winning impact from Friday night and Reading had an attacking left-wing-back at hand on the bench in Rahman.
Unfortunately those swaps didn’t have the impact Reading were after. Neither did a subsequent one: Femi Azeez replaced Jeff Hendrick as a very different kind of central attacking midfielder. It was the kind of fun, weird and experimental attacking substitution I always enjoy seeing. The Royals were still lacking in ideas. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been such an issue if attacking right-wing-back Junior Hoilett was still on the pitch, but he - on a yellow card - had been withdrawn for Amadou Mbengue earlier on.
The best Reading managed was two moments late on. In the first, Tom McIntyre drove upfield and played in Joao, who forced a corner with a blocked effort after the kind of nifty footwork that only Joao can pull off. In the latter, Long nodded on an Ince corner for Rahman, but he couldn’t get over the ball and headed it agonisingly over the bar.
Ultimately, it probably wasn’t much of a surprise that the Baggies held on and pretty comfortably too. They’d gone into this match without conceding from open play in 787 minutes - quite the daunting stat for a Reading side which is consistently bad at breaking teams down, instead relying on set pieces and long-range efforts.
This match still highlighted the limits of this Reading side. It’s functional and spirited but ultimately lacking in stand-out quality, particularly in midfield, where there’s a distinct inability to take control of a match or create openings for the forwards. Ironically there’s still very much a John Swift-shaped hope that’s yet to be filled.