Even though it might not have looked like it at the first sight, today’s trip to Stoke City was a tricky one for the Royals.
First, because there is this famous cup tie against Manchester United next week. Although Paul Ince has banned his players from talking about it and admitted that he would rather claim three points against the Potters than avoiding defeat at Old Trafford, everyone knows how easily your focus can be distracted.
And second, because expectations are always pretty high when you face a struggling opponent like Stoke. It is a game you should be able to win. But the same was said ahead of our home tie against West Bromwich Albion or the freezing Friday night trip to Birmingham City. Who would have thought that the visit to St Andrew’s might become only the second worst away day by 5pm…
Apart from all that a win today would have been a significant step in the right direction. With Reading’s season so far looking more like a rollercoaster ride (the longest run has been three games without a loss), three points at the Britannia would push the blue and white further up in the table with a comfortable cushion to the relegation zone.
In order to achieve that the Royals' boss opted for the same tactical formation: a 3-4-1-2 with Joe Lumley in goal, Andy Yiadom, Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre at the back, Mamadou Loum and Tyrese Fornah in a deeper midfield position, Junior Hoilett on the right, Baba Rahman on the left and last week’s double goal scorer Jeff Hendrick in an advanced playmaker role. Up front Tom Ince partnered Yakou Meite.
Naby Sarr and Andy Carroll didn’t even make it to the bench. Still, Paul Ince had some strong options with the likes of Scott Dann, Amadou Mbengue, Nesta Guinness-Walker, Femi Azeez, Shane Long and Lucas João all eager to come on as a substitute. For the home team, former Royals Josh Laurent and Lewis Baker were two familiar names in Stoke’s starting line-up.
Right from the beginning the Potters were the predominant side and directly pushed forward. Nevertheless, Reading seemed to survive this early stage without getting really into trouble. Annoyingly just when the Royals tried to get the game better under control, they have the home side a helping hand and brought themselves into trouble. While moving the ball around in defence Tom Holmes sent Andy Yiadom unnecessarily under a bit of pressure. Aggravatingly the captain dealt with that situation in the worst manner as he slipped and lost the ball to Gayle. Stoke quickly sized the opportunity and two passes later it was Smallbone who picked out the bottom left corner to bring his team a 1-0 lead (11th minute).
Anyone who had hoped this goal might wake up the visitors was mistaken. Reading offered little throughout the whole afternoon and just had enough work to do by preventing the Potters from scoring. Tom McIntyre twice had to make a last-gasp interception. Joe Lumley was also called into action several times.
Offensively the Royals didn’t exist. It took Reading until the 42nd minute when Yakou Meite powerfully fought his way into the box and tested keeper Bonham with a good left-footed shot. But that was it. Seconds later Wilmot had the chance to make it two but saw his shot parried away by Joe Lumley.
Thankfully it was “only” 1-0 at the break. Overall, a very disappointing first half from Paul Ince’s men. No creativity, no ideas, no danger. With a performance like this, it was clear which way today’s result would go. Much improvement was needed. Unfortunately, little changed…
Surprisingly Paul Ince chose to not make any substitution during the interval and it took Stoke only 20 seconds to create the next opportunity. Campbell saw his shot from a tight angle stopped by Joe Lumley.
Apart from that it was the same picture all over again. Reading were vulnerable at the back and weak up front, Stoke totally in control and clearly the side who looked closest to scoring next. And soon that was also the case. Tom McIntyre left Campbell too much space so that the Potters’ number 10 could send in a strong strike from the edge of the area which the unlucky Tom Holmes deflected with his head to leave Joe Lumley no chance – 2-0 (57th minute).
Any reaction to that? Well, Paul Ince made a quadruple substitution. Tyrese Fornah, Yakou Meite, Tom Holmes and Junior Hoilett were replaced by Femi Azeez, Shane Long, Scott Dann and Lucas Joao. It was a 4-4-2 now with Yiadom, Dann, McIntyre at the back, Ince, Loum, Hendrick and Azeez in midfield and Joao and Long in the attack.
Under heavy fog the Royals needed to achieve within half an hour what QPR managed to do last week – equalise after being 2-0 behind. Nesta Guinness-Walker then came on as well for the invisible Baba Rahman. In the 76th minute Reading’s best chance of the evening. Shane Long nodded a free kick from Tom Ince narrowly past the post.
The visitors pushed now forward… and received the third! A well played counterattack was converted by Brown with his chest (80th minute). Game, set, and match! And the home side got even closer to a tennis result thanks to Dwight Gayle who deflected a Josh Laurent left-footed shot (83rd minute). 4-0 to the Potters. Another horrible away trip for the 602 Royals supporters. After three minutes of added time referee Ward (thankfully) blew the final whistle.
A deserved victory for Stoke who played well, but definitely didn’t look unstoppable. The Royals were just poor and performing like a team that has already been relegated. Although we are still in a comfortable mid-table position, everyone should be on high alert that this doesn’t become reality by the end of April. Especially if we play like this. Against the number 20, Paul Ince’s men were clearly inferior.
However, the worst thing for me was the way we lost. We went down without really fighting, at least for the majority of the game, and it is not the first time that has happened.
Ignoring for now what Paul Ince should/could do better, something has to change also within the dressing room. You can go down 1-0. You can also go down 2-0, but not without any resistance. It took until the hour mark to see some slight sparks of reaction. Worryingly even the half-time break seemed to have little effect. These are alarming indicators.
Last week’s draw against QPR is another good example. After sitting back and letting the West Londoners attack, at least at 2-1 there should have been a reaction. Someone who is waking up his teammates to prevent the draw or like today to initialise the turnaround. Neither happened.
We have got enough experienced players who could lead the team. We have got enough players who care for the club. But that has to be visible as well on the pitch. These 11 Royals need to perform as a unit - defending and attacking together, no matter if we are leading or behind. These guys are definitely capable of that, as we could see already many times this season.
This is also what gives hope for the upcoming weeks. Still, some appropriate measures have to be taken. You can lose games, but not like today. Come on Urzzzz!