For all the well documented limitations of this squad, we have tolerated much as fans. We have had to come through the dark, poisonous days under Veljko Paunovic, we have had to tolerate a transfer embargo, we have tolerated an injury-ravaged squad that, at times, has punched above its weight. But this one result seemed to push their luck a bit too far with many.
Whatever reasons you could wish to throw at it, this felt like an unprofessional showing from the Royals. One of the worst of the season, quite possibly the worst showing. As has seemed customary, we started off badly and steadily got worse. Nobody bar Joe Lumley came out of this well. Not the players or the management.
Whether they had their minds on the FA Cup tie against Manchester United is up for debate, but not many of the players could feel they even deserve a place in the team next weekend.
A lot of the ire will rightly be directed at Paul Ince. He’s the one that deals with the players, week in, week out; he’s the one that sets out the tactics and personal instructions. But for the umpteenth time we conceded in the first 10 minutes. Yet again we conceded from a basic cross and failed to defend it (looking at you Tom McIntyre). Yet again we looked utterly clueless in the final third. We literally could be playing now and wouldn’t have scored from open play.
For the first time on the socials, there were many calls for Ince to go. Many have excused him and the club for the situation which, by and large, we have coped with admirably - but on occasion, and mostly away from home, we look all at sea. No guile, no intention, just paint-by-numbers possession that goes absolutely nowhere. Passes to players where they hope the ball to be, rather than where the player should be. The trouble is those occasions are fast becoming the norm.
One of the main bones of contention is the system that has been used, abused and worn to death. On paper it looks fine. But so many components just don’t do what they should. Andy Yiadom really shouldn’t be where he is. He’s not a centre-back, never has been, never will be. Sure, he puts in a shift, but we have other defenders fit now so why is he there or never deposed? Amadou Mbengue signed a new contract and must be wondering why he bothered as he’d barely featured since.
Tom McIntyre shows his limitations by seemingly only being able to defend literally what’s in front of him. Anything coming in from the sides and he doesn’t know how to get to the other side of his man to cut out the cross. This happens time and time again.
The wing-backs are equally as culpable. What are they there for exactly? They don’t initiate attacks, they don’t push up the field, they don’t supplement midfield that well either. They’re just two positions that need to exist because we play with three centre-backs. Both Junior Hoilett and Baba Rahman had nothing games. Neither contributed much or posed any threat to the opposition.
The midfield is a disjointed muddle where one players sits and the other two run around a bit. It’s just not cohesive enough to look like a unit. It’s depressing to watch them get the runaround from the opposition, getting dispossessed constantly. Creativity is just a spit and a wish. Turgid.
The less we speak about up front the better, but it has to be done. No matter which combination of the strikers we have available, rarely does it look like we know what we’re doing beyond “toss it up to Andy”. When he’s not there to pick up the pieces, we flounder badly.
Yakou Meite isn’t savvy enough to lead the line on his own, but to be fair to him, we were not capable of using him to his strengths either. Up against 84-year-old Phil Jagielka he should have been able to win a foot race against him, but we didn’t have the tools to unlock that battle.
Ultimately, this is our lot and this is what it comes down to: we have a limited team with a limited manager and we can’t expect to be Barcelona. But that’s not really the point. We should, at least, look functional and be able to move the components around the pitch so we can show some teeth.
As has been repeated so many times away from home is a general lack of ideas. If it’s not Tom Ince with the ball at his feet then forget about any creativity coming from elsewhere. The wing-backs do nothing, there’s no impetus from central midfield to join Tom; there’s just nothing.
As our formation doesn’t change, only the personnel (who in turn, only do the same job as their predecessor), we must be one of the easiest teams to plan for, but maybe that’s the limitation of having a limited team. We’ve gone to the well too many times and maybe this is the result. Four wins out of 17 is currently relegation form.
Ultimately, the buck stops with Ince who is showing all the hallmarks of a “firefighter manager”. He’s done his job in keeping us up once and hopefully will manage it for the second time. But again those limitations seep through. What else has he up his tactician’s sleeve? He’s been shown to be tactically naive and recent substitute decisions have been far from ideal.
The message that he delivers about his players hasn’t aged well either. If he reminds them as often as he reminds us that we’re not good enough to play possession football – or the tale as old as time of “we have to be at it in every game” – then they’re going to believe that they are not good enough sooner or later.
The feeling now is that we’re in the realms of back to basics, which is a terrible situation to be in when faced against a resurgent Manchester United. Let’s hope we can come away with something less than a massive shellacking and some pride in tact. Pride that was hugely missing at a cold and foggy Stoke.