There are times when following Reading that you’ve felt you’ve seen it all from a side, that you understand the plan and there’s little to surprise you. But Reading managed to surprise on several occasions and even scored against the favourites, Manchester United.
Not only did we manage to frustrate them for an entire half, but we scored a goal and we did that with only 10 men on the field. Furthermore, we looked a better version of ourselves after we were reduced in number! Football, it’s a funny old game!
As baffling as it sounded, it was a performance littered with the characteristic losing of the ball when it seemed the hardest thing to do. The passing was pretty bad and, at times, we were deeper than the Mariana Trench – it was still a showing to be proud of in a way.
Paul Ince deployed the time-honoured Park the Bus formation, 3-7-0, call it what you will. Fortunately for us, being set up to defend in this manner is not unusual. We literally let United fall into our trap! For 45 minutes, we were set to cause a mini-ripple of an upset. It might have been different if Junior Hoilett knew how good a chance he actually had, mind you.
But if there’s one stonewall element we know of InceBall it’s that he knows how to set us up to be solid. The stark differences in talent - movement and on the ball - were clear to see. United sliced through our attack, midfield and defence at a regular intervals but often found a final body in the way to block or they managed to test the earth’s orbit instead (on more than one occasion).
The limitations of InceBall is, however, that when we do get the ball there’s no actual plan on what to do with it. Only in the second half and minus Andy Carroll, who was sent off for a silly yellow card and a downright ridiculous second yellow, did we actually let the brakes off and actually play some CarpetBall. We found some space as the game became more open and United, weirdly, were weaker.
Whilst we never disgraced ourselves and the result was more than acceptable in the great scheme of things, those limitations that we have were laid bare. Lee Dixon on ITV bemoaned the fact that we were too deep and asked why we were playing with Andy Carroll as a midfielder. Why didn’t we have an out-ball? Well, that’s just how it is, Lee. Welcome to our world!
Over the year, almost, that Ince has been our manager, we have been reduced to a formulaic, fancy-footwork-free, no-frills outfit. We make the most of scraps and set-pieces. A case in point was our only goal from Le Royale with Cheese: Amadou Mbengue. A tidy header surrounded by a sea of red shirts who felt it beneath them to defend a corner against us. Ha! Take that. Rue it you will, rue it!
We were always going to look second best, we knew that. We knew we’d barely get into their penalty box in free play that often. We knew Baba Rahman would look like Baba Rahman. But despite all this, we still played scared. Many fans just wanted us to go for it, but InceBall dictates that you can’t allow joy to creep into the game. It’s all effort, effort, effort with no amount of pleasure.
This is splitting hairs to a point: we never wanted to be massacred, setting up this way was probably the best way to avoid being massacred but it starkly displayed the gulf in levels. Very rarely did we have any passing moves of note, we were closed down too quickly and we didn’t have the power or tactical awareness to get ourselves out of tricky situations. That said, for the most part we did the defensive elements very well. Tom Holmes stood out particularly in the first half with an all-action display.
The midfield, well, it flattered to deceive. Mamadou Loum didn’t have the best of games, let’s say. Jeff Hendrick was Jeff Hendrick and Tom Ince was the pick of our outfield offensive players by a street, yet again. But this could be said for many a game this season, let alone against the leviathan United.
Baba Rahman had a terrible time against the showpony Antony (who inexplicably gained the man of the match status), despite knowing that he’s a right winger that only has a fancy, fancy left foot, Rahman failed to realise that he was only ever going to cut inside time and time again and that’s what he did time and time again! It’s safe to say now that if Baba left tomorrow, the best of his legacy would be some late-night tweets that put most of us in to a brief lather.
When all was said and done, it was still a performance not to ashamed of. It wasn’t the cricket score that some (me), thought would happen, we defended well enough, there were no obvious howlers as per games before – we did alright.
Now the circus has gone, all that’s left is the small matter of winning five or six games from the remaining 18 in the league. All of our focus can be on ensuring our safety in the Championship - our bread and butter.
But the excitement hasn’t all gone, we still have Deadline Day in all its yellow-tinged madness. The rumours are we might get one in, maybe two, but who will leave? It might be Lucas Joao, it might be Ovie Ejaria, it might be both. With Reading FC, the fun never stops!