If we were told that we’d obtain four points from the matches against Swansea City, Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion, you’d probably have bitten off the veritable hand that proffered it. Any win from any of those games would have been gladly accepted. That’s the positive; the negative was apparent in all of those games and it’s nothing new: we automatically play as if we are inferior to the opposition.
It was the same here against an in-form West Brom, too. As such, we started all three of the games over the Christmas period slowly – a mode that we’ve had for a vast majority of this season, truth be told. The mantra that pervades from the manager is that we’re plucky, we’re down to the ‘bare bones’, the players are tired, it’s the same bodies playing week in, week out – and some, if not all of that is true at times.
But what it also creates is a view that he doesn’t expect any more from them either. In turn, the players appear to lack belief from the kick-off. When we do win (mostly at home) it’s relayed that it’s like a surprise that we’ve overcome insurmountable odds to get the three points.
Maybe that view is justified to a point, considering the make-up of the squad and what it has had to endure this season, but sometimes we seem defeated before we start.
And defeat seemed highly on the cards after an early onslaught that could have had us behind at any moment. Our initial formation was soon binned off in favour of giving our midfield a fighting chance to get a foothold in the game. How we avoided conceding in the first half hour remained a miracle.
With a new back three, replete with Scott Dann playing his first game in many moons, they were stretched at every turn. To our credit, we held firm but we were set up to fail. As is usual, we were set up to counter the opposition without giving us a chance of doing anything with the ball ourselves as we had no width.
It feels like Groundhog Day when we play away from home. No matter what we’ve achieved in the previous game, no amount of confidence appears away from the SCL. We start every away match feeling like the players have been told “look lads, we’re likely get battered here, do your best, I know you’re tired, but do it for the fans…”
And so, it goes on. Granted, we were likely to lose against West Brom – they have been in fine form since the arrival of Carlos Corberan. But only in the latter part of the game did we show any kind of aspiration or belief. If the notion is that we’re downtrodden, not the same as other clubs, we’re built from spit and spare parts and that we’re always inferior, then what hope do the players have?
The brighter sides of a loss were that we didn’t get battered and didn’t lose heavily. That is a testament to the organisation and spirit that we do see at home. That is a lasting hallmark of Paul Ince’s reign that is a distinct positive; he has instilled that at very least. Other positives were the return of Scott Dann, as previously mentioned, and the lesser spotted Femi Azeez with a fleet-of-foot cameo.
Having players return is always good news, but the downside is that they are in positions where either we now have plenty of numbers (oh the irony!) or, in the case of Femi, where on earth does he fit in a Paul Ince system? We can’t be churlish about any player that returns to the fold; we will need most if not all of them during the latter half of the season, but it’s central midfield that needs a reboot.
Another positive was the re-emergence of Mamadou Loum who had a fine game, holding central midfield by himself for much of the match. Tom Ince and Jeff Hendrick buzzed around, as is their wont, but Loum stood out, showing his presence and power time and again. He seemed a lot more controlled with and without the ball, being a bit more sensible with his challenges and his passing seemed firmer and more precise.
But it’s this area that severely needs a break. For all his shortcomings, Hendrick has played an enormous amount of football. Player of the season elect Tom Ince even more so needs to be put in cotton wool to prevent him from breaking down. As we all know by now, if Tom doesn’t turn up or isn’t at his physical best, Reading generally don’t play well or suffer as a result.
With Tyrese Fornah injured and Ovie Ejaria out of favour, the options are wafer thin. With the FA Cup tie against Watford ahead, it will be interesting to see what our midfield will be when all three of the midfield mainstays should be rested, ideally.
Overall, while the loss was expected and our mode of ceding control to the opposition was an irritant, the bigger picture has to be seen. The realism that we’re still in mid-table with a severely limited squad with a limited mindset is somewhat comforting to a point. Accepting those limitations has served us well thus far, but the frustration remains away from home that we appear beaten from the kick of the first ball.
There could be a whiteboard somewhere in the bowels of the SCL that reads “just win our home games”; the rest is just a wish and a prayer. As much as this was three points lost, it was also a stark reminder that we’ve still come a very long way to avoid being blootered three or four nil in games such as this. It just left a sour taste in the mouth that when we did decide to take the game to the opposition we showed a better part of ourselves that is there inside, just rarely seen.