The buzz of a cup win... because we beat the Hornets... get it?
While Reading’s overall performance today was as laboured as that pun, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. The Royals are through to the fourth round of the FA Cup for the first time since 2020 and for the first time without needing a replay since all the way back in 2015.
The great thing about cup football is that no one really needs to care about the performance. Regardless of the team you put out and the side it goes up against, knock-out matches are such unique and unpredictable affairs that the focus need only be on the result. And thanks to two particularly special goals (for very different reasons), the result today was the right one.
Simply put, Reading got the job done, doing enough to see off a severely weakened but still still spirited Watford side that gave it a good go in the second half. As a consequence the Royals get a nice confidence booster that can hopefully be carried into the league, having won the first home match of 2023, and fans can dream of a glamour tie in the next round and/or an extended cup run.
The afternoon started with Paul Ince making nine changes to the side that lost 1-0 at the Hawthorns. Tom McIntyre and Scott Dann were the only survivors from that XI, with a raft of (mostly) senior-level fringe players being drafted into the side. A notable absentee however was Liam Moore, who’d been set to feature today but picked up yet another injury in the build-up.
Reading (3-4-1-2) Bouzanis; Mbengue, Dann, Sarr; Abrefa, Hutchinson, McIntyre, Rahman; Azeez; Long, Joao
You’ll notice the subtle formation difference in that line-up to what we usually see from Reading. Instead of the regular 3-5-2 with one holding midfielder and two players higher up, Ince brought one back (McIntyre) to allow another (Azeez) to stay higher as more of an out-and-out number 10.
As the game progressed in the first half, you could tell that it wasn’t the only adjustment Ince had made. On paper merely a right-centre-back in a three, Mbengue effectively became a right-back when Reading were in possession, pushing forward to help out and cover for marauding right-wing-back Kelvin Abrefa.
To be fair to Ince, those positional alterations for Azeez and Abrefa - both playing that bit higher and with more freedom than they would in the usual set-up - seemed to pay off. They were two of Reading’s brightest sparks in the first half, adding directness and purpose to proceedings.
Unfortunately those qualities were generally lacking elsewhere. Reading were barely troubled by the visitors and dominated possession in the first half (70%), but for the most part didn’t look like doing much with it. Lucas Joao and Shane Long weren’t in the game that much (although the former dragged a shot frustratingly wide) and an Azeez close-range finish was chalked off for offside; if anything, Azeez’ few long-range efforts from pockets of space on the edge of the area looked like Reading’s best route to goal.
Until Abrefa had other ideas that is... kind of.
There’s no way the youngster meant to find the net from the right wing in time added onto the first half, but he managed it nonetheless. An overhit deep cross fortuitously sailed over the ‘keeper, struck the far post and bounced into the the net. Cue bewilderment from those in attendance and delight from Abrefa, who’s now opened his senior account. Lucky, yes, but you make your own luck in football and he deserves that goal for getting the ball into a dangerous area.
That goal put a lot of gloss on what had been a fairly flat performance. Reading in the first half looked a lot like a heavily rotated side which was playing with far more possession than it knew what to do with. The Royals weren’t getting that much explicitly wrong, bar the odd slip-up at the back, but (excluding Abrefa’s goal) weren’t getting that much explicitly right either.
My hope at the break was that Reading would re-emerge in the second half with a renewed desire to take the game to the visitors, grab a goal or two and make the final 20 minutes or so fairly comfortable. Not so: the Royals lost most of the control they’d enjoyed in the first half and the final 45 were far more of a slog than they should have been.
Credit to them, Watford weren’t disheartened and pushed for a route back into the game, although they were able to take advantage too many times of sloppiness from various Reading players, seemingly most often Naby Sarr. Whether because of unfamiliarity with such a high level of possession, a lack of fitness or both, Reading were undermining their own efforts. However, the visitors didn’t have the quality to create serious danger for a Royals defence that could still call on a fair level of experience to see out the game.
Down the other end the hosts had little joy; Reading had racked up six shots in the first half but managed just two in the second. Fortunately though, one of those two - the only one on target in fact - sealed the tie.
We know how good a distributor Tom McIntyre can be and he showed his quality once more in the dying moments. With Reading on the break, he spotted Shane Long darting in behind and picked the veteran forward out with a lofted pass. Long made the rest look easy, setting himself with a quality touch before slotting the ball home for 2-0.
As with Abrefa’s first-half opener, Long’s goal added gloss to what hadn’t been a particularly convincing display. Reading did enough to keep Watford at arm’s length across the contest, including in a slightly more worrying second half, but failed to convincingly take the game to a relatively weak side.
Paul Ince won’t care though. Reading are into the next round of the cup and a few positive individual performances have demonstrated that there’s some real depth to the Royals’ squad.
Most obviously, Abrefa proved his potential. He was refreshing quick and positive in his attacking play, so must be seen as a valid option for the right-wing-back slot. Otherwise though, Mbengue and Dann for the most part seemed solid at the back and helped Reading see the lead out while Azeez had some positive moments in the final third which suggested he could be a decent attacking sub option in the future.
On the flipside, others fluffed their lines to varying degrees. Sarr was sloppy at left-centre-back and that should keep him lower down the pecking order, with various other centre backs in contention. In addition, the front two mostly struggled to get into the game, a hashed bit of goalkeeping late on won’t have done Dean Bouzanis any favours (he flapped at a simple catch but fortunately wasn’t punished) and Baba Rahman lacked cutting edge in the final third.