A resounding thumping of Swindon Town guaranteed Reading their place in the EFL Trophy knockout rounds after a Harvey Knibbs hat-trick sealed the deal for the Royals before Paul Mukairu and Harlee Dean added insult to injury for the Robins.
It also takes our total tally up to 14 goals in two games in this competition. Just for reference, if you found the 14th latest league goal we’ve scored, you’d have to go all the way back to Hull City at home in March, where an Andy Carroll strike won us a point - God, doesn’t that feel a long time ago now.
If you’d told us then that now we’d be 22nd in League One, rumoured to be taken over by a bloke who looks like he’s been living in a cave for six months consuming nothing but energy drinks... then I for one would probably have believed you.
But hey-ho, we beat Swindon 5-0, so life’s not that bad eh.
Let’s dissect what went right for the Royals on Tuesday night.
Duels and controlling the game
“Without controlling the second balls, you cannot survive.” The words of Pep Guardiola when he came to the Premier League in 2016, and it seems against Swindon, Reading were certainly singing from his hymn sheet.
This started from us winning 62% of aerial duels, as well as the fantastic industry of Michael Craig and Tivonge Rushesha in midfield, who consistently showed great persistence and intent to win the scrappy battles, control the ball and then pick a pass.
Shown here is the aftermath of a Swindon goal-kick, when Clinton Mola - who I think did much better playing as a centre-back - wins the header. As you can see, the midfield is a lot more compact, therefore closer to where the ball may drop.
Craig can also be seen here making a run to try to win the second ball barely after the header, which demonstrates his footballing intelligence and chemistry with his teammates. Those have been sorely missed in this Reading team after months of misplaced passes, runs that go unnoticed and arms being thrown up in the air after chances go begging in the league.
The double pivot of him and Rushesha are just 20 and 21 years old respectively, and already seem to offer far more than the likes of Sam Hutchinson. Craig in particular showed a lot on Tuesday in the form of well-timed challenges and positioning when in defensive phases that ensured Swindon rarely had much chance to create at all.
However, it must be kept in mind that, despite Reading’s seeming increase in physical presence on Tuesday, six Swindon players were making their first-team debuts, with many players as young as 16 starting for them. When faced with seasoned EFL brickhouse attackers, I suspect the outcome may be rather different.
Truthfully, Ruben Selles’ side didn’t have too many opportunities to showcase their pressing because the nature of the opposition’s game didn’t really allow it, as on practically every goal-kick or deep free-kick, Swindon hoofed it. However, one time when they did try to pass out is shown here.
I have to say that Swindon’s awareness, technical skills and all-round teamwork were very poor, and I must think that their fans are oftentimes urging their player to just get their head up and pick a pass, not boot it to a space where there may or may not be a red shirt.
Here, the press of Jayden Wareham, Caylan Vickers and Rushesha forces Town centre-half Hart into a mistake and Mukairu easily collects. Again, it’s about these almost manufactured counter-attacking opportunities that we so often see donated to our opponents - such as against Leyton Orient. But now, Reading had the chance to punish Swindon with their intensity.
Like we saw against Exeter in the previous EFL Trophy game, Mukairu, Wareham and Rushesha are given much more freedom to rotate positions, as shown here.
Mukairu is often playing as more of a 10 role while Andy Yiadom overlaps or stays out right, while Rushesha pushes up in opportunities that come from slower build-up, forming more of a midfield diamond to connect up to the two frontmen.
For me, Wareham has not been as clinical as his under-21 numbers might have promised, but his dropping off to receive the ball and playing out have been very impressive for me, and I’m sure the goals will come. He’s certainly not afraid to attempt spectacular efforts too - I think it’s been two bicycle kicks attempted in two Trophy games so far this season!
In this screenshot though, because Wareham is deeper, I would like to see Knibbs a little more central to provide some more passing opportunities up top, and then Nesta Guinness-Walker out wide. Both Knibbs and Guinness-Walker were excellent on Tuesday though, so it’s hard to criticise the scorer of a hat-trick too much.
As we head into the international break, at least we have a bit of momentum to build off. Next up it’s Charlton Athletic, who sit 12th in League One so far, after four wins and three draws from their opening 11 fixtures.
Can the away curse finally be lifted? Honestly, I doubt it. Getting away from the Valley with a draw would be a fantastic result in my eyes, and would hopefully kickstart a league campaign that’s been lacklustre and drab so far.
Hey, even though we are in the relegation zone, at least we have a Saturday off football this week, and more importantly a Saturday without Reading losing. So enjoy it everyone, because we might not see too many more this season.
Up the Royals.