We were so near, but so far away at the same time. So close to getting a valuable point, but a distant second when it came to obtaining that elusive away win. While it was almost certain before kick-off that Reading would get nothing from their latest sojourn on the road, we did have some hope after Tyler Bindon bundled home a pretty undeserved equaliser.
But, as is customary, we manage to find different ways to lose each and every time. On this occasion, Lewis Wing failed to see out the ball adequately, the referee adjudged that Wing had touched the ball and a corner was the result. Just for once the hope that a tame corner would come to nothing, but David Button flapped at the cross instead, et voila a simple tap-in sealed the deal yet again.
We can take losses, we have taken a hell of a lot of them, but simple errors such as this undo us so often.
Whilst we understand the multitude of issues that surround the club on a daily basis, they are undoubtedly contributing to the mental fortitude of the squad. It’s difficult to separate the off-field issues to what happens on the pitch but, as fans, we see it only through the lens of what we see before our eyes. And what we saw wasn’t good.
This largely would appear to be that the midfield area simply doesn’t work. It’s not strong enough, it’s full of holes, it’s not defensively solid, nor is it offensively productive. It’s basically a void of a true benefit. Whatever Ruben Selles wants it to be, it patently is not.
The central midfield two struggle to get time on the ball, period. The two that typically are ahead of them have more defensive tasks than offensive tasks as they have to help the overworked full-backs. They then have to, somehow, be further up the field to assist the stranded forwards.
This, coupled with the horrendous lack of width, leads to cavernous gaps on the flanks that can be exploited time after time. We did alter the shape a little as the game progressed but it’s still a really flawed area.
The idea of 4-2-2-2 was sold to us as a high-pressing, high-energy system which in theory is absolutely fine, but we’ve neither the talent nor the physicality to pull it off. For a system with which we should have four players in a central zone, we should be winning the ball a lot more in midfield in open play, but somehow we do not.
Countless 50/50 challenges we lose because we are still outnumbered and technically we don’t have the skillset to wrestle possession and keep it. Furthermore, even if we do win the ball, we’ll lose it in the next phase because the composure isn’t there. Whatever this system is supposed to be providing as an advantage, it simply isn’t.
This can all be wrapped up with the mental pressure that the players are under to perform. They are hardly in the best place to think with a clear head in each and every situation. They cannot operate like droids that are without emotion and appear to be fearless. It’s just not possible. That basic requirement of confidence is missing after so many losses on the road, and as a result, they play with pure fear.
To that end, Selles needs to fashion a system that the players naturally feel more comfortable with, a formation that gives them a basis to be solid and provides natural cover for the full-backs. The danger here is that Selles has been totally invested in the 4-2-2-2, and to throw that all in the bin and to start again with a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 would be a massive shift that would take a lot of time to implement.
Currently, this system isn’t and can’t be helping the players. They don’t have the attributes required to make it work physically or technically. It was supposed to be a system where we won the ball high up the pitch, but we rarely do so. Again, the mental strength and confidence to do so has been zapped from this squad. Those elements can’t be discounted.
But under the microscope of the game, the removal of Dom Ballard (who was probably our man of the match) for Tom Holmes didn’t help matters. When the midfield needed an extra body the most, to rejig the defence to cater for Holmes, that just didn’t need to happen. We still could have fashioned a very unlikely winner from this game, but Selles showed his inexperience by opting to put more pressure on the defence instead of giving us an outlet up front. While the fitness stats might have indicated Ballard was no longer at his optimum, he was still the most likely goal threat we had on the pitch.
As such, we ended up with Harlee Dean playing up front for Christ knows what reason. But this wasn’t the fault of Holmes or Dean, but a manager who is clearly now under a lot of pressure. Maybe not pressure that could directly lead to him losing his job (as who is there to fire him? Not Dai Yongge or the CEO that’s conveniently disappeared, Dayong Pang), but one that he has slowly been creating for himself.
That said, there’s so much wrong at the club it would be hard for him to operate with a clear mind that’s objective and not so knee-jerk. It’s literally an impossible situation currently. It’s a lose-lose until the situation at the very top is resolved.
The dark clouds that surround Reading Football Club as a whole can’t begin to disperse until Dai Yongge has gone. The sun will not shine and the atmosphere surrounding the club does not have the opportunity to shift from depression to joy. Until then we will see results like this: joyless, sloppy, stretched and prone to collapse.
The frustration of the fans at the final whistle was clear to see. Ultimately, this frustration is not aimed at the players or Selles, but at the owner who has brought us to our knees and lower. We cannot and should not see our current captain, Nelson Abbey, in tears. He clearly cares just as much as we do. We have to continue to support these players and still think of them as humans, too. It’s literally all we have left.