How exactly do you sum up a game that was largely bad enough to feel like a losing performance and looked an awful lot like it would end in defeat... but didn’t?
Well, for starters, I’m left with a bittersweet emotion in the hours following Reading’s 1-1 draw with Bristol Rovers. It’s a game that was entirely unremarkable for how flat and low-quality Reading looked for large chunks of it, but at least modestly remarkable for the novelty factor of the result. Finally, for the first time since the end of September, Reading played a league game and didn’t lose.
There’s comfort to be taken from that. Reading have now gone two unbeaten, following Saturday’s 3-2 win over MK Dons in the FA Cup, so are starting to break out of a losing habit that’s felt so inexorable and all-encompassing in recent weeks. Any climb towards League One safety surely starts with baby steps, and those have been taken in the last two games.
In this case the result came thanks in large part to a first goal of the season for Sam Smith, the beneficiary of Reading winning the ball back high in the first half. It was one of the few moments of quality the Royals managed all game, but it was undone by former Royal Chris Martin levelling the contest shortly before the hour mark after some slack defending down Reading’s right.
For the final half an hour or so, the result felt inevitable. Although the visitors weren’t all that impressive, Reading were haphazard and uninspired, creating little while Rovers seemed to edge closer and closer to a winner that fortunately didn’t arrive. This side has played worse on the whole this season, been more error-prone, looked less creative and been more outclassed, but this display was still well short of the standard required to achieve what we actually need right now: wins.
A lot of that’s down to this side still being stuck in the same pit, mentality wise, where it’s been trapped for a while now. Reading generally lacked belief, positivity and energy throughout this game, and certainly reacted poorly to conceding, but that assessment pretty much writes itself nowadays. This is an inexperienced squad, beaten down by bad results on the pitch and the mess the club’s in behind the scenes, so it won’t be reinvigorated easily.
There’s also a new(ish) tactical issue though: the 4-1-4-1. Ruben Selles eventually bowed to pressure and has started to move away from the 4-2-2-2 in recent games, swapping a striker for a holding midfielder in an attempt to shore up a side that had looked way too open. While he’s largely achieved that, making Reading look better balanced on the whole and less easily exposed defensively, it’s come at the cost of intensity and directness going forwards.
This game was a good case in point. Reading again went 4-1-4-1 from the off - the third time in a row, following the Portsmouth and MK Dons home games. Sam Hutchinson lined up as the holding midfielder behind Charlie Savage and Lewis Wing, with Femi Azeez and Harvey Knibbs out wide, in support of lone striker Smith. Jeriel Dorsett at left-back was an unexpected inclusion in a back four that also included Andy Yiadom, Tyler Bindon and Nelson Abbey.
Offensively speaking, going 4-1-4-1 suited just one of those players - Wing - who generally seems happier playing in a more advanced role where he can create more. Shifting him upfield makes sense given his run of three goals and an assist in his previous two, and it’s worth remembering that he’s one of the few proven, experienced attacking players in this squad.
Otherwise, it doesn’t make for pretty viewing. Azeez and Knibbs both looked impactful on Saturday as wide 10s in the second half (in the 4-2-2-2) but added little against Rovers in the 4-1-4-1 (particularly the latter, who’s really not a winger, despite his part in the opener). Lone striker Smith worked hard up top and took his goal well, but overall was too isolated.
Reading certainly leave a lot to be desired going forwards in the 4-2-2-2, but between that and the 4-1-4-1, the 4-2-2-2 fits this team better as an attacking setup. After all, it’s how we fit in a strike pairing (which suits most of our centre-forwards) while not needing to use wingers this squad doesn’t really have. As I’ve argued before though, the right way forward would be to go 3-5-2.
Next up, the small matter of a trip to Shrewsbury Town, a game in which Reading will try to win a league away game for the first time in just shy of a year. If getting a point against Bristol Rovers was a baby step, getting a victory on Saturday would be a huge step forward.