Leaving the Stad du Mad, taking the long bloody way around all of the stadium, just to meet the same set of fans that the closed gate prevents in the first place (I’m not bitter), one could hear thick Bristolian accents saying: “How was that not a fuggin’ pen?” and “We should of beaten dose”. I think he meant “should have” and “them”, but I digress. In truth, they were probably right on both counts.
While the performance was better in parts, that’s akin to saying it’s better than eating two-day-old toast than eating nothing at all. As usual, the usual bugbears come to light: the huge chasm of confidence that belies the entire group, the drop-off in fitness in the second half, the lack of composure on the ball and the lack of movement from the midfield upwards when the ball is with the centre backs.
All the traits that could and should have been coached out by now still haunt us in November.
Almost all of the above could be summed up in just one player: Femi Azeez. At this moment he needs a rest, both physically and mentally, but more likely for the latter. He’s simply struggling with the mere basics of the game right now. Countless times he would receive the ball and it would bounce off him or he’d find himself some space then cut inside when nobody is ready to receive a ball from that angle. He’d wait and wait and wait to deliver a ball, by which time he’s been closed down by two defenders and the move is dead.
He is completely mired by his thought process of thinking too hard, second guessing himself and generally dithering on the ball. There’s nothing immediate or instinctive about his play.
It’s difficult to pick him out specifically when many of the other players also exhibit some of the same issues, mind you. The lack of mental freedom is what this team is drowning in. They’re over-thinking and under-delivering.
When they have to think immediately and act up on it, they look so much better (relatively). When they don’t have to think, things happen. Take our goal as an example. They are drilled to press and, when it’s done well, within a couple of actions, Sam Smith scores his first goal in forever in a Reading shirt. More of that please.
Ditto for Harvey Knibbs’ chance that could have killed the game off. The press worked well again to almost give us a two-goal lead, but somehow the confidence from these actions does not accumulate. In fact, for players like Azeez, it seems to make them worse.
A couple of times in the second half, it was noticeable that Tyler Bindon and Andy Yiadom almost avoided passing to Azeez, or if they did it was only when he was in acres of space. If he looked like Azeez was being pressured or could be, they avoided it, which does make sense to a point, but they never fancied his chances up against a defender or that Azeez would be able to lay the ball off to Lewis Wing or Smith successfully despite the pressure.
Contrast that to when Ben Elliott came on for Azeez. Elliott seems to create time and cause havoc with his movement (or, sometimes, not even moving at all). Elliott’s mental weight is clearly not as heavy as Azeez’. His freedom of expression is still there, while Azeez struggles with the simplest of passes. That said, Ruben Selles clearly plays Azeez for the energy he brings and he’s able to get up and down the pitch a lot. Is that enough to keep him in the side though? We’ll see.
What was also very unexpected was the inclusion of Jeriel Dorsett and not only that but at left-back. Some (including myself) thought Nelson Abbey would slot in there and Dorsett would partner Bindon, but that was not the case. Abbey took his place next to Bindon with Yiadom completing the back four.
All in all, Dorsett looked absolutely fine bar the odd twitchy moment, but then again this defence has had plenty of twitchy moments, so he’s not unique by any means. He added to the solidity that this new formation seemingly provides. He was also not afraid to push forward when warranted, although clearly it’s not his strong suit.
What was good to see was that, when he did move forward, Knibbs would be in support and Charlie Savage would drop to left-back. It’s these kinds of things that we should be doing from day one and not in November, but they are beginning to happen. It’s a bit like giving a child a treat for being a good boy/girl though; this is standard positioning and awareness. This is basic stuff, yet it seems to have taken a long time for things like this to be apparent.
Another notable point was that Rovers were targeting our right flank more than the rookie on the left flank, which was a good move on their part as Azeez and Yiadom contrived to foul up the challenge which led to the (briefly) former Royal, Chris Martin, scoring.
The 4-1-4-1 seems to have given the unit some reassurance at least. They don’t feel so overly exposed and easy to play through. There’s still issues with width (as above) and support to Smith but hopefully, in time, the wider players can get closer to him and not feel so hamstrung that they have to press and defend at the same time.
Hopefully, Selles will persevere with this formation as there’s clearly a lot more buy-in from the players with this than the 4-2-2-2 which is just riddled with pox and should have been put to sleep immediately. Ideally, a 3-5-2 is probably the way forward but we have not seen Selles try this bar for one half at Blackpool and that was a shocker.
And so we move on to our next trip on the road, against Shrewsbury Town. They’re not in sparkling form but that doesn’t count for much considering our away record. Hopefully, just for once, we can give our superb away support something to go home happy about. Otherwise, it’ll complete the 12 months on the road without an away win to savour. 12 whole months. Baffling.
Maybe this new formation that’s previously been untested on the road will keep us solid but could provide some chances on the break or via the press. As demonstrated against Bristol Rovers, it can and did work a treat a couple of times. We just have to grit our teeth, knuckle down and pray for a miracle or few. Vamos!