It’s often said, and been said many times by Reading fans over the last few desperate seasons, that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result. And that’s what it felt like towards the end of the match against Barnsley.
As recently as a week ago we suffered the same fate against Eastleigh. The result was the same and the lesson was the same. We must learn to vary our play instead of just “giving it to Femi” and going from there.
It was a frustrating game to watch and not just for this rinse-and-repeat tactic. We started very brightly via a fine set-piece move, culminating in a Harvey Knibbs header. Things were going rather swimmingly until the weirdest penalty decision scuppered us.
According to the law it’s a penalty, but the result doesn’t fit the crime. Put another way, it didn’t deny an immediate goal-scoring opportunity (in fact, as a result, the subsequent shot hit the post), so why should such an event end up with a direct shot on goal for the opposition? The handball rule is a complete mess and this is another example of that.
After the penalty was put away quite tidily by Herbie Kane we limped our way to half-time without any further damage, but it was like the air had been sucked out of the stadium. The atmosphere died and so did the belief.
In fairness to us, this was a game that we shouldn’t be winning by rights. Barnsley, last season’s play-off final losers, are a seasoned League One outfit. They have some experienced and talented players in their squad in Herbie Kane, Luca Connell and Callum Styles. They knew what buttons to push and their experience told in the end. In contrast, despite a few flashes of fluidity, we huffed and puffed but didn’t have the wherewithal to mix things up.
Time after time we tried the same routine. Andy Yiadom gives it to Lewis Wing, Wing then either plays it directly to Azeez or back to Yiadom to send Azeez along his way. On a couple of occasions it offered up a shot on goal, but most times it just hit a defender who cleared it easily.
Often this left us very exposed in the right-back position as Yiadom pushed up high to support Azeez. Just like against Eastleigh we got suckered into the same approach time and again with no variety in using the other side or even centrally. Ruben Selles has to take stock of this and ensure that we use the entire pitch and not just concentrate on one side. Teams like Barnsley will soak this up all day long.
It’s a shame that we contrived to play ourselves into a hole of despair as we caused the visitors a fair bit of trouble in the first half. Knibbs, buoyed by the early goal, was a man possessed with his pressing and interceptions, often deep into our own half.
Unfortunately this did for Knibbs as, by the second half, he was shot. The energy that he put into the first half dissipated during the second. However, as mentioned earlier, the ball kept on being channeled down the right-hand side in any event.
Another player that caught the eye but for the wrong reasons was Paul Mukairu. We’ve seen enough of the young Nigerian to know that you really don’t know what you’re going to get game on game. What we’ve also learned is that his football IQ can either be outstanding or awful.
Lately, he’s been the latter. It’s difficult to know what’s in his mind or what position he’s supposed to be fulfilling. He can start on the left, cut inside with his right foot, end up somewhere centrally and end up practically in the Costco car park. Where’s he supposed to be going? Is it a plan? Is he just not that aware of what gaps he leaves?
The paucity of Paul is a mighty frustrating watch. To no surprise he was hooked early in the second half for the league return of Caylan Vickers. But, for the reasons cited above, he barely had much of a chance to affect matters either.
Overall, it was a real bunch of mixed-bag performances. Clinton Mola had a far better game at left-back than he has previously shown. It wasn’t great, but he looked a lot more comfortable than previously. Not as comfortable as he very strangely was at right-back against Charlton Athletic in the EFL Trophy, but he seems to be finding his feet finally.
Tyler Bindon, however, had a bit of a mare, having his hand in all three goals for the opposition. But we must remember that he’s only 18. This is all very much a learning lesson for Bindon.
Michael Craig had a game of differing levels; unfortunately those levels came apparent after being needlessly booked where there was little danger. But again, he’s young, he’s got to learn and learn the hard way. But despite this, he’s still a way better option than Sam Hutchinson.
Sam Smith had another game where he toiled solo up front without anything to show for it. If it wasn’t a ball down the right flank for Azeez, the only other route we had was to knock it over the top for Smith to chase down. A couple of times there was a smidge of a chance if a bounce or flick went our way, but it was very much a hope rather than anything fashioned by our own feet. Ideally, he needs someone to be closer to him, but that’s easier said than done.
While the improvement with the 4-1-4-1 is a vast improvement on the irksome 4-2-2-2, there’s still much room for improvement in how we generate our attacks. We had a lot of actions in the final third but not much of a thought to what to do when we got there. We snatched at crosses, lacked variety and men to support Smith in the box.
We had enough opportunities but didn’t think about what we wanted to do when we got there. The amount of blind crosses into the box towards nobody in particular was frustrating to watch. This has to be honed in training or, at very least, switch sides from time to time to keep the opposition on their toes.
Next up, the small matter of a visit from our pals up the M40. The worry here is that we’ve had a lot of games in a short amount of time and, currently, this team pretty much picks itself bar the odd position.
Changes might be made with Jeriel Dorsett returning, and Mukairu might be dropped for Vickers, but other than that it’s difficult to see what else Selles has in mind. Tom Holmes could come in for Bindon if the manager feels he needs some time out of the spotlight.
With the situation at the club being what it is, the importance of this game has taken a bit of a back seat. The crowd will certainly be up for it, but will the players have the energy to match? While we probably didn’t think we could and should have taken points from Barnsley, another defeat against our perennial rivals would be quite unbearable.