I could get used to this "Reading being able to play a league away game and not lose" lark. The Royals built on the 2-1 win at Wycombe Wanderers with a solid 1-1 draw at Lincoln City today that feels disappointing (we probably should have won), but was still a clear indication of significant improvement from earlier on in the season.
As with the previous two games in the last week or so, this was a tricky challenge on paper. Ninth-placed Lincoln City, like Barnsley and Oxford United, are in contention for the playoffs, and came into this match on a four-game unbeaten run. If you'd offered me a point before kickoff I'd have gladly taken it, so in that context, today was a good job well done.
So too in the context of Reading's long-term away form. We'd picked up just five points on the road in the last calendar year: draws at Norwich City and Bristol City last season, then the win at Adams Park. Losing is a tough habit to break, so Reading being able to see today's result over the line - no late goal conceded from a set piece for a change - was a step in the right direction, albeit a smaller one than that taken in South Buckinghamshire last month.
In the context of how the game actually played out however, today was a missed opportunity. Reading comfortably won on all key stats - possession (66%), shots (14-4) and shots on target (4-0) - except the scoreline itself. By the eye test too, the Royals controlled much of the contest and looked clearly the more threatening team. Had we won 2-1 or 3-1, few would have called it an unfair result.
We would have done if a couple of key decisions from the officials had gone differently. Twice Reading thought they'd scored a first-half equaliser right in front of the away end to cancel out an early own goal from Nelson Abbey, twice those smiles were wiped off.
The first time it was for a foul in the buildup as Femi Azeez' low cross was turned in by Paul Mukairu. The second time, an offside was awarded in the hosts' favour when Andy Yiadom's shot into a crowd of players was bundled home. Reading seemed cursed in front of goal.
Until the second half, that is. Reading had to go again after a dominant but frustrating first half, and their persistence eventually paid off when Jeriel Dorsett played in Harvey Knibbs down the left, and he slotted past the keeper for 1-1. Cue relief, as much as anything, among the travelling supporters at the other end of the ground.
The afternoon started with Ruben Selles making one change to the side that drew 1-1 with Oxford United, Paul Mukairu coming in for Caylan Vickers on the left wing. Reading set up like this:
Reading (4-1-4-1): Button; Yiadom, Holmes, Abbey, Dorsett; Craig; Azeez, Wing, Knibbs, Mukairu; Smith
Conceding before you’ve even got into the opposition’s half is, well, not ideal, but that’s what happened after three minutes. Lincoln got in down Reading’s left far too easily, and although Abbey got to the low cross, it deflected off him past a stranded David Button for 1-0.
The best thing a team can do at that point however is react well, and the Royals did just that for the rest of the half. Although the hosts dropped off and seemed happy with a one-goal lead, Reading did their part effectively, moving the ball and probing well - a confident response to conceding in the first key action of the match. Contrast that to how these players have responded mentally to going behind previously, or even to seeing their lead reduced (Portsmouth, Shrewsbury Town).
The problem however was that Reading couldn’t quite do enough with their possession; two disallowed goals (legality aside) were exceptions to that rule. Deeper build-up and moving the ball into the final third? No problem. Turning that into quality chances? That was another story.
This side seems to rely on service for Sam Smith to look truly dangerous. He’s our best goal threat, but unlocking that typically (albeit not exclusively) means getting the ball to him in behind and on his left foot. Reading aren’t fully reliant on him (he didn’t score today and we still drew), but you can tell there’s a level to this team’s attack that’s missing when Smith isn’t in the game as much.
The second half was a less dominant one overall, but still a good one from Reading’s perspective, and of course it yielded the equaliser. While Dorsett isn’t as good going forwards as other options at left-back, he’s a better passer than he typically gets credit for, and he showed that with his assist, sliding the ball in behind for the onrushing Knibbs. Knibbs then had the job of converting, which he did expertly, checking onto his stronger right foot and going across Lukas Jensen, rather than settling for his weaker left foot.
A similar chance for Knibbs later on (when he forced a save at the near post) was one of the various opportunities Reading had to win it. The Royals also seemed to have an effort cleared off the line from the resulting corner (I’ve not seen it back but it looked close), while Charlie Savage nearly had a great opportunity late on, only for the cross intended for him to be diverted.
Action in Reading’s third in the second half - particularly the latter stages - was pleasantly thin on the ground. It wasn’t all completely smooth sailing, with Dorsett hashing a cross and Yiadom giving away a free-kick in a dangerous area some of the hairier moments, but the Royals didn’t ever seem to be desperately clinging on.
Like in the Wycombe win, Reading saw the result out professionally and effectively. The whole back four knew their jobs, particularly Tom Holmes, who looked commanding throughout, but praise is also due for Abbey, who (own goal excluded) responded well to a poor showing against Oxford in midweek.
Next up, a midweek break will hopefully do the world of good for a team that’s had a busy run recently. After that the intensity rises once more over the festive period: Wigan Athletic, Peterborough United, Cheltenham Town and Exeter City all being played in nine days. Given that three of those sides are also in the bottom third of the table, that’s when Reading need to be picking up three points multiple times.
For now though, one will do nicely.