Objectively a battering away from home is worse than a narrow loss, but results like today’s feel just as bad. Reading certainly weren’t at their best but were on track for at least a creditable 0-0, clean sheet and point until the 84th minute, only for Baba Rahman to dick around in his own box and present the hosts with a glorious chance that was gratefully taken by Patrick Roberts.
On another day Rahman hoofs the ball clear, Reading see out the game and go home with a decent result that would have been taken by most of us before kick-off. But when one of your players comes up with such an inexcusable and unforced error, ‘another day’ is irrelevant; Reading were punished for their own shortcomings, not victims of any injustice.
And it’s the latest black mark on a long list of poor results on the road this season. The Royals’ 2022/23 away form has included batterings, being kept at arm’s length, being edged out narrowly, succumbing to a collapse and now falling foul of a late error. This side is far more adept at coming up with new ways of losing away games than it is of working out how to win them.
Frustratingly, oh so frustratingly, the game was there to be won today. While I’d gone into this game resigned to another away loss (I went with 3-1 Sunderland as my prediction), the hosts were well below the standard I expected, particularly in the first half. But even with a comfortable first 45 minutes under our belt - a great platform to kick on after the restart - the manager and players alike appeared to lack the confidence and ambition to hunt down all three points in the second half.
Paul Ince made a few changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Watford the previous weekend. Out went Tom Holmes (injured), Mamadou Loum (suspended) and Cesare Casadei (dropped to the bench); in came Naby Sarr, Baba Rahman and Andy Carroll. That left a 3-5-2 which looked like this:
Lumley; Yiadom, Sarr, Mbengue; Hoilett, Ince, McIntyre, Hendrick, Rahman; Long, Carroll
Note Mbengue heading over to the left-hand side of the back three, a role he’s played before. He was one of our better players today and his sheer pace is a valuable asset tactically, allowing him to cover ground while Rahman pushes higher on that flank.
Other changes included McIntyre slotting into the holding-midfield role (again familiar for him) and doing a pretty good job, as well as Long partnering Carroll from the outset for the first time this season. That meant Reading have now started a match this season with every possible pairing from the main centre-forward options: Yakou Meite, Shane Long, Andy Carroll, Lucas Joao and Tom Ince.
The Royals were decent enough before the break, certainly distinctly better than what we’ve seen on the road recently. While Reading didn’t create clear-cut chances in the first half, they still put together some encouraging approach play on various occasions and looked capable of nicking a goal - maybe even from open play! Perish the thought. Junior Hoilett in particular was a threat down the right, getting forward to much better effect than he has done of late.
Little happened down the other end. Sunderland were sloppy and unable to build momentum before the break, being restricted to a few half-sights of goal. It was a pleasant surprise given how good the hosts have been this season as an attacking side.
But when they raised their game in the second half, playing with more purpose and dangerously getting in behind a couple of times, Reading had no answer. The players already on the pitch shrunk from the task and Ince on the sidelines refused to proactively intervene. Sunderland had already made three changes (across two sets of substitutions) by the time Scott Dann (hardly the most proactive of subs) and Yakou Meite were introduced in the 77th minute.
Ince can’t complain about a lack of options. Besides Meite, possible midfield/attacking changes included Tyrese Fornah and Femi Azeez (who both had to wait until a few minutes after the goal to be introduced) and Cesare Casadei - a goalscoring, attacking midfielder who was inexplicably left on the bench even at 1-0.
I appreciate that Ince prefers to play things safe, attempting to turn Reading into a side that’s hard to beat and therefore capable of making it a tight game that can in theory be that bit easier to be drawn or won. There’s merit to that tactic with a squad lacking in individual ability. But when you refuse to be proactive with how you approach games, you’re asking for trouble.
So yes, Baba’s late error will make the headlines, but reducing Reading’s shortcomings today to that one issue would be missing the point somewhat. The rest of the team (with exceptions - particularly Mbengue, Hoilett and Ince for me) and the manager shouldn’t avoid criticism.
The next three games now look huge: Rotherham United at home on Valentine’s Day in midweek, then a Friday night trip to Cardiff City and home tie against Blackpool the following weekend. Reading badly need victories to arrest the recent slide and, on paper, won’t get better opportunities than games against relegation candidates.
If we don’t start picking up wins soon though, we could become ones of those candidates.