Reading versus Rotherham. 18th against 20th. Not the most attractive draw for Valentine’s Day, but certainly a very important one for both sides. The visitors travelled to Berkshire undefeated in the last four games (one win, three draws). The Royals on the other hand had won only one game so far in 2023 – the 2-0 against Watford in the FA Cup. In the league, Paul Ince’s men weren’t able to beat any of their last six opponents and were only nine points away from the relegation zone.
Clearly, a must-win for the home team. To the surprise of many, Paul Ince chose to not make any changes compared to last Saturday’s loss at Sunderland - neither in the starting line-up nor the bench. Joe Lumley in goal, a back three with Andy Yiadom, Naby Sarr and Amadou Mbengue. Junior Hoilett and Baba Rahman the wing-backs. Tom McIntyre in the deeper midfield position. Tom Ince and Jeff Hendrick ahead of him and Shane Long and Andy Carroll up front. Dean Bouzanis, Scott Dann, Nesta Guinness-Walker, Tyrese Fornah, Cesare Casadei, Femi Azeez and Yakou Meite the options as substitutions. The pressure was high before kick-off.
The Royals made a good start, winning most of the battles and were quick going forward. On two occasions Tom Ince looked on fire and could only be stopped by a foul from the Rotherham defence. From one of the resulting free kicks, Yiadom went close to scoring an early opener but saw his shot deflected just past the post (eighth minute).
Unfortunately Reading couldn’t maintain the higher tempo, so the following 25 minutes were completely unspectacular. No goal opportunities, only midfield battles. Whenever one team was in control of the ball, they lacked the quality (and self confidence) to pass their way into the box.
Having said that, Rotherham became the (slightly) better of the two sides while Reading reacted more and more nervously. There was just no structure and in any running duel the Royals looked second best. The likes of Carroll, Long, Hendricks and Sarr surely have all their skills, but for a team that was mainly unable to get a simple ball precisely into the next one’s feet, there were far too many slow players.
It needed another set piece after more than half an hour to create the next danger. Not surprisingly the chance fell to the visitors. Bramall’s inswinging ball was flicked on by Odoffin to Peltier whose looping strike hit the bar (32nd minute). A warning shot at the right time? No! Five minutes later there was again a free kick. Peltier reacted quicker than Carroll and headed the ball into the net. 0-1 to the Millers (37th minute). The logical consequence of the last minutes.
In the 40th minute Guinness-Walker came on for the injured (and again error-prone) Rahman, a change that was expected already from the beginning. Just before the break Reading were lucky not to be already 2-0 behind. Former Royal Tariqe Fosu made a great dribble down the left and his cross into the middle was thankfully blasted over. Seconds later it was half-time. Deserved boos for the men in blue and white.
Paul Ince made further two substitutions: Long and Hoilett going off, Azeez and Fornah coming on. Tactically it was a 4-3-3 now. Reading showed a better attitude and, like in the first halfm were the more dominant team in the initial stage. After some nice attacking play down the left, Guinness-Walker was fouled close to the corner flag. Once again a free kick… and it was 1-1. Azeez’ left foot found Carroll in the centre whose powerful header left Millers keeper Johansson no chance (52nd minute).
The Royals were stronger now. Carroll then flicked the ball onto Azeez who shook off the defender and blasted the ball on goal, but Johansson was quick to parry it away (62nd minute). Directly afterwards Guinness-Walker won another free kick right outside the box which Ince blasted over. Even though it was a missed opportunity, one thing became obvious: the speed of Azeez and Guinness-Walker was much needed and gave the team an energy boost.
Even though it was a pretty open game, Rotherham remained dangerous on counter-attacks. One of these was blocked brilliantly by a last-ditch tackle from Mbengue and Sarr. At the other end, Fornah slammed a volley off target.
Reading were mainly in possession for the last 10 minutes, but found it difficult to get that final touch or pass. It was again the speed of Azeez that won us a corner in the last seconds of the 90 minutes. The 21-year-old former academy player sent another ball directly to big Carroll who flicked it on to Fornah. The Forest loanee made no mistake from short range and headed it in. 2-1!!! What an important goal!
After some nervy minutes of added-on time (Scott Dann came also on for Ince) it was full-time. Puuuuuh! That was real hard work. Everyone knew before that this game wasn’t about beautiful football, which both sides confirmed throughout the whole 90 minutes. It was all very scrappy, but in the end the three points are the only thing that counts.
There were mainly two reasons for that success: set-pieces and substitutions. Regarding the first, Carroll was the key. His ability and power in the air were decisive in both goals. The second crucial factor was Ince’s substitutions. Everyone was surprised by his selection of the starting XI and you can rightfully criticise him for that. At least it seemed that he was able to identify the weak points. The introduction of Guinness-Walker, Azeez and Fornah changed the match. The first two especially did everything to deserve a start on Friday night at Cardiff.
Still, there is plenty of work to do. Overall there is no development in our game. Ignoring some minor ups and downs we are pretty much in the same position as under Paul Clement, Jose Gomes, Mark Bowen and Veljko Paunovic. Although I’m personally not fully convinced by Ince Senior, the last years have shown that the manager is not the main problem.
To be fair the financial problems limit many things that could increase the quality level. But that’s the way it is. The squad is good enough to survive in a mid-table position.
To me, our main problem is that we have too many similar players. A brief look at our strike force is enough. The likes of Yakou Meite, Lucas Joao, Long and Carroll are all strong enough for Championship football. On the negative, none of them is a quick dribbler who can get past the defender in a one-on-one. And that one-dimensionality is similar to other positions. Flexibility is what we are missing in order to push for the playoffs.
Another mid-table season is all we can hope for. But at least three teams in the league would be more than happy to change with us. Could be a lot worse… come on Urzzzz!