As I sit down to write this match report, I wonder if Reading would have managed a shot on target if the game were still going on. It’s been a couple of hours since the final whistle blew to close out another insipid defeat, but in truth, you could probably add a couple more hours onto that tally and Millwall ‘keeper George Long would still have had nothing to do.
The story of this afternoon’s 1-0 defeat to the Lions played out with essentially just one plot point: whether Reading could break down the away side. Millwall took an 11th-minute lead through Andreas Voglsammer’s penalty - won after a Naby Sarr error helped set Zian Flemming through on goal before Joe Lumley took him out. From then on the away side seemed largely content to keep their one-goal lead intact and challenge Reading to find a way back into the match.
It’s a challenge that Reading failed to achieve. Miserably. Despite five substitutions (more on them later) and ending the game with almost 60% possession (uncharacteristically high for this team), the key metrics starkly demonstrate just how dreadful the Royals’ attack was today: two shots, both of them from outside the area, neither of them on target.
We’ve known all season that this team is really not very good going forwards. Sometimes that’s not really mattered as we’ve found a way through via a set-piece, at other times this offensive deficiency has been poor but not extreme. Today however was a perfect storm for attacking incompetence.
To a limited extent you can put this down to the defensive quality of Millwall, who - to be fair - in their own right looked composed, organised and solid in seeing the game out. But they didn’t really need any of those qualities to keep a Reading attack this toothless and tame at arm’s length.
That’s the really frustrating thing for me. I can take a home defeat, I can take the opposition coming away from the SCL with three points and a clean sheet (God knows we’ve had to get used to it in recent years). But what really grates is the feeling that we didn’t make Millwall work for their clean sheet. A clean sheet should be a well-earned badge of pride for a defence, not something that’s picked up as easily as a stamp on a coffee shop loyalty card.
All of which begs the question: who’s to blame for Reading’s poor attack? To what extent do you put the blame on Paul Ince and to what extent do you put it on the players? We’ll naturally all have our own views on this - much of the post-match discussion I’ve been in with other fans has brought up a range of opinions.
For me, while the quality of this season’s squad isn’t as good as last season’s, it’s still good enough to put together a functional attack. Take today for example: Reading may have been lacking Junior Hoilett, Yakou Meite and others, but in Andy Carroll, Lucas Joao, Tom Ince and Cesare Casadei, the options were there for the Royals to at least cause Millwall convincing problems.
The problem is primarily with Paul Ince. In addition to a bigger-picture failing (Reading have lacked attacking ideas all season and that continued today), he generally got today’s tactical calls wrong.
That began with the starting XI, which simply wasn’t up for the task of taking the game to Millwall. Reading played a 3-4-1-2 with Tom Ince in the number 10, meaning no changes to the XI or setup we saw in midweek:
Lumley; Holmes, Dann, Sarr; Yiadom, Hendrick, McIntyre, Guinness-Walker; Ince, Long, Carroll
So that’s six defenders in the starting XI. Playing a lot of defenders doesn’t inherently mean you can’t be good going forwards (it might in theory free up the other four outfielders to get higher up the pitch, for example), but it’s certainly the case for this side.
Although Reading showed some promise in the first 10 minutes, that went with the opening goal and the rest of the half played out pretty horridly. Changes at the break were needed. Two came - Scott Dann and Andy Yiadom were replaced in like-for-like, enforced swaps by Liam Moore and Amadou Mbengue - but Paul Ince’s half-time intervention was limited to the back line.
Accordingly, Reading didn’t get any better in the early stages of the second half. It wasn’t until Cesare Casadei and Lucas Joao came on (good calls from Ince) that things started to improve, with both showing flashes of quality themselves and the team overall beginning to gain possession and territory. It’s amazing what happens when you actually use creative players who can pass and receive on the deck properly.
Ince made poor calls on who went off though: Nesta Guinness-Walker and Shane Long. It meant Reading ended up with two tactical points that, frustratingly, we have known for so very long do not work: Tom McIntyre at left-wing-back, Carroll partnering Joao up top. The former (who, yet again, is a centre back) lacks the pace or acceleration to provide width or forward thrust. The latter duo are too similar, thereby Reading any movement or pace up top when they’re paired.
Azeez replaced McIntyre at left-wing-back in the 78th minute - belatedly the right call in the circumstances from the gaffer. It did however mean Reading had gone through three players in that position this afternoon despite the first - Guinness-Walker - not only being fine in the first place, but also being the most suited player on the pitch for getting crosses into Carroll - himself apparently immune to being dropped or subbed.
And on a subtler note, Reading missed a tactical opportunity in the back three today too. The half-time introduction of Moore meant the Royals had a centre-back capable of pushing upfield and potentially also then into the final third on the overlap or underlap. That would have been a valuable aid for right-wing-back Mbengue (not great at taking a man on by himself), so naturally, Moore was used deeper as the middle centre-back, with the less mobile Tom Holmes as the outside centre-back on the right.
Given I’ve had a go at Paul Ince, it’s only fair that I say what I would have done from half-time onwards:
- Moore and Mbengue on for Dann and Yiadom as Ince did (both enforced changes after all)
- Moore as the right-centre-back in the three with Holmes moved to the middle
- Casadei on for McIntyre (straight swap in midfield) at half-time
- Joao and Azeez for Carroll and Long later in the second half
I really want Paul Ince to learn from his mistakes and improve Reading as an attacking side. Tantalisingly, there were signs of him doing that in the 3-1 win over Blackpool a couple of weeks ago. But since then Reading have managed zero, three and zero shots on target against Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Millwall respectively.
I’ve got even less hope of Ince improving things now he’s claimed that Tom Ince is the only potential source of creativity in this team:
“We’ll have our moments but our creativity comes from Thomas and that’s the way it’ll be for the next 10 games. We can’t change it, that’s how we are.
One player can’t carry a team’s entire creative burden - certainly not Tom Ince who, despite having his attacking qualities, isn’t a standout playmaker at this level. So what about Joao (a centre-forward with creative skill) or Casadei (an actual playmaking central midfielder)? Perhaps develop a way for the wingbacks to get crosses in for the aerially strong centre-forward we play every game?
Ultimately, none of that will matter if we stay in the division, but matches like today’s make me that bit more worried. Despite Millwall’s position in the table (they’re into the top six now), they were beatable. That was particularly true in the second half when we had a one-goal lead to go after but we never really looked like managing it.