Despite four changes to a starting lineup that included four centre backs, Paul Ince managed to cause a bigger selection stir on Tuesday night with the centre back on his bench.
Liam Moore walked out onto the SCL turf to warm up this evening as part of a Reading squad for the first time in 451 days. Ince had been insistent that he would return to a matchday squad at some point this season, and while many fans doubted it, here was the somewhat controversial ex-captain.
Elsewhere in the lineup, with Yakou Meite seemingly out injured, Reading were relying on Shane Long and Andy Carroll to provide an attacking edge against the Blades. That gave the impression that Paul Ince was getting ready to sit in against another high-flying team, leading early bets on Reading’s shots on target numbers to be low to none.
The Royals would be the first team to attack though, when Andy Yiadom, starting in a right-wing-back position, did well early on to get deep down Sheffield Utd’s left flank, and gave Long a chance to cross.
Soon after, Tom Ince backed a pair of Blades defenders all the way up through their half and into their box before dragging a shot just wide. A sighter for Ince in a position he’s found the back of the net from recently.
After the unexpectedly fast start, Reading had to weather their first attack from Sheffield Utd and barely survived as Iliman Ndiaye almost danced his way through Reading’s defence via a one-two with his fellow attacker.
His strike partner Oli McBurnie would record the first shot on target for either side when a decent cross met the striker’s head without him even needing to jump. Luckily, he could only direct it straight back towards Joe Lumley.
Immediately after, Naby Sarr did well to recover and block Ndiaye’s shot after he was beaten in a foot race back towards his own net. Suddenly, the field seemed tilted. Sarr did well to stop Ndiaye on the run into the box again before McBurnie knocked Lumley down as he came to claim the ball.
Reading created one of their most incisive moves in months just before the half-hour mark. Yiadom, after carefully shrugging McBurnie off the ball in his own box, sprung the ball out to Long, who was able to set Ince running towards the net. Arriving runners helped Reading to get a dangerous-looking cross into a half-empty box, but Yiadom couldn’t finish the move as well as he started it, misplacing his header.
Through half an hour, the Royals competed well, ceding possession often through both their less accurate passing, and style, but generating more shots than the Blades.
Ince found himself bursting down the left twice in two minutes, first getting around his full back but not quite being able to spring the ball over Wes Foderingham for Long to head home. Next he was very unlucky not to win a free kick just outside of the box off ex-Royal Oliver Norwood’s “challenge”.
The half ended with Ince still arguing with the referee, but in truth his frustration was perhaps misplaced. Reading put together a decent first-half performance, and while they still struggled to create dangerous chances, they did at least get the ball down the field quickly. To be fair to Ince, much of that energy came from himself.
After the break, Carroll’s flash of attacking intent saw Reading back onto the front foot, as he put a header just wide, then saw a long-range shot saved. Indeed, the veterans started the half well, with Scott Dann and Long also having positive impacts from the off.
Ndiaye and McBurnie continued to be a constant danger for the Blades though. The pacey Ndiaye was able to give Reading a scare running all the way around Yiadom on the wing, before cutting inside of the box. His shot was blocked at the last moment, but the man who scored the winner for Sheffield United against Tottenham Hotspur was beginning to look dangerous.
Minutes later, he scored from a tap-in. McBurnie was allowed to get in around the back of Dann and cut it back precisely for Ndiaye to steer in from two yards. All of this happened in about five seconds. A decisive flash of quality, and Reading were 1-0 down.
Reading stayed positive and responded immediately, with Long putting a cross in for Yiadom to head into Foderingham’s hands shortly after they went behind.
This was arguably Long’s best performance in a Reading shirt this season, as he did much better with knockdowns and did more work around the box than has been typical this season.
Sarr also highlighted his increasing use in the team shortly after the 70th minute, bailing out an overcommitted Tom Holmes by sliding in to win the ball and then keep it in play to recycle possession.
Long found himself removed for Lucas Joao shortly after and Reading kept up the pressure as Yiadom went the closest of any Reading players so far. Receiving the ball across the box from Nesta Guiness-Walker, Yiadom hit the ball with power across the net on his second touch, but ultimately wide.
Guinness-Walker put in another great cross shortly after and Carroll flew through the middle of the Blades box to power the ball on frame: a prime Andy Carroll opportunity. Unfortunately Foderingham produced a good save.
Again though, Paul Ince took off a player who’d been having a good game, and Guinness-Walker was removed shortly after those chances for Femi Azeez. Neither Azeez nor Joao could make an immediate impact, and despite running proceedings since Sheffield United’s goal, Reading almost conceded the second twice in quick succession shortly after their introduction.
First, Billy Sharp got to a cross first to force a good save out of Lumley, and John Egan put the ball just over from the resulting corner. Reading had competed well through the night, but were starting to wilt under the effort they’d put in.
Then the night’s earliest plotline resolved itself. Moore came onto the pitch for Holmes before a corner was taken - to a somewhat mixed reaction. Not openly hostile, but a little uneasy. Presumably the idea was that he’d immediately turn negative opinion by scoring with his first touch, but Tom Ince’s set-piece delivery was lacking, careening into the first man’s shins.
Reading were afforded five minutes to rescue a point but ultimately could do little to recreate the more fluid moves of their energetic first half. Hopeful balls into the box characterised the Royals' final forays into the Blades' half, and time ultimately ran out on the Royals. Reading had avoided the big defeat that some had predicted before the match, but it was a second defeat in as many games nonetheless.
Make no mistake though, this was a response from Reading’s players to the defeat at Boro at the weekend. Sheffield United are a good side who beat Reading 4-0 in the reverse fixture, and Reading showed more attacking intent than they might have been expected to. Ultimately though, key margins in quality went against the Royals, who struggled with Ndiaye’s pace and McBurnie’s competitiveness throughout.
The lack of a clear attacking idea from Paul Ince and Alex Rae leaves Reading dependent on moments of individual brilliance, often on the transition. Long, Ince, Carroll and others were all able to pull out some flashes of skill tonight, more than we’ve seen in weeks, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
Paths into the opposition box are often predictable when asked to play with the ball and while Foderingham was forced to make some good saves, most of Reading’s best chances were ultimately comfortably seen behind.
Reading can be pleased with aspects of their performance, but a point and a goal could have really soothed nerves around the club in what could still be a difficult week off the pitch, with a six-point deduction looming.