Ugh. As sure as snow follows a bitterly cold evening in March, Reading succumbed to their annual nil point at home to the visitors from the north - our seventh in a row. And, to be honest, it was never going to be anything but a defeat. Not a pasting by any means but the gulf in class was stark.
As expected, Reading reverted to the back three that has become customary when faced against the big boys of the division. Well, that’s almost everyone in reality, but it was never going to be thus, frankly. Without Yakou Meite being available on the flank, this change was cemented. Andy Yiadom and Nesta Guinness-Walker were deployed to provide “width”, as much as Paul Ince’s teams do anyway.
That width was never really utilised as United pinned Reading back with wave after wave of attacks in the first half. The fluidity and short passing was something we can only dream of.
And there, laid bare for all to see, was that chasm in class. United pinged the ball about at will. Reading chased shadows as Ndiaye, McAtee and Berge combined seamlessly. This is the difference between a club that has had the time and space to craft a well-oiled machine versus one scrapping to survive. One painted pretty pictures in their movements with a defined purpose, whereas we scribbled in crayons with a stick man up front.
Even though United didn’t put any chances away in the first half they were streets ahead in terms of class. It seemed only a matter of time before they would carve us open but we did survive to be goalless at half time.
We had our chances though. Tom Ince shot wide and we had a few other sniffs here and there, but much of our attacks were rudimentary and mere basic punts up the field in sheer hope and desperation.
When faced with such an obvious disparity it’s easy to feel sorry for the boys that are out there. Despite all of the negativity against Ince and how he sets up a team, there’s little he could have done that would have matched what we were up against. It would have nice to have shown a bit more endeavour, perhaps, but we gave it a good go nonetheless. There was no lack of effort, that was certainly not in doubt.
What was much of a surprise was the return of the prodigal son, Liam Moore, taking a berth on the bench for his first appearance in a Reading shirt in Four Hundred and Fifty One Days! It was a very unusual sight to see him warm up with the starting XI and even more so to see him appear as a late substitute.
There he is. Liam Moore finally makes his return to first-team action pic.twitter.com/UFP5Hi9roc— The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd) March 7, 2023
His arrival was met with some boos, some muted applause and general murmuring in the crowd. His first action was to be in the box to receive a corner from Tom Ince. Could he? No, surely not! Could you imagine if... but no, the corner was dreadful and any fairy tale hopes that he’d return to rescue a point were dashed.
All things considered, he is still one of our better players, regardless of the fans’ personal views. His return can only give us options as we stumble into the dregs of the season.
But the worry isn’t with the defensive bodies, of which we have oodles to choose from now. We also had Amadou Mbengue on the bench, but it’s higher up the pitch where we had problems. Only in the second half did we stretch the play a bit. It wasn’t pretty - it was pretty shabby generally - but we huffed and puffed more in hope than expectation. United were too canny and had much better shape to cope with our blunt attacks. Yet still, Andy Yiadom almost took the net off with a snorter of a strike late on.
But this is our lot: we played nervously and relied far too much on Carroll and Long to achieve miracles. Even when they did combine well, the only arrival to the party was Ince. The width was so far back that we couldn’t get Guinness-Walker and/or Yiadom high enough to join them before the ball was inevitably lost. They say you make your own luck but United managed to get the ball back a ridiculous amount of times in 50/50 situations, although they often had more bodies in central midfield to make that happen.
One sweet day our time will come, but it seems a long, long time ahead that we can play anywhere close to what our opponents could, whether that be in shape, organisation or movement.
What was fortunate was that both Huddersfield Town and Wigan Athletic failed to get their respective wins to keep the downtrodden down. Blackpool have a chance to get points from their next fixtures where they do not play any teams in the top six. Huddersfield have a very tricky March with two away fixtures at West Bromwich Albion and Millwall; sandwiched in between is a home tie against Norwich City.
Wigan Athletic have a similar fate ahead with road trips to Burnley (although we might let them get a sneaky point there!) and Watford. A home game against Coventry City is no gimme by any means.
At this point, with the points deduction looming like the ghost of future past, we’re looking over our shoulder again, ticking off games one at a time and hoping the gap in points remains the same or better. A win here and certainly wouldn’t go amiss, but on this night against a side that is likely to be promoted, it was too much of an ask for this beleaguered group.