Conflicted. That’s how most Reading fans will feel after a gutsy performance against an in-form Luton Town. We grafted hard, tirelessly and could have come away with the much-needed three points if not for Andy Carroll’s untimely red card.
It’s hard not to feel that, at 2-0, we could have had the game sewn up, but even then, would that have been enough? It’s the type of conjecture we always conjure and we never will obtain an answer for. Similarly with Andy’s thinking. What was he thinking? Did he even think about it at all? Considering he was already booked (for racing back after an initial error and apparently fouling the Town player), it was a shocking decision to try and fool the officials.
Whether it was his intention or not it cost us two valuable points, plus a suspension when he would be crucially required. When we need every single body available this could come to bite us hard.
Otherwise, it was another draw against a high-level side in the division. If we’d been offered a point each against the teams that are first and third, you’d take it. Noel Hunt has galvanised the available troops into believing they can get themselves out of the bottom three. The performances have been much better and, again, they proved that the result against Burnley wasn’t a fluke. The togetherness, the willingness, the fight are back. Nothing is left out on the pitch, those improvements are huge.
In defence, Naby Sarr and Tom Holmes have put in some fantastic shifts in the last two games. Nesta Guinness-Walker doesn’t look like he’s all at sea defensively now and Andy Yiadom looks far more happy and comfortable since Hunt has taken the reins. Even Jeff Hendrick has found more significance since the managerial shuffle and Lucas Joao’s work rate has improved - not many would have figured on that occurring.
But the nagging doubt is that it could have come a little too late.
The new 4-4-2 has its flaws, however. Those are laid bare when a player is out of position and none more so than Tyrese Fornah, who is having to play out wide when it clearly doesn’t suit him.
Having to cut inside each time, the right-footer’s passing is always going to be easy to read. As such this slows the break time after time. On occasion he has a tendency to over-complicate situations on the ball; another drag-back that invites pressure on him. It’s a harsh point but when the game is already tense, the last thing you need is over-playing. It’s nit-picking, for sure, but if we had a left-footed player available it does beg the question what we might be capable of.
That said, he’s always fit, he’s always available, and we need as many of those as possible.
After two games under the interim stewardship, we are beginning to see what Hunt’s demands are of his players and that he understands what he has available to him and how to use them. The setup is compact and generally difficult to pass through the lines - even with 10 men. The use of Joao (or Joao’s new-found ability to track back on occasion) is much improved. His application has significantly changed of late, and long may that continue.
Hunt’s substitutions are canny and brave. The previous manager would have just shoved extra bodies in defence and hoped for the best. Hunt appears to be a lot more nuanced in his approach and uses the fresh legs higher up the pitch to affect matters.
At times, certainly in the first half (and much as we did against Burnley), we gave Luton too much respect and they had a decent amount of time on the ball. To Hunt’s further credit, the space between our midfield and their more creative players was minimised in the second half. Even with 10 men, we still managed to close the space quite well.
We’ll need this tactical awareness when we visit Coventry City for our next-to-last away game of the season. Where defeat is not an option we will have to play on the break again and hope beyond hope that we can muster a point or more.
The picture at the bottom of the table is still as clear as mud. QPR drew, but Cardiff City won at the already on-the-beach Watford. Cardiff also have a game in hand with four matches remaining versus three for the other sides languishing.
Huddersfield Town play Cardiff next, on April 30, so a draw there would keep both within striking distance. QPR play Burnley at Turf Moor this Saturday. The latter could win the title on their own… turf, so the impetus is there for them to win, but, uncharacteristically, they have dropped points in their last two fixtures.
It’s obvious to state, but any win at this point is crucial. Two victories and we’re probably home and hosed, but we’ve not won since February. We can’t afford to lose against Coventry, we simply must beat Wigan Athletic, who might be relegated by then.
The mathematical permutations change game on game; it’s impossible to predict where the next game will leave us. We’re still under the trap-door, but jeez, are we fighting.