It’s a results business at this stage of the season, and the bottom line is that today’s result simply wasn’t good enough. Put everything else to one side for a moment: Reading needed a win against Birmingham City - it didn’t matter how that win came or whether it was deserved - but all we could manage was a point.
As I’m sat here writing this a few hours after full-time, I’m just gutted. It’s a draw that feels like a bitter defeat. Sometimes you come out of a game and fear that it’ll be consequential for all the wrong reasons, and today was one of those games.
As much as I want to believe Reading can turn things around in the games to come, right now it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this side has blown one of its best opportunities to win a game - perhaps to catastrophic consequence. After all, we’re now in the bottom three and it’ll be no mean feat to climb out.
Rotherham United, Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town all won. Not just that, but they scored three each in potentially tricky games - the Millers and Terriers against top-half opposition (West Bromwich Albion and Watford), the Bluebirds away from home in a relegation scrap (Blackpool). Rotherham, Cardiff and Huddersfield rose to the challenge. Reading didn’t. That only needs to happen a few more times for the Royals’ fate to be sealed.
The story of the game itself is of a team and manager desperately trying to abruptly reinvent themselves into something more attacking - to little avail. We’ve known all season that this team isn’t good enough going forwards and, even more frustratingly, there’d been little desire from the manager to change that. However, comments in the week from Paul Ince that a more attacking approach was required were backup up by a tactical rejig: Reading went 4-4-2.
Lumley; Mbengue, Holmes, Sarr, Yiadom; Meite, Hendrick, Casadei, Fornah; Joao, Carroll
It was a poorly balanced XI, with a centre-back at right-back, a right-back at left-back, a central midfielder on the left wing and a strike pairing that we’ve known all season doesn’t work. Nesta Guinness-Walker and Femi Azeez were both available and could have provided more balance, but were left on the bench.
Despite all that, the Royals started perfectly, scoring a goal that was particularly untypical of Paul Ince’s Reading. Seven minutes in, Cesare Casadei looked up in midfield, slid the ball on the deck into Lucas Joao in the area, and he deftly set up strike partner Andy Carroll to lash the ball home into the far side of goal. Simple, incisive, well-executed attacking play. Where has that been all season?
Cue sheer joy and pure relief in the home end. Reading had a huge goal in a huge game and needed to build on it... but didn’t. Besides some flashes of quality - typically down the left - the Royals simply didn’t have the fluency to convincingly take the game to the opposition.
Birmingham City were all too happy to punish us for our inability to double the lead. Half an hour in, Reda Khadra - under little pressure from right-back Amadou Mbengue - swung a cross in for Lukas Jutkiewicz - who beat Naby Sarr far too easily - to nod home for 1-1. All of a sudden, when things had been going so well, the wind was knocked out of our sails.
Still, the game was there to be won in the second half. The effort had certainly been there from the Royals before the break, it’s more that the execution wasn’t. But, although Reading kept plugging away, it wasn’t all that convincing. It didn’t really feel as if a winner was coming for the home side, while the visitors got in behind too easily on a number of occasions so could have found one themselves.
So frustratingly, as the clock ticked down, Reading faded and ultimately the draw played out with a whimper. It was grimly symbolic to see the Royals dropping deep in the final seconds rather than pressing the visitors, seemingly unaware that Birmingham City were happy to play keep-ball and see out an away point.
To an extent, there were mitigating circumstances for today that weren’t in Reading’s control. The injury list is ridiculously long at this point, partially including Yakou Meite who clearly wasn’t fully fit, while others such as Junior Hoilett and Tom Ince would have added more balance and quality. It’s never ideal when your attacking substitutions include a left-back coming on as a left-winger (Nesta Guinness-Walker) and a young right-back being introduced in a straight swap.
Ultimately though, Reading’s ineffectiveness going forwards today was the logical outcome of a lack of development all season. The Royals haven’t honed any patterns or created effective attacking combinations between players; the well-worked opening goal was the exception that proves the rule. You simply can’t just play a 4-4-2 and put your best attacking players out, having neglected long-term tactical development and the concept of deploying a balanced XI, and expect everything to suddenly click.