“Oh, bother” as the esteemed bear, Winnie, often said. And Pooh is apt for the situation we are now in. Into the bottom three for the first time this season, thanks in no small part to the points deduction that has been hanging over our heads for weeks and the lack of a victory in a must-win game against Birmingham City.
Fans will be looking at the league table half in disbelief, half in anger - maybe more angry than disbelieving in honesty, as this situation could, and should, have been avoided. A point here and a point there, holding onto leads at home - we should have been ‘okay’ at least even without the points deduction, but the continued mis-management of the tactics has continued, week on week.
There are injuries, there always are, but we played a right-back at left-back and a central midfielder at left-wing when we didn’t need to. We had both positions on the bench, ready and waiting for most of the second half too.
The formation was brave, I’ll give it that, but in the same breath it’s a formation we should have tried and used a lot more often this season. The reward was there to be seen when Cesare Casadei slid a great ball to Lucas Joao, who neatly back-heeled it for Andy Carroll to sweep home. Football. Actual football. And it paid off. Why couldn’t we have done this before now?
Fans looked at each other in wonderment that we had carved out a goal with such rare creativity. It was a beautiful thing. But soon the poisoned apple that had been bitten with the appointment of Paul Ince turned sour once again as we failed to conjure anything close to that one passage of play. We reverted to type in all the usual awful ways.
Once again, we stopped closing down and left ourselves wide open with nobody marking properly. Birmingham switched the ball from side to side and voila, an equaliser. How many times this season have we seen Reading disengage from the opponent and they score all too easily? Too many times to mention, for sure.
One of the many facets of this season that frustrates fans the most is this lack of on-field intelligence. Every game feels like a minnow versus an established giant; we look like we don’t belong. We look shabby, perpetually tired and unimaginative.
Yes, we know there are mitigating factors. Yes, we know the squad has been put together with a Pritt-stick and Sellotape, but the lack of intent throughout the season has left us in a situation where we don’t know how to attack intelligently because we’ve never attempted to for the entire season. We’ve tried to shithouse our way to victory too many times and it’s caught up with us.
The manager perpetually distances himself from the picture, trotting out the same old line - that we’ve historically had an issue with dropping too deep when leading games. Forgive me for stating the bleedin’ obvious, but isn’t it his job to coach that out of them? Just like he coached them, successfully at times, to be compact, not give up too much space and deny the opposition opportunities? Remember that, Paul?
At least he managed to do that, but then he throws the players under the bus and says it’s their fault they don’t push up enough. It seems that some things are instructions and other things can’t be coached out of them. It doesn’t make sense.
Similarly, the lack of movement between the lines and the lack of runners into the box. We tried to play with two wide players for the first time in an eternity but they didn’t know what to do. Ince had no instruction for them. Fornah did have some assistance from Andy Yiadom at times and sometimes it worked, especially in the first half. Yakou Meite on the other flank kept trying the same trick, trying to put on the afterburners, but his opponent, Auston Trusty, was far too good on the day.
The tactical naivety stood out in the second half. City showed little intention of gaining anything more than a point and we huffed around, knackered and lost.
On the brighter side, Casadei put in another fine performance and probably won the vote for man of the match. His influence, game after game, is growing. He often found himself in pockets of space to exploit. He was one of the better players to close down space and win challenges in midfield, too. If only we had him a few years later in his development, as he’s turning out to be a savvy technician. He seems to be way ahead of other players, technically and positionally even now, however.
If anything good is to come out of this season in midfield, it will likely come via him. Fingers crossed we can keep him fit and push him higher up midfield where he can influence play in the area that we need it the most. With Mamadou Loum returning from his latest inevitable suspension, hopefully this can release the Italian to be more expressive. Oh, I forgot, Paul Ince is our manager. Apologies.
And so we crawl on to the next fixture: Preston North End on Easter Monday where we hope beyond hope to achieve some kind of timely resurrection. That hope is negligible, mind you. The absolute best we can hope for is a point. Ince will likely park the bus but the wheels have long since fallen off away from home. It will be momentous if we pulled off a win and we did so last season in Velkjo Paunovic’s last-ever game as Reading manager. A repeat of that result would not go amiss.
We now appear to be in a dogfight with QPR to be the least terrible in the run-in. On paper, they have an even worse run-in than us. Visits to West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Stoke City await them. Whilst at home they play Norwich City, Coventry City and Bristol City. All we can hope for is that their terrible form continues, that the goal difference increases and somehow we can salvage a point here and there (and not be slaughtered by Burnley to keep our own goal difference relatively healthy, if one could call it that.)
Our last home fixture against Wigan Athletic remains absolutely massive. The most we can hope for is to keep on not losing, as we have done for the last three fixtures. We may have not looked like winning, but not losing is the next best thing.
It’s the most we can expect right now. The fuel tank is running on empty and we still have a distance yet to go. Performances, somehow, have to improve. The manager will still hold his position and trot out his usual illogical tripe, but logic tells us that we’re in deep, deep trouble that we’ll struggle to get out of by ourselves.