It feels like an annual tradition at this club for the opening game of the season to have an asterisk against it. When was the last time Reading had a proper pre-season and mostly finished set of recruitment in time for the start of the new campaign, allowing us to see something close to the finished product?
Today’s visit of Peterborough United, which resulted in a 1-0 win for the away side, followed a familiar trend. It felt as much like a quasi pre-season friendly as it did a proper competitive contest, if not more so, acting as a stark reminder that plenty of improvement is still required - even if there were signs of encouragement.
The basics were certainly there: Reading showed spirit and you could see clear signs of what new boss Ruben Selles was trying to do. On the basis of this afternoon’s display, Selles should take comfort from the fact that his ideas are getting across to the players and that they’re buying into them. At the same time though, it’ll take a while for that to translate into a performance that really clicks over most of the 90 minutes and yields results.
Reading (4-2-2-2): Bouzanis; Yiadom, Holmes, McIntyre, Guinness-Walker; Hutchinson, Savage; Azeez, Knibbs; Ehibhatiomhan, Carroll
Selles wants his Reading side to be an energetic one that takes the game to the opposition. That’s true both in and out of possession, with the Royals pressing high and forcing errors to win the ball back quickly in the final third, but also getting it forward quickly in the attacking phase rather than opting for patient probing and build-up play.
You could see all of that against Posh, albeit much more prominently in the first quarter of the match rather than constantly throughout. When Reading got it right, they really got it right, excellently harrying and disrupting the visitors for the opening 20 minutes or so.
That meant both an easier job for the back line and progress being made in possession, whether that was gaining territory or creating chances. The home crowd absolutely adored a few moments of aggressive pressing early on: one in the midfield forced a wayward clearance for a corner, while another bit of hard graft from Harvey Knibbs on the left wing allowed him to win the ball back before being rewarded with a free-kick and an opposition booking. Similarly, winning the ball back on another occasion near the Posh area presented Knibbs with the chance to go for the top corner, only to be denied by ‘keeper Nicholas Bilokapic.
As for ideas on creativity from more settled scenarios, Reading had some but didn’t build up enough cohesion to convincingly, consistently threaten the visitors in the first half. The full-backs had noticeably more license to push forward than they did last season, the two deeper central midfielders were pretty expressive with their passing (Charlie Savage and Sam Hutchinson both showing a pretty good range of distribution) and Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan was a willing runner up top, allowing Reading to try balls down the channels and in behind.
In fact, he had some of Reading’s best chances of the first half and indeed of the game overall. On one occasion he was played in behind by Andy Yiadom, seeing his shot saved by Bilokapic, and on another forced a stop when found in the area by a smart inswinging cross from Femi Azeez.
Otherwise, I liked Savage’s set pieces. The youngster has an excellent left foot and he did a good job with his deliveries, which will hopefully yield a few goals this season for Andy Carroll, who overall had an ineffective game in open play today. He simply doesn’t have the energy or mobility to properly slot into what should be a dynamic pressing/counter-attacking system.
Down the other end, for the most part the visitors were restricted to longer-range shots or ones from the edge of the area, despite growing into the game as the half progressed. However, the first half wasn’t without various Reading errors that allowed Posh joy going forwards; Yiadom, Ehibhatiomhan and Savage were all guilty of that and Selles will surely be keen for such mistakes to be cut out, with the Royals looking exposed when got at on the counter.
The deadlock was broken by another kind of chance though. Posh swung a cross in from the right flank a few minutes before half-time to the back post, which was met by Ephron Mason-Clark’s looping header back over Dean Bouzanis. Yiadom could have challenged Mason-Clark better, but to be fair it was a good header to beat Bouzanis from a tight angle.
Posh took to the second half much better than Reading, seemingly encouraged by the opener. While the Royals had done an excellent job at containing the visitors with strong pressing for a lot of the first half, Peterborough were noticeably more comfortable and expressive after the restart.
That was particularly true down their left flank, where pacey substitute winger Ricky-Jade Jones caused Yiadom difficulty. Yiadom looked off the pace at that point, perhaps unsurprising given his lack of a proper pre-season due to injury, and it was the right call to replace him with the much quicker Amadou Mbengue at right-back.
Selles also turned to his bench to add some more creativity to an ailing attack, with Reading struggling to cause Posh problems. Lewis Wing was introduced on the left flank at the same time as Mbengue’s arrival (just after the hour mark), replacing Ehibhatiomhan, while Tivonge Rushesha (for Hutchinson), Caylan Vickers (for Femi Azeez) and Mamadi Camara (for Harvey Knibbs) would all come on over the next 20 minutes or so.
It’s striking just how differently Selles uses his bench to how predecessor Paul Ince did when he was in the dugout. The Spaniard introduces players more readily and more early than Ince and that includes using youngsters - Camara and Vickers getting a chance to affect the game, let alone for more than 10 minutes, would have been unheard of in the Ince era.
Furthermore, Selles sticks to the system and adjusts players in it rather than altering the system itself. Reading remained in a 4-2-2-2 throughout the course of this game, but we saw Azeez move from out wide to up top and Knibbs swap flanks.
Ultimately, none of it worked enough to change the game in the hosts’ favour. Reading had chances in the second half, such as when Carroll saw a Guinness-Walker cross cut out before he could slam it into the net, but didn’t hugely trouble Posh. An encouraging bright spot however was Vickers’ cameo. The 18-year-old striker was confident on his debut, forcing a block from a Posh defender after a nice drive down the left at one point, and creating an attack down the right at another after some really sharp skill.
The long and the short of it is that Reading won’t have a particularly good season if they stay at this level, but there’s every reason to believe we’ll comfortably outstrip this level in the coming weeks and months.
First and foremost, not many players from this starting XI should be regular first-team players going forwards - by my count that’s only Yiadom, Tom Holmes, Savage and Knibbs, although Guinness-Walker isn’t far off. All being well, Reading will otherwise be able to strengthen in goal, at the back, in midfield and up top with a mixture of new additions and already-signed players coming into the side.
Harlee Dean will add experience next to Holmes (probably), substitute Wing should be the John Swift-esque playmaker (whether in a deeper spot or higher up), Ovie Ejaria could fulfil a similar role if he’s ever available, and Sam Smith will add quality in front of goal and in the press up top. Otherwise, it’s been reported that goalkeeper Joel Pereira will come in on Monday, while Reading should target further reinforcements elsewhere - hopefully around half a dozen.
With all that considered, as well as the weeks of training-ground practice to come, it’s a safe bet that this team - personnel-wise and performance-wise - will look very different before long. Ruben Selles’ Reading has a lot of evolution to come.