I woke up on Wednesday morning after having a strange dream. It was as if I’d just seen Reading’s (supposedly) second-string side dominate an away game from start to finish, running riot and putting nine - yes nine - goals away in front of an incredulous travelling support.
Yeh, it’s taking a while for the performance, result and sheer level of entertainment at Exeter City to properly sink in. After the last few seasons we’ve not been used to seeing Reading winning or even being much good in general on the road, but here was a team oozing class and confidence on someone else’s patch, and giving the editor of the two-minute highlights the toughest job they’ll have all season... or at least until our next cup game away from home.
Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be completely surprised. After all, Reading have felt like a very different beast for a little while now in the Ruben Selles era, which is now 10 league and cup games old. This side is far from the end product, but we’ve seen a huge amount of potential and excitement for what the future could hold, and Selles deserves an awful lot of credit.
Remember, this is someone who:
- Was appointed on the back of a brief but rough spell at Southampton (which ended in their relegation)
- Arrived in the context of Reading fans’ disappointment at a failed attempt to bring in Chris Wilder
- Has had a behind-the-scenes nightmare to contend with.
- Has minimal experience as a manager (Selles has fairly pointed out previously that he’s still got a hefty amount of experience in various coaching roles, but that’s not quite the same as the being the man in the hotseat yourself)
In that context, his 10-game record is impressive. Reading have a 50% win record under Selles in all competitions: three victories in the league, all at home, as well as another two on the road in the cup. As for the other half, the Royals have lost four league games by a single goal (three of them on the road) and drawn 2-2 with Ipswich Town in the League Cup before losing on penalties.
If you exclude points deductions (an original one with a further three suspended, later activated), Reading would be 14th on nine points. That would put us midway between the playoffs and relegation places, four points away from both zones.
Drill a little deeper and, in the league, you’ll find a team that’s low-scoring (six) but low-conceding too (also six). On the basis of those numbers, Reading are the seventh-worst attacking side but the fifth-best defensive one.
Performance data makes for some really interesting reading though. Going by xG (via The Analyst), Reading are expected to have scored 6.59 goals from open play (the eighth best in the league) and conceded 4.83 (the fifth best in the league). The long and the short of it is that the underlying numbers show Reading are strong both defensively and offensively, but in practice we’re currently falling short by not taking our chances.
It’s a different matter in the cup though, where Reading score goals for fun to little reply. The Royals have netted 15 times in three matches, and even that feels like a somewhat unfair reflection of events considering 13 of those goals have come in two games: nine at Exeter, four at Millwall. Otherwise, we managed a relatively paltry two goals against a strong Championship-level Ipswich Town, who netted twice themselves.
As for overall team displays using the eye test, we’ve seen a mix of excellent, rubbish and everything in between, but performances have certainly been more promising than not. The average score in our Player Ratings is 6.1/10, which is well ahead of the previous two seasons (5.6 in both cases) and just ahead of the playoff-chasing 2020/21 campaign (6/10).
The high point was undoubtedly the 9-0 thrashing of Exeter City in Selles’ 10th game. Reading were fantastic from start to finish, looking like a well oiled machine despite 11 changes being made from the weekend, and duly put the Grecians to the sword on their own patch.
That came after another fun evening in the cup, a 4-0 battering of Millwall at The Den, when Reading’s young side looked solid defensively, dangerous going forwards and generally impressively composed against a much more experienced Championship team. Other home wins - 2-0 against Stevenage and 2-1 against Bolton Wanderers - also stand out performance-wise.
At the other end of the scale though is the 1-0 loss at Port Vale. Although the scoreline wasn’t too embarrassing (it should have been worse, really), Reading capitulated in the second half of that game and were thoroughly outplayed - to the extent that numerous players were dumped out of the side for the visit of Cheltenham Town a few days later.
And that, really, has been Selles’ piece de resistance: a remarkable ability to stamp his authority on the side. It would have been a big call for any manager, let alone a newly installed and young one to ditch numerous first-team players: Andy Yiadom, Tom Holmes, Tom McIntyre, Nesta Guinness-Walker and Andy Carroll.
Some of those players have earned their spot in the side once again, others haven’t. There’s no question now though that a spot in the side being earned is done on Selles’ terms: if you don’t meet his standards, you won’t play.
The other side of the coin is how well he’s been able to get so many players up to his standards, particularly youngsters. Nelson Abbey, Tyler Bindon, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan and Caylan Vickers are some of those to have shone not just once or twice, but on numerous occasions. Although they absolutely deserve credit themselves, conditions have also been right for them to excel in the first team, and that’s primarily on Selles.
What he’s done is provide a clear, effective tactical system for his players to get used to. Reading have played 4-2-2-2 in every minute of every game thus far. Offensively, it’s a setup that allows for some direct attacking with two up top and players in support, but also some clever interchanging, with the wide midfielders (better described as wide 10s, really) often coming very central while the full-backs push on. Out of possession Reading can look open, but the 4-2-2-2 does facilitate some aggressive, disruptive pressing in the middle of the park to prompt turnovers.
Another thing I’ve been pleased with is how Selles addressed an early-season problem. In the first three league games Reading had a habit of starting well and then fading, whether in defeat (Peterborough United, Port Vale) or in victory (Cheltenham). However, Reading have got a lot better since then at reimposing themselves on games at later stages, rather than just relying on the early burst.
I’ve also been impressed by how well Selles comes across in the media. Although you can tell he’s a football man rather than someone who enjoys the limelight for the sake of it, he knows how to strike the right balance between being critical and being supportive of his players, particularly after defeats. Furthermore, despite being boxed into a bit of an awkward corner after the Bolton tennis-ball demonstration, Selles earned a lot of respect by making clear his respect for the protest, saying he agreed with it.
How well do you think Ruben Selles has got on in the Reading dugout so far? Give him a grade in our Approval Rating poll below from one (lowest) to five (highest). If it doesn’t display on your device, try this link right here.