Every now and again you get a game that’s just a big load of nothing: no goals, no entertainment, nothing to get excited about at all. We’ve just had our first of the 2023/24 season with a particularly lifeless and tedious 0-0 draw at home to Burton Albion. To use a video game analogy, this match was the especially boring level that you really wish you could skip rather than having to play through.
Reading have had worse games this season for looking error-prone or defensively vulnerable, but for an all-round spectacle, this was the nadir. It’s less that individual players had shockers, more that the entire team collectively misfired like a cannon which somebody had forgotten to put any gunpowder into.
There’s not a lot more to say about the match itself than that really, so if you’ve got better things to do with your time you can leave this article here. I wouldn’t blame you. This is the kind of game that everyone - fans and players alike - just want to move on from and forget about.
In a footballing sense, this afternoon was devoid of incident (save the obvious other thing that I’ll come back to later). Reading had their chances, a lot of them coming from range, but none really stood out. It didn’t feel as if we were ever that close to grabbing a winner, despite leading on territory, possession, shots and the like. In doing the live-tweeting it felt like I had more to comment on in the way of substitutions and updates about how much time was remaining than anything entertaining.
It’s odd to be saying all of that about a side which:
a) Is on paper all about energy, positivity and taking the game to the opposition
b) Recently thrashed Exeter City 9-0
But ultimately we saw a particularly pronounced example of an underlying trend: Reading aren’t very good at scoring goals this season (in the league at least). This was the fourth time in nine games the Royals have drawn a blank in League One, in addition to three games when we’ve netted once.
At least Reading looked like scoring in those other games. So hopefully today will be looked back on as an exception - a particularly bad one - rather than something which is often repeated in the remainder of the season. It’s also worth noting the context to this specific game though, given that Reading went into it mounting media attention on how much of a mess the club is behind the scenes (Daily Telegraph, The Athletic), so it’s fair to cut the players some slack. Stuff like that is bound to affect them. It wasn’t even clear they’d be paid properly for this month until the day before the match.
If we are to avoid making a habit of today’s display though, there are lessons to be learned, and the main one is about the importance of the back four in build-up. While it wasn’t the only issue, Reading’s lethargy and slowness in possession was massively influenced by the make-up of the defence.
Reading (4-2-2-2): Button; Bindon, Dean, McIntyre, Carson; Wing, Savage; Elliott, Knibbs; Azeez, Ehibhatiomhan
Individually, all those choices in defence made some sense. Tyler Bindon’s played right-back before so was up for replacing Andy Yiadom (whatever the reason for the captain being dropped), Harlee Dean added experience that was lacking at Blackpool, Tom McIntyre was coming off the back of a solid display at Exeter City in the cup, and Matty Carson is probably Reading’s best full-back from a creative perspective.
The end product however backfired massively. Bindon simply isn’t an attacking right-back, Dean was ponderous in possession (ironically Bindon’s very good at progressing the ball from the spot Dean occupied) and Carson barely got forward. That was likely due to Reading not wanting to get exposed on Carson’s flank, but when a dangerous crosser of the ball only gets to do it once all game, you’ve got a problem.
Reading need to find a way of mixing flair and steel across the pitch, and that’s especially true at the back. Games can be lost with a poor performance from the back four, but they can also be won (to a large extent at least) by getting that setup right too. It’s not an easy mix to perfect, especially with injuries (Amadou Mbengue’s out for six weeks), but that’s the task for Ruben Selles.
A bigger and even more powerful protest
There was one great big success from today but it came from the stands, not the players. Emboldened by an impactful protest against Bolton Wanderers and fired up by how this club is generally being run into the ground by Dai Yongge, fans again demonstrated, this time bigger, louder and with more disruption.
Today the protest had more of a visual emphasis, with ‘Black Saturday’ represented around the ground. Everywhere you could see fans dressed in black - football shirt or otherwise, bleakly apt for the dark times this club is in.
And, again, the game was disrupted in the 16th minute when tennis balls were launched onto the pitch. Fans had got a couple of hundred onto the SCL pitch last time out, getting the game paused for three minutes, but this time it was an absolute hail of them - from all four stands - that caused a 10-minute delay.
Ultimately the campaign to get Dai Yongge to sell the club will only be successful when he chooses to cash in, but until then, all fans can do is keep as much pressure on him as possible. Despite a pre-match statement that looked an awful lot like an attempt at quelling the protest, in which Reading admitted a failure to pay HMRC but provided reassurance that staff wages had been paid (how far we’ve fallen...) and teased a club sale, that pressure was maintained. Not only that, it was amplified.
Let’s keep that pressure going until Dai is gone.