While you can tell a lot about a team by what it comes up with when it's performing at its highest level, you can also tell a lot from when it isn't. Good sides don't just excel when everything's clicking for them and going well - they can also be competitive and productive on their off days.
Today's 1-1 was indeed an off day, closer in overall performance to the 1-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic last weekend (albeit not quite as bad) than to the 1-0 win over Derby County in midweek. Besides a bright first quarter or so of the contest, as well as some positive moments later on in the game, Reading were generally disjointed, lacking confidence and control against a spirited, in-form Leyton Orient side that exerted more authority.
And yet the Royals still managed to dig a point out of this game. There’s nothing glamorous about a fairly underwhelming draw, but those solitary points all add up and keep the tally ticking over.
There’s a clear contrast therefore with the reverse fixture. Reading were poor in their early October trip to East London but were on course for a 1-1 draw... until a late corner was hashed by David Button and George Moncur struck a late winner. Back then, all our off days seemed to lead inevitably to defeat, in whatever fashion. With just one exception, Reading had either won or lost all their previous league games.
Since the shift away from 4-2-2-2 in late October however, Reading have picked up six draws including today’s (three at home, three away). The Royals are raising their lower bar, turning losses into defeats. Undoubtedly, the Reading of the first three months of the season would have lost this game.
It’s still disappointing that we didn’t win it though. Reading had a great opportunity to build on Tuesday’s 1-0 over Derby by getting a big three points which would have cut the four-point deficit to safety.
Early on in the game it seemed the Royals would do just that, looking the stronger and more dangerous side in the opening 20 minutes. The hosts appeared to be continuing where they left off on Tuesday, even using the exact same XI and 4-2-3-1 shape:
Button; Yiadom, Bindon, Holmes, Dorsett; Wing, Savage; Azeez, Knibbs, Mukairu; Smith
Reading looked confident and energetic both in and out of possession, albeit without creating clear-cut opportunities. Femi Azeez shooting over with his right foot from the edge of the area, Lewis Wing having a shot blocked and Harvey Knibbs unconvincingly heading off target from a Wing cross were the closest moments we got to the opener.
Instead it came from the visitors, somewhat against the run of play. A pretty standard cross from the left wing met the outstretched arm of Tom Holmes in the area, and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. A stonewall penalty. Orient’s Dan Agyei made no mistake with the resulting kick.
Reading responded pretty well though and should have made it 1-1 a matter of minutes later. Andy Yiadom sent in a dangerous low cross from the right, it found Harvey Knibbs at close range... and he couldn’t connect. Jeriel Dorsett, right behind him, didn’t fare any better.
Knibbs atoned shortly after though by netting a rare Reading goal from a corner. Charlie Savage swung in a low delivery from the right, Sam Smith glanced it on and Knibbs poked home from just outside the six-yard area for 1-1.
Both sides had chances to make it 2-1 later in the half: Smith slipped as he hit an effort from range while Orient blasted over from much closer in after Tyler Bindon gave the ball away. But the theme from 1-1 onwards was of Orient generally looking more confident and settled than Reading, albeit without outright dominating or having the quality in the final third to capitalise on their advantage.
Reading on the other hand seemed too reactive, too cautious and disjointed, unable to effectively disrupt the visitors by pressing higher up the pitch or to build up attacks themselves. The Royals tried to mix things up with some long balls from deep in the second half, but with limited success.
Neither ‘keeper was really tested after the break, with the exception of one crucial stop from Button. Amadou Mbengue hashed a pass to Bindon, Agyei won it, charged forward and forced a fine save from Reading’s ‘keeper at his near post - the kind of save you’d expect him to make, but an important one nonetheless.
Ruben Selles used all of his subs today. Clinton Mola and Michael Craig came on for Dorsett and Savage respectively before the hour mark to shore up those spots, Mbengue and Caylan Vickers replaced Yiadom and Paul Mukairu with a quarter of an hour to play, and Tom McIntyre entered the fray in place of Holmes, who’d picked up a knock.
It’s telling that all but one of those changes were defensive-minded. Reading have the options at the moment to switch things up (unforced or forced) at full-back and centre-back, but don’t have the options to provide fresh ideas in the final third.
Holding midfielder Craig isn’t that kind of player, while Vickers and Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan (unused sub) have talent but not the know-how to enter a game midway and really change the balance. Short of an unlikely attacking signing in the coming days, this state of affairs won’t change, although Ben Elliott will be a useful (albeit also inexperienced) reinforcement when he returns from international duty.