Reading’s 2023/24 Pizza Cup journey started with a joyous, positive, ruthless and altogether fun late-summer(ish) 9-0 win at Exeter City... and has now ended in pretty much the exact opposite fashion. On a freezing-cold January night in Sussex, the Royals put in a drab, unadventurous, toothless and dull showing against Brighton & Hove Albion’s under-21s before being dumped out of the competition on penalties.
Go back to the group stage and Reading scored goals for fun: nine against Exeter, five against Swindon Town and Arsenal’s under-21s (each!). The knockout stage has been another matter though. Perhaps because of the pressure of the stage of the competition, perhaps because of a move away from the swashbuckling 4-2-2-2 to a more controlled 4-1-4-1, but probably because of both, the Royals have struggled to find the net, only scoring once.
In the previous round, Reading were pretty good but still wasteful against fairly strong opposition in Charlton Athletic. Winning that game, albeit on penalties after a 1-1 draw in normal time, was a deserved result. The positives from that performance ebbed away in this trip to the south coast though.
Reading had their moments, including a flurry of chances in the first half and hitting the post in the second, but on the whole were painfully flat. Urgency, fluency and invention were conspicuous by their absence throughout the game, so it was disappointing to see little proactivity from the bench to rectify that, with the first subs only made on the 73rd minute.
Were I Ruben Selles (or James Oliver-Pearce for that matter, with the manager serving a one-match suspension), I’d have switched Reading into a 4-2-2-2 at half-time. While that formation has run its course in the league, with 4-1-4-1 providing much more balance and solidity, playing with two strikers has created more danger and intensity in the final third. That’s the formation which put Exeter, Swindon and Arsenal to the sword.
Instead, Reading stuck with a 4-1-4-1 that this group of players just didn’t quite know to make work properly going forwards.
Pereira; Mbengue, Bindon, Abbey, Dorsett; Craig; Azeez, Wing, Savage, Mukairu; Ehibhatiomhan
That’s two non-creative full-backs, a holding midfielder who’s more about defence than ball progression, and just one striker up top. I’ve nothing against any of those players individually, but when you add up all those elements and don’t have key first-team attackers Sam Smith and Harvey Knibbs to call on, that’s not the right formula to create a good number of quality chances and score goals.
And that was the issue for most of the evening. Reading actually started the game really brightly, exerting comfortable control on proceedings in the first half by stifling the hosts, only facing a couple of free-kicks by way of danger in their own third. Translating that control into attacking threat was another matter though.
Around 20 minutes in, Reading finally started to threaten the hosts. Lewis Wing, Femi Azeez and Charlie Savage were among those to have shots saved or blocked in a flurry of chances, none of which were gilt-edged in quality but were still pretty good openings.
The Royals faded from there on in though, particularly after the break, when Brighton disrupted Reading’s first-half control (albeit without themselves dominating). Joel Pereira made a crucial save after giving the ball away before Tyler Bindon had to be on his toes to put in a vital last-ditch challenge.
Down the other end, Bindon almost found the opener when his header from Wing’s corner struck the post. Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan also delayed just a tad too long after being played through by Nelson Abbey, with a Brighton defender able to get across at the expense of a corner.
Reading faded further still later in the game, struggling to build up momentum for a convincing late flourish. Jayden Wareham and Caylan Vickers weren’t able to conjure anything up in around 15 minutes on the pitch, nor Clinton Mola and Tivonge Rushesha in around five.
Penalties it was. The Royals had previously lost to Ipswich Town on spot-kicks in the League Cup before seeing off Charlton in the EFL Trophy in the same fashion, but we had a repeat of the former kind of luck with penalties tonight.
Vickers’ opening effort was kept out, Azeez and Rushesha both missed the goal completely, with Bindon and Wareham the only ones to convert. Although Pereira managed a save and the hosts struck the bar once, Brighton held their nerve for a 3-2 shootout win.
Going out of the EFL Trophy isn’t the end of the world - the league is after all infinitely more important this season - but it’s still a massive shame to not go further in the competition. Reading had a real shot at silverware given how strongly we’d started, or at least a long run to boost morale, but group-stage swagger ended up melting away.