Tuesday night was the tipping point between a run of bad luck and something far more concerning. The performance against Middlesbrough lacked both attacking threat and defensive organisation, we were waiting to lose that game. Confidence is clearly draining out of this team and something needs to change in order for us to start to pick up results in this division.
It’s the worst time possible to be facing the league leaders, Reading. However, the way we’re playing at the moment, it’s the worst possible moment to be playing anyone in this division. There is nowhere to hide in the Championship, no-one who is simply going to roll over and hand us three points, we’ve got to start making things happen. Returning to winning ways here would be the almightiest of confidence boosts.
As much as things need to change in order for us to get results, it’s unlikely that we are going to see significant alterations in formation or personnel for this game, with only one full day to work things out on the training pitch since Tuesday night. Those bigger changes are more likely to come next Wednesday against Nottingham Forest or, even likelier, after the international break. For now, one or two tweaks and individual players raising their game.
Liam Kelly coming back into the side would probably represent the biggest area of improvement through changing just one player. The captain’s physicality and defensive nous is something that was sorely missing from our midfield on Tuesday night. However, there is a chance that Mark Robins sees Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer as his preferred central midfield duo and is willing to give them a little more time to gel.
In attack, we need to find some way of addressing the lack of pace and physicality in our front line that allows opponents to build pressure on us without fear of a counter-attacking threat. Tyler Walker and Callum O’Hare coming into the side ahead of Jamie Allen and Jordan Shipley may address that, although neither Walker nor O’Hare bring a guarantee extra attacking threat at this moment in time and there is the risk that moving to two up top leaves us disjointed and open to the opposition overwhelming us in midfield.
Elsewhere, there may well be a decision to make over who out of Sam McCallum, Ryan Giles and Fankaty Dabo start in the wing-back positions. Given Ryan Giles’ form this season and how good we know Fankaty Dabo can be, they are surely the first-choice picks in either role for the time being. However, it’s been clear over the past 12 months that Mark Robins is a huge fan of Sam McCallum and may find a way to keep him in the side.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting with Reading may have been eight years ago, but the two teams are currently in similar circumstances in the league table as they were back then. The Royals were on their way to promotion, the Sky Blues were mired in the relegation zone. The result at the Madejski Stadium was entirely unsurprising.
Reading made short work of a Coventry City side that had yet to win an away game – and would only win one all season. A graceful finish from Jimmy Kebe put them ahead, before Jason Roberts tapped home from a corner-kick routine to make it three very easy points for a side bound for the Premier League.
The Manager – Veljko Paunovic
The reason why Veljko Paunovic is currently Reading manager – having been appointed two weeks before the start of this season – reflects how much the club has changed since 2012. Having been one of the most stable and well-run clubs in the country under Sir John Madejski’s ownership, Reading have been through a series of foreign owners, and subsequently churned through managers and players in the search for a return to the Premier League, often ending up fighting for survival in this division.
On the face of it, Paunovic was a strange choice for an ambitious Championship club. While he has achieved success in his managerial career with Serbia’s under-20 side – winning the World Cup at that level – his one stint in charge of a senior side – MLS’s Chicago Fire – saw him with one of the worst records in the division’s history for someone who had managed over 80 games.
While Paunovic’s appointment seemed to herald a complete overhaul of the team just two weeks before the start of the season, what has been most impressive about his stint in charge at Reading thus far is how little he has changed things. Retaining the solid defensive core that predecessor, Mark Bowen, instilled, Reading’s success this season has been predicated on giving up very few quality chances to the opposition and having just enough attacking quality to kill games off at the other end. It’s not exactly free-flowing football, but it’s effective and already has the team in a position where it would be difficult to drop-off too far away from the top six.
Who To Look Out For
In Ovie Ejaria, John Swift and Michael Olise, Reading have three creative midfield players who can dominate games when on their best form. Swift is an elegant passer of the ball, Ejaria can beat players for fun with his skill and the young Olise is someone who can produce something from nothing. Along with the pace, power and skill of the lanky Lucas Joao and the burly Yakou Meite up top, Reading have some very impressive attacking players.
However, those talented forwards have yet to find their best form this season. Much has been made of this team’s ratio of shots on target to goals – seven of their last 11 shots on target have found the back of the net – but the reason why a relatively parsimonious creative output has been converted into results is the quality Reading are showing in defence.
The centre-back pairing of Michael Morrison and Liam Moore is very dominant physically and also very experienced at this level of football. Former Leicester City youngster, Liam Moore, is the more mobile of the two, while Morrison provides leadership qualities at the heart of the defence. That quality and experience at the back is supplemented by the presence of former Brazil international, Rafael Cabral, in goal, who dominates his penalty area and is a fantastic shot-stopper who should be playing at a much higher standard than the Championship.
That experience and nous at the heart of defence means that Reading have been able to have some very youthful full-backs in either Tomas Esteves or Tom Holmes on the right, with England under-21 international, Omar Richards, on the left. Protecting that defensive unit is the physicality and energy of Josh Laurent, alongside either Andy Rinomhota or Alfa Semedo.
Where This Game Will Be Won Or Lost
As daunting a prospect as it is to be taking on the league leaders, Reading’s performances – in the first-half, at least – against our fellow newly-promoted sides, Wycombe Wanderers and Rotherham United, suggests they can be a little uncomfortable in games where they’re expected to dominate. The question is whether Mark Robins is willing to change up our game-plan in order to cede possession, sit a little deeper and look to take advantage of that side of Reading’s game.
Thus far, the manager has clearly been reluctant to sacrifice what worked last season in order to chase results over the short-term, but this could well be the time where he changes that mind-set. The main issue with a more defensive-minded approach is whether we have the pace on the counter to threaten teams when we only have short spells in possession. In addition, our defence is yet to show it can soak up pressure and reliably keep clean sheets at this level.
For all the talk that Reading are due for some regression to the mean, having arguably benefited from good fortune to get to the top of the table, we’re currently not playing well enough to take advantage of any potential off-days from the opposition. We’re a soft touch at both ends of the pitch, that has got to be stamped out soon or we’ll be in an unsalvageable situation that incremental improvements won’t solve. This game has to be the start of a process of building a game-plan that can reliably get points at this level.