Half-way into the season, 17th place and seven points clear of safety, the Sky Blues are well on track to meet our pre-season expectations. It hasn’t exactly been smooth-sailing to get to this point, but we are in a position now where any improvement that we make should take us further away from danger.
With the fixture list having eased up over the past couple of weeks, Mark Robins will have been able to focus on making the team what he wants them to be. The performance in our last league game, against Millwall, suggested that maybe, with a little more confidence, this set of players can replicate the kind of football that we saw last season. However, this upcoming game, away to a top six Reading side, will be a much sterner test of this team’s ability to both play well and take points.
The additions of Matty James and Viktor Gyokeres reinforces a squad that has been left short as a result of injuries. James comes into the Liam Kelly role, while Gyokeres will presumably be given the chance to lead the attack over the next few games while we await Tyler Walker’s return from injury.
With those two new signings being of the loan variety – taking the team to six loan players – it leaves Mark Robins with a balancing act over the rest of the campaign, as he can only use five in his matchday squad. The most obvious repercussion is that whoever out of Ryan Giles and Sam McCallum doesn’t start at left wing-back will be left out of the squad entirely, however, if Matty James is the midfield partner of Gustavo Hamer, it probably makes more sense to leave Ben Sheaf out of the squad as either Giles or McCallum cover more positions as options from the bench.
The configuration of the central midfield is probably the main area of the team selection for this game to look out for. The key decision for Mark Robins will be whether to start Matty James alongside Gustavo Hamer as the deeper-lying midfielders in the 3-4-2-1 system, or to go with a three of James, Hamer & Sheaf in an attempt to stiffen the team up in the middle of the pitch. The call is likely to rest on whether Robins wants to build on the performance against Millwall or is looking to be pragmatic away to a top six team.
Elsewhere, whether Viktor Gyokeres is thrown immediately into the fray in attack, and whether it’s as a lone striker or in a pairing with Maxime Biamou looks the other big selection decision.
Last Time We Met
It was a much-needed win for the Sky Blues when we took on a then-unbeaten Reading side back in October. It was a game where Mark Robins made some big selection decisions, most notably, in dropping Kyle McFadzean in central defence and in ditching the 3-4-2-1 system that had won us promotion last season in favour of a sturdier 3-5-2 shape.
After dicing with danger early on with a few nervous passes around the defence that Reading nearly seized on, the Sky Blues took the lead via a swift move that saw Matt Godden tee Gustavo Hamer up on the edge of the area to finish in swift fashion. Having looked to have contained Reading pretty well after taking the lead, Lucas Joao seized on some slack play from Ben Sheaf midway into the second-half to level the scores.
The Sky Blues rallied impressively from that set-back, with Matt Godden tapping in a rebound from an initial Maxime Biamou effort. Sam McCallum then sealed the win with an emphatic strike from outside the area that Reading’s Rafael Cabral probably should have done better with. That McCallum goal proved necessary, with Reading’s George Puscas scoring in injury time to make it a nervy final few minutes.
The Manager – Veljko Paunovic
Having looked an odd choice for the job over the summer – with his prior experience coming in MLS and international youth football – Paunovic has adapted to English football seamlessly and moulded Reading into a team that are greater than the sum of their parts. Building on a fortunate run at the start of the season where it felt as if every shot the team took went in, Paunovic has raised performance levels to the stage where Reading are consistently dominating games.
This is a Reading side with a good balance between flair and solidity. The defence plays with physicality and nous, allowing the handful of exciting, talented attacking players that Paunovic has on his hands to put teams away at the other end of the pitch. Having looked like two somewhat disparate parts earlier in the season, there’s a greater element of dynamism about this Reading side as the campaign has progressed.
Who To Look Out For
With the team tending to play a 4-2-3-1 system, it’s the four attacking players for Reading that are likely to cause us the most problems. Lacking an out-and-out winger, Reading’s attacking midfielders make up for it with their skill and inventiveness. Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria both possess excellent close control and the ability to beat defenders, which opens up space for the talented Lucas Joao to wreak havoc in the opposition penalty area with his physicality and finishing ability. In addition, the passing ability of John Swift in the number 10 role provides further variation to Reading’s attacking play.
That attacking unit is backed up by a solid and competitive defensive midfield and back four. The pairing of Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent in front of the defence has proven a good blend of energy and physicality, allowing the full-backs to get into advanced positions to support the attack. Left-back, Omar Richards, has proven something close to a revelation this season, earning him links with some of Europe’s top clubs.
At centre-back, Michael Morrison is a key organising figure, playing a similar role as the experienced stopper as Kyle McFadzean plays for the Sky Blues. He has tended to be partnered with another strong, physical competitor in Liam Moore, but the former Leicester City man is likely to be out injured for this game, leaving Morrison’s partner to be the promising, young left-footer, Tom McIntyre.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
A key element in how this game will play out will be in what approach Mark Robins looks to adopt here. The last meeting between the two sides would suggest that our best option would be to make ourselves as solid and competitive in the middle of the pitch in order to stop Reading’s attacking players getting into a rhythm. However, the manager may want to see what this team is capable of by sticking to the freer-flowing, possession-orientated game-plan that worked so well against Millwall.
If the latter is the case, the ability of the defence and midfield to retain possession in order to get our wing-backs and attacking players into the game in Reading’s half will be crucial. While Reading lacked a level of intensity in their pressing game in the game back in October, they have the energy and physicality to cause us problems when winning the ball high up the pitch, which would make looking to play out from the back a risky approach here.
With Reading possessing attacking players who can win games with individual moments of magic, we’re going to have to maintain high levels of concentration and discipline without the ball to avoid the kind of slip-ups that could hand them a lead they would be comfortable sitting on.