Reading still on course to convert fast start into play-off finish - Interview
Friday, 19th Mar 2021 14:41 by Clive Whittingham
Reading flew out of the traps in this season's Championship with seven wins from the first eight, but it's been inconsistent since and a midweek defeat at Birmingham has them clinging to the final play-off spot. We spoke to Simeon Pickup from The Tilehurst End blog.
How has Reading's season gone so far?
Wobbly. We started the season like a house on fire with seven wins from eight, hit the opposite kind of form with four straight defeats, and have been inconsistent ever since – mostly due to a relentless injury list that's meant we've had to do without second-top-scorer Yakou Meite, back-up centre forward George Puscas and key playmaker John Swift (our best player in my view) for most of the campaign.
We're capable of good patches of form, like the run of four wins and three draws in seven between late December and early February, but then also randomly collapsing (the subsequent four defeats in five) and abruptly recovering (the subsequent three straight victories). Reading have gone backwards in the last two though: we couldn't finish simple chances in the 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest and were dire for much of the 2-1 loss at Birmingham City in midweek.
Reading league results so far…
Top six side all season, what's been the turnaround from the previous year?
In a word: cohesion. Reading have had the quality to do well for years now, but the squad's often been too bloated, meaning poor morale and no clear playing style being developed. But we did a great job in the summer of trimming the size of the squad – loanees left and a decent number of out-of-contract players were let go – while only bringing in a handful of additions. With the exception of Sam Baldock, who was comically unsuited to starting as a lone striker in the reverse fixture, there's been no deadwood in the squad.
Plus, there's a real unity that comes from the top too. Veljko Paunovic has talked from day one of "non-negotiables": players always giving their all and leaving everything on the field. It's nothing revolutionary, and former boss Mark Bowen would have wanted the same thing, but Pauno has the charisma and respect to make sure those principles actually come into play.
Little wobble through February but good form coming into this (prior to Birmingham), was anything tweaked?
The turning point there was in the reaction to the 1-0 loss at Wycombe Wanderers – our worst result of the season. It should have been a nailed-on three points but ended in dour defeat. The mental reaction to that game was very good, with Reading not only winning the next three matches but keeping a clean sheet each time. The formation change helped too: we reverted to a 4-4-2 diamond system that we'd used on occasion earlier in the season, and that gave us some useful extra firepower in wins over Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday (both at home).
What did you make of your January transfer activity?
Pleased: although we didn't bring anyone in, not losing anyone was vital. There had been rumours that Michael Olise would be off, with talk of an £8m release clause, but fortunately nothing came up and he'll be a key player for us in the run-in.
Another quick forward would have been helpful, given our lack of pace out wide in the 4-2-3-1 that we've typically used this season. However, the recent switch to a 4-4-2 diamond and the return of a few players from injury (particularly Yakou Meite and George Puscas) has lessened that need.
Summer Ins >>> Ovie Ejaria, 22, CM, Liverpool, £3.5m >>> Josh Laurent, 25, CM, Shrewsbury, Free >>> Lewis Gibson, 20, CB, Everton, Loan >>> Alfa Semedo, 23, CM, Benfica, Loan >>> Tomas Esteves, 18, RB, Porto, Loan
Summer Outs >>> Modou Barrow, 27, LW, Jeobuk Motors (Korea), Undisclosed >>> Danny Loader, 19, CF, Porto, Free >>> Tyler Blackett 26, LB, Forest, Free >>> Adrian Popa, 31, RW, Voluntari, Free >>> Vito Mannone, 32, GK, Monaco, Free >>> Jordan Obita, 26, LB, released >>> Charlie Adam, 34, CM, Bolton, Free >>> Garath McCleary, 33, RW, Wycombe, Free >>> Chris Gunter, 31, RB, Charlton, Free >>> Jordan Holsgrove, 21, CM< Celta Vigo, Free >>> Sam Smith, 22, CF, Tranmere, Loan >>> Marc McNulty, 28, CF, Dundee Utd, Loan
Winter Ins >>> N/A
Winter Outs >>> Jordan Obita, 27, LB, Wycombe, Loan >>> Sam Walker, 29, GK, Wimbledon, Loan >>> Sam Smith, 22, CF, Cheltenham, Loan
Where is the team strong and where is it weak?
If we were still talking about a side playing 4-2-3-1 I'd certainly highlight the lack of pace out wide as mentioned above, but in the 4-4-2 diamond our attacking full backs (Andy Yiadom and Omar Richards) have really been able to shine. They're both the epitome of the modern, dynamic wing back that's able to cause havoc in the final third while still being solid at the back.
Although the midfield's still gelling to a new set-up, we've got plenty of ability there too. Josh Laurent and Michael Olise are particularly good fits for a quartet that needs to rotate and constantly adapt, and we've got Ovie Ejaria and Andy Rinomhota to add quality in the other two spots; Tom McIntyre and Alfa Semedo have done decent jobs but Ejaria and Rino will give quality on the ball and steel respectively.
The weakness of this side is less a case of personnel and more of mentality. We're very poor at getting back into games when we go behind, having only won once in that fashion all season. That speaks to this team's ability to express itself and be resilient when things are going in its favour, but a rabbit-in-the-headlights sense of panic when things go wrong.
How do you see the rest of the season going - confident of seeing promotion through?
At this stage finishing in the top six looks to be a 50/50. Barnsley's ridiculously good form in recent weeks means we're probably now fighting for the last of the four play-off spots with Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Cardiff City. A two-point gap on them is precarious, and although I'm aware that a good weekend of results can make the picture look a whole lot more rosy, we need to brush off Wednesday's limp defeat if we're to stay ahead of the chasing pack.
The Twitter @TheTilehurstEnd, @SimFromBucks, @loftforwords
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