I have never been more thankful for the international break. Reading’s form has dropped off a cliff in the last three games and only thanks to their incredible start to the season are they clinging on to top spot. The big question on everyone’s lips is simply, why?
For me, the answer is relatively straightforward. There are an alarming number of defensive errors creeping into Reading’s game.
The early season form was built on excellent defensive performances. Six clean sheets in seven games speaks for itself, but the Royals were organised and assured at the back, and knew that if they were able to grab a goal at the other end, they would generally prove solid enough to see out victory.
Yet that has all come crashing down in the last three games – two of which captain Liam Moore was absent for – with nine goals conceded and zero points picked up. Looking back at those nine goals, you have to say that at least six came as a result of mistakes that were avoidable.
Against Coventry, Rafael should have done better with the third goal as he made a weak attempt at parrying Sam McCallum’s strike from range. It was a night to forget for Tom McIntyre against Preston as he was beaten by a long ball over the top for the second and third goals and also gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge.
Stoke were the real beneficiaries of Reading’s defensive lapses as first Tomas Esteves headed right into the path of Tyrese Campbell, then Rafael gave the ball away cheaply in the lead up to the second goal before Lewis Gibson clumsily played in Jacob Brown for the third right at the end.
The number of errors is startling in such a short space of time. It is easy to look at the likes of McIntyre, Esteves and Gibson and blame a lack of experience, and this is true to an extent as they only have 26 Championship appearances between them (19 of those are McIntyre’s). They’re all still learning and do not have that knowledge of the game that is such a strength of someone like Liam Moore.
But equally, Rafael has been uncharacteristically off-colour between the sticks and Andy Yiadom was nearly punished for being too complacent in possession against Stoke. Whether it is a lack of concentration or an over-confidence gained from being top, something has changed and that will concern Veljko Paunovic.
The good news is that mistakes are, in theory, as easy to cut out as they are to make. It is not as if Reading’s whole approach to games is wrong; they do not need to make any drastic changes to the style, tactics or personnel.
The Royals have certainly not been outplayed in any of their three defeats and have arguably had worse games this season and won. I would say that a 3-0 scoreline flattered both Preston and Stoke, who simply took their chances when Reading gifted them to them, while the Royals failed to take their own opportunities. The Potters scored from their only three shots on target.
Working on cutting out such silly mistakes will be crucial over the international break. It is a chance to refocus, reorganise and get key players back from injury. Reading need to prove that the last three games have been a blip and not the start of a rut.
By Olly Allen