Following Saturday’s win against Derby in the FA Cup, Reading fans were understandably in a jubilant mood coming into Tuesday’s match against Championship strugglers Wigan. Being labelled a ‘must win game’ prior to kick off, especially following the drab home display against Leeds last week, many were hoping that the Reading team would be able to continue their current away form back on home soil. Wigan, however, had other plans, ultimately taking all three points at the Mad Stad; Their first win of 2015.
Reading made two changes coming into the game, with Michael Hector being replaced at centre-back by Nathaniel Chalobah and Garath McCleary being brought back into the side having recovered from a knee injury. The strong side put out by Steve Clarke came out fast in the first five minutes, threatening Ali Al-Habsi’s goal on a couple of occasions through efforts from McCleary and Alex Pearce. From then on, the game was scrappy at best and at times comical from both sides. The quality of possession and passing was on several occasions laughable. Passes were missing their intended targets and long balls down the pitch were simply being headed back to where they came from. Even the ever consistent Adam Federici, who Reading have come to depend on massively in recent matches, scuffed clearances he has easily completed in the past. The refereeing wasn’t much better, with Simon Hooper handing out seven yellow cards in total, including one for Alex Pearce for completing an inch-perfect slide tackle, and missing a foul on Pavel Pogrebnyak who nearly had his shirt taken off him by a Wigan defender.
Losing at home to a team in the bottom two is disappointing enough, but the manner in which Reading conceded the only goal of the match was indefensible. The Alex Pearce -> Federici backpass followed by the hoof-and-hope down the pitch is tedious at the best of times, but this occasion demonstrated the problems that can occur if it goes wrong. Following a strongly hit backpass from Pearce, an under pressure Federici decided to attempt a Cruyff turn in the box. Instead of clearing the ball, he landed himself in trouble and was lucky not to find the ball in his net. The subsequent corner was not dealt with well at all and shoddy defending presented Jason Pearce with the opportunity to put his side 1-0 ahead.
Even with talent like Cox, McCleary, Williams and co. on the pitch, Reading struggled to even hold onto the ball let alone create any chances for the rest of the match. Crosses were more often than not short, and any ball into the box was simply cleared to the likes of McClean who could take the ball on the counter attack for Wigan. Even an appearance from the Yak wasn’t enough to aid Reading’s chances of an equaliser due to an overall lack of quality in all areas of the pitch. When you look back on the victory away to Derby, the side was almost unrecognisable and provided a performance which was subsequently met by boos by the home fans at both half-time and full-time.
One major issue was the enforced change at centre-back. The problem was not so much the absence of Michael Hector (although he is playing an increasingly major role in the team) but the change of position for Chalobah. Chalobah and Williams in recent games have been forging a strong partnership in the middle of the park. Both players are of a similar ilk in that they are strong both on and off the ball and can both defend and attack well. Against Wigan, Williams was partnered with Oliver Norwood and Chalobah was dropped back into defence. The issue is that since Chalobah’s arrival, Norwood’s shortcomings have become more prominent. Norwood isn’t as strong as his fellow centre-midfielders and sometimes he dawdles on the ball, taking too long deciding what to do with it. As a result, the Wigan players were able to put more pressure on the Reading defence as the midfield simply was not strong enough.
Garath McCleary was also a cause for concern once again. Missing out on the Derby match through injury, McCleary made his return to the side having supposedly overcome the problem. The McCleary that was on show against Wigan, however, was one that looked a fair bit off his usual pace. Whether he is lacking in confidence or whether he is still somewhat injured, the creativity that McCleary usually possesses was not on show and was something that Reading missed.
What was clear from this match was that Reading have a relegation scrap on their hands if they continue to play in the manner they did against Wigan. On Shrove Tuesday, the atmosphere at the Madejski Stadium was also well and truly as flat as a pancake and if home performances continue in the same vein I can’t see any future improvement. Reading have shown that they have the quality to score goals and win games, but they are lacking the consistency needed at the moment to push up the table, especially at home.