Only a few weeks ago, Reading fans were confident of cruising to promotion with Nick Blackman leading the way back to the Premier League. The Royals still find themselves a point off the promotion places but a recent spell of poor form has left fans worried.
So far this season, Reading have had a number of impressive wins against the likes of Brentford, Burnley, Middlesbrough and, the pick of the bunch, a 5-1 home victory against Ipswich. The same side, however, has lost to the likes of Fulham despite being two goals to the good, Cardiff and most recently Nottingham Forest. Add to this the unconvincing displays against Bolton, Huddersfield and Charlton, to highlight only a few, and there have been growing concerns for a little while now.
Everyone knows in the Championship that any side on their day can win against any of the best teams on paper and a scrappy win is better than none at all. This being said, however, Reading are frustratingly currently lacking any sense of consistency that will hopefully see them end the season in and around the top of the table.
Following the disappointing showing last season, many will be drawing comparisons with the poor spells of form which ultimately saw the Royals finish in 19th position. After the financial backing of the Thai owners and having allowed Steve Clarke to make his mark on the team, the Reading squad is in a better state this time around. So why is it that they are currently struggling?
Reaction To Steve Clarke’s Decision To Speak To Fulham
It is something that Steve Clarke has tried to play down since making the decision to stay at Reading but while he has seemingly been able to expel it from his memory, fans have not been quite so forgiving. Both Clarke and players such as Garath McCleary have gone on record saying that fans should focus their attention on supporting the team, but ignoring Clarke’s actions when results are not going Reading’s way is easier said than done.
The main question surrounds whether the players themselves have been able to overlook all the drama and focus on the job in hand. Going off Clarke’s comments the answer would be yes but the performances on the pitch would suggest otherwise.
Clarke is under an increasing amount of pressure and the longer Reading struggle on the pitch, the more the manager will struggle to keep both fans and the board on side off it. The Reading manager has managed to alienate himself from a substantial amount of the fanbase and potentially caused irreparable damage. As a result the atmosphere at the Madejski is more muted than before- something that will only put more pressure on the players to perform and potentially extend the downward spiral.
Over-Reliance On Nick Blackman
Nick Blackman emerged from the shadows this season to cement his place in Reading’s starting line-up and as top goalscorer to date. With injuries and suspensions forcing Orlando Sa and Matej Vydra out of the squad for spells, the Royals have been reliant on Blackman to score goals. The problem is that Blackman now hasn’t scored since Reading’s 1-1 draw with Rotherham back in October.
There are arguably two reasons why the goals have dried up for Blackman- one of these is that he is being played out of position. With the likes of Sa and Vydra returning to the squad, Clarke has several players vying for the striker position. This means that Blackman is being pushed out to the wing in order to accommodate all the players in one team. The problem is that, despite Vydra finding the net last time out against Nottingham Forest, he and Sa aren’t coming up with the goals.
The other reason is that oppositions have now woken up to the threat that Blackman offers and are stopping him from making any real impact. More often than not, particularly against clubs at the bottom of the table, Blackman is being closed down by two or three players and crowded out of the game. The striker has the technical ability to hold up the ball under pressure but life has definitely become more difficult for him.
One major problem for Reading at the moment is a lack of options in certain areas of the pitch- central midfield and out wide in particular. The likes of Stephen Quinn and Aaron Tshibola were key members of the squad in the early stages of the season and their absence is definitely being felt. The injury suffered by Hal Robson-Kanu has also meant that Reading’s options on the left wing in particular are few and far between- therefore playing a part in Blackman being forced out wide.
The Royals are also becoming somewhat reliant on Oliver Norwood and Danny Williams in the centre of midfield due to their never say die attitude and the impact they make both defensively and offensively. With games coming up quickly one after the other, they will no doubt be suffering some form of fatigue and will be increasingly less effective as time goes on.
What will be frustrating for fans is while several players are out injured, players such as Alex Fernandez, Paolo Hurtado and Ola John are still struggling to get any real game time to try and get themselves up to speed. When they come on as substitutes, on the majority of occasions, they are then failing to make any real impact. Players such as Tariqe Fosu have also been sent out on loan but I’m sure many would have preferred to give him a run in first team after his return from injury.
Another injury that seemingly affected the Reading squad was to Anton Ferdinand. When Ferdinand lined up with Paul McShane in the centre of defence early in the season, Reading seemed solid and comfortable at the back. In recent weeks, however, the Royals have looked defensively shaky and have seemingly lost the confidence they had earlier this year.
Arguably the main turning point was in Reading’s 4-2 defeat against Fulham, despite going 2-0 up. The Reading defence was opened up far too easily and since then things have not really improved at the back. One apparent weakness is now Michael Hector, who often looks uncomfortable and has a habit of giving the ball away. When McShane does make the occasional mistake, the cover more often than not is not there for him and that is a concern.
One potential reason why the team is performing poorly at the moment, particularly defensively, is the tactics that Clarke is employing. With injuries and everything else considered, the formations that Clarke is choosing are somewhat unbalanced and leaving huge gaps for the opposition to capitalise on.
Clarke’s tactical decisions during games are also a concern, particularly using the 2-1 victory against Bolton as an example. Reading were 2-0 up and looked like adding more to the scoreline. That was until Clarke brought on Jake Cooper in place of Garath McCleary and played five at the back. For someone who still has a number of options available to him despite injuries, Clarke’s choices are at times dangerous and more often than not ineffective.
Reading have currently got six players in on loan- Andrew Taylor, Michael Hector, Alex Fernandez, Matej Vydra, Ola John and Lucas Piazon. Fernandez, John and Taylor have all struggled to get in the team and keep their place and Hector has gone off the boil recently with a string of poor performances. Vydra seems to be coming into some kind of form but considering the highly publicised fee paid for him this year, the impact he has made so far has not been good enough.
One player that continues to frustrate, however, is Lucas Piazon. It is unclear whether there is a clause in his loan contract that means he needs to play a certain number of games at Reading, but the Brazilian continues to feature in the starting line-up despite clearly not possessing the necessary strength to make a continued positive impact on games at Championship level.
The midfielder clearly likes to attack and often ducks out of challenges, but when playing with Blackman, Sa and Vydra all on the pitch, he should be tracking back more than he does. Despite scoring three times so far this season, Piazon is more often than not a liability who has a habit of being forced off the ball far too easily.