“It’s just a bad day. Bad days happen in football. We’ll have to take that on the chin and go again at Middlesbrough on Tuesday.”– Reading Manager Brian McDermott
“We know what we’re good at. We’ve got to work very hard and, when we’re very organised and finish off one or two of the chances that we create, then we’re an excellent team. I can’t remember them having one meaningful chance.”– Birmingham City Manager Gary Rowett
Prior to Saturday’s game at the Madejski, Reading’s home form in 2016 was impressive. The Royals remained unbeaten and suggestions were being thrown around that their home ground was becoming a fortress. Two goals from Clayton Donaldson and Ryan Shotton were to put an end to that, however, and hand Birmingham their first Championship away win since January.
Following Reading’s mid-week home victory against Nottingham Forest, Brian McDermott chose to name an unchanged team. As a result, Simon Cox was chosen to lead the front line alongside Yann Kermorgant and the midfield diamond was deployed once more. While this formation was somewhat effective against a poorly performing Forest team, it did not help Reading at all against the Blues.
In reality, Reading were poor throughout but got off to a less than ideal start. After only 73 seconds, Donaldson was picked out with ease to give Birmingham the lead. With Jordan Obita left to contend with the entirety of the left wing for large periods of the game, David Cotterill was allowed too much time to get his cross away from the right flank. Playing an inch perfect pass, Donaldson then had the easy task of heading past Ali Al-Habsi in the Reading goal.
With torrential rain not helping waning spirits, Reading had a couple of chances to level the score. The first fell to Lucas Piazon who somehow managed to blaze a shot from close range over the crossbar. Simon Cox will not have done himself any favours as his contract comes to an end, with his effort also being skied high and wide of Adam Legzdins in the Birmingham goal.
Just before the hour mark, the Blues were to double their lead. Cotterill was involved once again, this time having an effort on goal from a free kick. While Al-Habsi got his hand to this one, he could only palm it into the path of an awaiting Shotton who slotted the ball into the net.
Reading were struggling to make an impact in the game; A consequence of both a failing formation and a well organised Birmingham team. Poor weather conditions were making life difficult for both sides, however, with Paul McShane’s headed pass come shot nearly squirming its way into the Birmingham goal.
As the first half drew to a close, Reading fans felt that they had a shout for two penalties. The first would have been harsh on the away side but Cox was adamant that he was fouled in the area. McShane had a better claim for a penalty when he was forced off the ball by Donaldson following a Norwood free kick. The referee was having none of it, however, and did not deem either to be fouls.
Reading had one final opportunity to get a goal back in the first half when Stephen Quinn was picked out in the centre of the Birmingham box. Despite his best efforts, the midfielder could only head wide of the goal. Reading went in at half-time to a chorus of boos and 2-0 down.
With the home side struggling to generate any attacking threat, McDermott made a change after the break bringing on Matej Vydra in place of Piazon. Despite now having three strikers on the pitch, Reading still could not make an impact. Birmingham were seemingly happy to hold onto what they had and Reading could not break them down.
Chances were few and far between in the second half. One rare opening did appear in the Birmingham defence when Danny Williams was allowed to run towards goal but his effort was easily saved by Legzdins. After an hour of the game, Reading had their first shot on target but it was never troubling the Birmingham keeper.
Part way through the first half it was clear that the formation was not working and Reading were struggling. As a result bringing in a winger or two in the second half was necessary, in my opinion. Therefore, when Garath McCleary appeared on the touchline just after the hour mark, I thought that McDermott would change the formation. Much to my surprise, he actually took off Chris Gunter and played McCleary as a roaming right back. It was a change that worked in that Reading had a fresh player on the pitch who was willing to run down the wing at the opposition. When they are running to and from the defensive back line with little support on that side of the pitch, however, it makes you question the manager’s decisions.
Despite bringing Ola John into the fray, Reading managed to keep the majority of possession as the game drew to a close but continued to create nothing meaningful. Two headers from Jake Cooper and Kermorgant were the closest the home side came to grabbing a goal but it was not to be.
While the possession statistics will suggest that the score should have been tighter, Reading were lacklustre throughout and Birmingham won all three points with ease. At no point did the home side look like scoring and the heated discussions occurring on the pitch amongst the Reading players suggested that they knew they were not performing anywhere near their best.
One key point of contention from this game was the choice of formation. As Tuesday’s game showed, the 4-4-2 diamond can work. When given free roam on the wings against weaker opposition, Obita and Gunter have shown that they can create chances going forward. On too many occasions this time out, however, they were left isolated defensively and Reading were stretched with Williams and Quinn having to fill in as central midfielders one minute and wingers the next. While work rate should not be faulted, many players were ineffective in the roles they were being asked to play.
Another point of contention, that links nicely to the last, is McDermott’s tactical decisions. His choice to substitute Gunter in favour of playing McCleary as a combined full back/ winger was strange to say the least and waiting until there were less than twenty minutes of the game left to bring John into the game was too little too late. It is clear that McDermott has a set idea as to how he wants the Reading team to play, but it would seem that it is not going to plan.
While this game will not be one to remember fondly due to the horrible weather, inconsistent refereeing and poor performance, credit must be given to Birmingham for limiting the Royals so effectively. Reading have a tough run of games over the next few weeks, taking on the likes of Middlesbrough and Hull. If they are to take anything from those games, however, they will have to improve substantially on Saturday’s performance.