“A game of two halves”: Reading’s Jekyll and Hyde performances
In case you had been living under a rock the past few days, Reading lost 7-5 to Arsenal in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday night.
It’s a result that has already hit the record books and will surely live on in the nightmares of all Royals fans for years to come; 4-0 up against the Gunners after 37 minutes, and cruising. Yet an injury-time goal in the first half clawed Arsenal back into the tie, second-half stoppage time saw them draw level and 30 minutes of extra-time decided the match once and for all.
Sadly, many Reading fans (myself included) felt that once that first goal went in for the Gunners, that could be the honeymoon – the miracle – over. This isn’t the first time that Reading have let a lead slip this season (although it is for one of this magnitude). Brian McDermott’s men have led in 4 of their last 5 matches in all competitions, and 3 of those were half-time leads. They also, amazingly, led 2-1 at half-time at Stamford Bridge in their second game of the season before Chelsea got their act together and netted 3 second half goals to sink the Royals. It seems that Reading have an ability to blaze their way out of the blocks before fading in the second half.
Reading’s propensity to give away leads is possibly a reflection of their Championship roots not carrying over into the Premier League. 10 men behind the ball was the course of the day as the Royals swept their way to the title last year, and the potential to break suddenly was what undid many teams. But the difference in class has been highlighted, as PL teams re-gather the ball a lot quicker and simply have more nous and guile to unlock the slow Reading defence. Central midfielders Tabb and Leigertwood may hustle and bustle, but their ability to put a foot on the ball, make time, and deliver an accurate out-ball is what lets them down. In the first half, when the opposition are more happy to sit back, this is negated as the entire team pushes forward and falls backwards as a unit. Reading play with high intensity,chasing down every lost cause and every player on the ball. But in the second half, when opponents are chasing the game, and the blue and white shirts have tired, the pressure simply breaks the Reading dam.
Off-the-field problems aren’t helping this matter either. Danny Guthrie, one of the only Royals players with recent Premier League experience, hasn’t been in the 18-man squad in the last two matches due to an alleged bust-up with Brian McDermott. Likewise, Alex Pearce – last year’s Player Of The Season – has been frozen out due to contract negotiations hitting a wall; his deal expires next year so will be able to talk to other clubs in January. And Jem Karacan, an integral cog of the Reading midfield, has been ruled out for nearly two months with a knee injury, after he missed the last two months of last season with a broken ankle. McDermott said he was happy with the squad depth a few weeks ago, but we’re only into first half of the season and the strains are already being placed on this tight-knit squad.
This weekend sees a six-pointer against fellow hoops and fellow strugglers QPR. Reading might take heart from the fact that their only victory this season against PL opposition came against Rangers – a Capital One Cup game in which they twice trailed before winning 3-2 – demonstrating the battling qualities which have seldom been on show so far this campaign. With Mark Hughes under as much, if not more pressure to deliver, you get the feeling one manager might be receiving their P45 sooner rather than later. It’s certainly sad for McDermott to be struggling as he is, as every Reading fan knows he delivered minor miracles in helping the Royals to reach the promised land. But in the results business that is football, failure to reach targets can prove more costly than in other walks of life. Whether Madejski and Zingarevich pull the trigger on McDermott’s reign is yet to be seen.