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Reading 1-2 Sheffield United (AET)

As you may be able to tell, from the fact it's been almost a month since the game, I wasn't originally planning on writing about our spirited FA Cup defeat, but then football stopped and I was left with very few choices.

I guess we should start with the obvious - an extra-time defeat to a good Premier League team is hardly an aberration. Bowen stuck with the same team that played against Barnsley. A surprise, given the number of rotation options, and the proximity to the Barnsley game. I thought he would go for Pelé in CDM to add that defensive solidity at the very least. (It's certainly possible that Swift kept his place in part because Sheffield United's 3-5-2 isn't really centred around someone attacking that space, even if McGoldrick was more than happy to drop off Mousset looking for the ball. That means Swift had more time than he would have done had he been in amongst United's midfield trio.)

The game couldn't have got off to a much worse start. With less than 90 seconds on the clock Osborn, with all the time in the world, picks out the head of McGoldrick. The striker had no problem netting his first goal of the season. There were two crucial mistakes that alleviated all pressure on the away side in the build-up.

Osborn has too much space for the cross. Olise was caught up field, and Ejaria is not tracking Lundstram, which means that Obita goes to cover the two men arriving on the edge - leaving McGoldrick. Morrison is busy dealing with Mousset.

First, the opening minute was frenetic pinball. Neither side were really able to get the ball under control. It ended up coming to Puscas, and immediately Méité hurtled forward, trying to offer an option in behind. It seems like there are a few triggers for Méité to venture into the second striker position.
  1. The ball is on the left-wing
  2. Puscas has made a run into either channel
  3. Yiadom has overlapped and is more advanced
None of the criteria were met. A poor pass from the Romanian meant we lost possession, and the Reading right was suddenly very open. Rinomhota half-heartedly tracked back, and Yiadom was caught between tracking the run of Freeman or closing down Osborn. He stood off, and the makeshift left wing-back put in a decent cross.

Just before the cross comes in, Reading made their second mistake. Morrison motions to Obita about something to the left, and whether that was to tell him to watch McGoldrick or the two players arriving on the edge of the box it's hard to tell, but Obita gets attracted to the wrong threat. McGoldrick drifts between the left and centre-back, and has a free header to nod home.

It's difficult to believe Obita picking up McGoldrick is part of the plan. You would assume that Miazga and Morrison should be picking up Mousset and McGoldrick. If that's correct then it's a fatal lapse in communication between the two central defenders.

Anyway, one minute thirty seconds on the clock, 1-0 down. Plenty of time still to come back.

What's most frustrating is that Reading actually defended well for most of the game - both from crosses into the box, and more generally from open play. By now nobody should be surprised that we were content to sit deep and attempt to soak up pressure. Sheffield United enjoyed the majority of possession, but it was mainly around the back three and Sander Berge. And when the inevitable switch of play came, the full-backs managed it well.

At the other end Reading were obviously unlikely to throw bodies forward. Méité hit a superb shot from twenty-five yards that looked to be nestling in the top corner, but Henderson made the save look easy. The plan seemed to be to play the balls down the channels for Puscas, and then Méité would break through the middle. It's reminiscent of how the tactics early on under Bowen, trying to put the ball into intelligent areas - not just playing long ball to the target man as we've seen a bit more when Joao is leading the line.

It was always going to take a stroke of luck to bring The Royals back into the game, and that arrived in the shape of George Baldock's two palms - straight into Andy Rinomhota's back. Sure, it was a dive, but as the old adage goes, "he gave the referee a decision to make". Puscas, whose penalties haven't always been convincing, could not have placed this one better. Right into the corner with pace. Even Henderson wasn't saving it.

Puscas chases ball into the channel, and puts in a decent cross toward Méité. (Cut out by Egan). Olise still manages to get a shot off.

The second half was surprisingly to-and-fro. Early on Olise fluffed a chance just inside the box after good work from Puscas on the right - our only chance within the penalty area (sans penalties themselves) during normal time. He and John Swift were the primary creators on an evening where Ejaria again struggled. A couple of times balls toward Meite and Puscas were just overhit, or cut out before they could really threaten.

The most baffling decision of the evening was the choice not to make any substitutes at all in normal time. You've successfully shortened the game - it's 1-1 with fifteen minutes to play - why not throw on an attacking threat to try to get a winner? In holding out for the draw all you've done is given yourself more time to have to navigate. The team must be tired too, given that it's the same XI that played on the Saturday too. The only explanation can be that he wanted to be the first football manager to make four subs in extra time. (I'm not sure that's even true, but nobody else can have been that unhinged can they?)

Pelé is tracking Sharpe, but opts to then protect the cut back - where there is no obvious danger (Swift is just to the right of shot, in front of any SU player.)

The problem is that when you look at the players who he did bring on, you sort of wish he hadn't. Again, it was a cross from the left that was Reading's undoing. There was a bit more luck on their part this time, as the ball fortuitously broke to Luke Freeman. Should Pelé have kept tracking the run of Billy Sharp? He ended up watching just in front of the central defenders - where there was no obvious danger. Should Masika have been narrower? All we were playing for, in the only minute of stoppage time, was to get to the whistle. There was no need to be up the pitch, and it wasn't the only time he didn't pick up his man. The end result was that nobody picked up Sharp at the back post, who was left with an open goal.

Timbe starts from completely the wrong position, never giving himself a fighting chance. Had he been pushing the line he would have given McCleary the option of firing the ball across.

Masika didn't contribute much at the other end either. McCleary managed to get in behind the RWB in the second fifteen, but his pull back to the penalty spot found the wrong Baldock. The Kenyan's starting position was far too wide and far too deep. Pelé at least had two shots from the edge of the box, but Henderson saved one, and the other, basically the last kick of the game, went agonisingly wide.

So, I cycle back round to my opening point. Not an embarrassing loss by any means. In fact, encouraging signs again for how this team could play. Puscas and Méité are starting to find a partnership, Olise looks better every game he plays, and we went toe-to-toe with a Premier League calibre team. Only problem now is managing to keep that momentum after an unforeseen break.

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