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Reading 1-2 Middlesbrough

The discourse after the Charlton game largely centred around whether results were enough to justify the atrocious football Bowen has the team playing, and the problem is that when those results disappear, so does the goodwill accrued in some sections. This may well only be a momentary blip, but the manager won't want to go into the (albeit shortened) summer break worrying about needing to hit the ground running.

Reading's shots on goal (colour relates to chance of goal being scored, white border are goals, circles = shots, squares = headers)

Again, it must be said that Reading were not good at creating chances. In fact, the only chances of note both fell to Liam Moore from corners. One well blocked, the other too close for the Middlesbrough defence to do anything about it. I'd all but given up on Reading ever scoring from a set-piece, so it's nice to see that pessimism rewarded. And maybe it gave a hint of what we were trying to do in the Huddersfield match - winning a near-post flick on and hoping it falls just right. In that game the balls in were a little too high, and the keeper much happier to come and collect. Also interesting to note that Morrison is becoming increasingly passed over as our go-to option - which is not a bad thing at all. Mixing it up can only be positive unless mixing it up means short corner routines.

Puscas checks for Olise before looking to drive forward. Realises he's cut off, so goes backward. Olise could even have set Rinomhota away into space with a quicker ball.

Bowen's not oblivious to our offensive woes, and post-match decided to shake things up by criticising all our fit strikers in a slightly bizarre comment about neither seizing the shirt. Now, is it their fault that Bowen insists on playing a style of football that doesn't suit anyone not named Lucas Joao? No, of course it isn't. Though I would say that Puscas' runs into the channels, while good in terms of pure possession retention offer little in the way of progression.

Percentage of Puscas' total touches (21) that occurred within sector.

I've spoken before about how the bulk of Joao's play comes centrally, whereas Puscas is happy to go wider. This isn't a new phenomenon, and Bowen has tried to counter-act it with his use of Meite on the right. However, I find it difficult to believe that this isn't something that could be ironed out on the training pitch. Attempting to keep the ball centrally, and thus allowing Puscas to be in more dangerous areas can only benefit The Royals. To highlight just how bad chance creation in the final third has been, Ollie Watkins had more shots at The Madejski than Puscas has had in total since the restart. In fact, Ollie Watkins - in one match - had more shots than any Reading player, bar Yakou Meite, has had in total since the resumption in June.

Again Puscas could play easy inside pass to Swift, who has space to run into, but instead keeps going backwards and loses possession.

It's not just the fact Puscas moves into the channels, though. Once he's gathered the ball under control, he seems more likely to then attempt to run with the ball than offload. Sometimes that's because he seems to not trust the pass on his left foot, others because his first instinct is to go for the kind of play that made his name against Cardiff. That's not to say he follows through, but that it gives the opposition an extra second or two if he subsequently decides against going for the ordacious dribble.
Liam Moore pass map. Not enough progressive passes from our DM. (Successful Final Third = Pass which finishes in Final 3rd)

We may as well get crowbarring Liam Moore into the team out the way early. It was... fine. I'm honestly slightly mystified by the constant rotation given that we played a midfield trio of Rino, Swift, and Olise with Swift as the deepest CM to decent effect at the backend of the initial part of the season, but I guess that Bowen wants someone with 'more steel' in there similar to Pelé. The issue is that he's a bit of a liability going forward. More often than not passing the responsibility to someone else, without committing players like our Monaco-man is so good at.

In some ways the setup he found himself in asked him to do too much. Steven has written a great Twitter thread about Rinomhota's movement, but Moore wasn't really ready to get involved in the play when Rino pushed forward. And he was also tasked with covering for McIntyre when the CB ran with the ball, which seemed to be forefront in his mind, especially in the second half. There is something to say for someone in the mould of Makélélé or Kanté, who tries to win the ball and recycle possession, but Moore's defensive numbers weren't strong enough to justify that either.

Too often poor tactical decisions are written off as a lack of fight. If only desire were all it took to be a good team. Our transitional play was hampered by telling Rinomhota to run himself into the ground, in the opposite direction to the ball (Maybe Bowen's just misunderstood the meaning of a box-to-box midfielder?), and having Moore in a role that doesn't suit him. But more fundamentally there was a disconnect between players trying to push the forward line, and the passes (or the lack of passes) into them. This mishmash pleases nobody.

Olise does see this danger as he motions to cover Roberts, but it's too late. The winger has too much time to pick out Fletcher.

So in many ways, the story of this match was that Middlesbrough actually took their chances where Charlton failed to. The first comes from a corner. Reading actually had a warning from a similar situation a few minutes earlier. Puscas headed the ball back to Roberts, and his deep cross was headed straight at Rafael. The next time the clearance was a little further upfield, with both Puscas and Olise chasing the ball, rather than covering off the corner taker. Roberts obviously gets the ball back, puts in a great cross, and Ashley Fletcher headed home without seeming to even realise he was under pressure from McIntyre.

The young centre-back didn't get near the ball, seemingly completely mistiming his jump. There were more aerial duels in this match than any other Reading have taken part in this season, which I suppose you would expect for a Warnock side, and on the whole, Tom dealt with them well - as he has done in the rest of this run. The lad's only played fifteen professional matches, he's going to improve but you have to take the rough with the smooth.

Tyler Blackett watches the ball come across instead of being alert to danger.

And so we come onto the defenders not reacting quicker than attackers. Although there were still mistakes in the build-up, the crucial error in the winner comes as Blackett switches off at the back post. Initially, Meite doubled up on Spence, who would have found it difficult to cut inside anyway given the presence of Rinomhota, rather than tracking Marvin Johnson. The winger's cutback looked like it should be cleared by Moore, although I think he was worried about giving away (another) penalty and got himself in a bit of a mess. Blackett at the back post - who had actually twice checked for Roberts - was caught ball-watching as the winger checked back and struck home. Can't wait to see the Man City player ends up on loan next year because he's too good to be in a relegation scrap.

Tyler Blackett doesn't get credit for so much good work (It wasn't just Osho, Morrison, and McIntyre keeping those clean sheets), and moments like this are exactly why. Maybe Masika could have bailed him out by getting back, but this goal can't be on him. At the end of the day, had Blackett been paying attention the game probably would have ended in a draw.

The next two games feel like some weird purgatory. Nobody will change their minds on Bowen, Bowen himself probably won't change anything significant, and the best we can hope for is a win or two to keep everyone placated until football rolls back around in a couple of months. It's such an odd conclusion to a season where we were looking toward both ends of the table for so long. This run-in was meant to propel us further up - so far we stand P 8 W 3 D 2 L 3. Win both remaining games and I think that's respectable, but is failing to win half good enough given the ease of fixtures? 

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