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QPR 0-1 Reading

You know that you've swapped timelines when The Hoops Derby is the only Reading match not on TV. 

One of those balls into the box, but Baldock just doesn't get there. The striker has played just over five-and-a-half hours football all season, so hopefully has shaken off that rust.

Baldock has picked up a lot of stick, but I think it's due to a misunderstanding of his role. His one job is to keep making runs behind - not necessarily to receive the ball, but to create space in the middle of the park for Reading to play. Birmingham were able to pack the midfield at The Madejski in the first half because there was nobody making those runs. Obviously, this does necessitate him occasionally receiving the ball otherwise it's too easy to defend, but that's almost secondary. And there were a few balls into the box that on another day he gets on the end of. Ejaria's stands out in the memory, but Josh Laurent fired one across the box after a magnificent run, and Semedo had a cross fairly easily cleared from a promising position.

The big question is whether Pauno is a genius or a fool for benching Olise. To put a positive spin on it - both times the manager has needed a response from the teenager, he's got it. Assisting the equaliser at The Den, and securing all three points here. Without doubt, having Olise come on against a tiring defence is somewhat of a cheat code. On the other hand, you could see in his celebration that he's not at all happy about the situation. I don't particularly care whether he celebrates or not - expecting a footballer to be eternally grateful for getting a break (that he is more than repaying) is a strange viewpoint. Maybe keeping Olise happy doesn't even really matter; everyone accepts that his leaving is a matter of when not if, and if his anger fuels performances like this, then great.

Reading gave up one big chance but defended well otherwise. Snatching victory from nothing.

In many ways, in the context of this season, it's a near-perfect Reading performance. Sure, they rode their luck, but they were due some. In the first half, Osman Kakay fluffed his chance at the back post after a cross from Bright Osayi-Samuel. Esteves and Aluko should have cut out the pass into the winger initially, but thankfully Kakay got it all wrong. Arguably the biggest chance for the home side (although not reflected in the xG plot above) came when Ilias Chair hit the post on a break after Tom Holmes was robbed of the ball. It's the exact sort of opportunity that Birmingham twice converted. But on the whole, The Royals were defensively solid and a moment of individual brilliance snatched the win.

Given all the injuries to the squad, it was an especially promising performance. Reading's ball progression was actually better than it has been recently. Partly because they always had that option to go long if required (and long in such a way that it was unlikely to come straight back without the away side being able to regroup), but also because Rafael looked to play quicker when given an option too.

Aluko gets too deep and allows Osayi-Samuel to easily cut inside him.

There were some issues down the right side. Aluko and Esteves are still yet to form a partnership that looks truly solid. QPR players were able to cut inside, usually because Aluko got too deep, rather than cutting off the pathway into the middle. And those two were surprisingly absent going forward, too. QPR's outlet was down their own left, which meant that the duo spent more time worrying about defending their own goal than attacking the other end of the field. 

So when Reading's chances came, they were inevitably down the left, which meant that Omar Richards injury was an even bigger blow. The left-back was involved in the play going both ways. We even saw the fabled 'overlap', but alas his cross was overhit. Richards' ability on the ball opened up spaces that Gibson just wasn't able to. It's no real surprise that Reading went from largely controlling the game to being on the back foot after the substitution. And that's not a mark against Gibson, he did his job well, but like Holmes on the other side, it's a safety-first approach.

Ovie manages to not only get out of this but also puts his team into a good position in the centre circle. (In this sequence he completed three dribbles, which alone would have put him joint-top)

When the left side is our main outlet, inevitably Ovie shines. His ability on the ball alleviated pressure on the defence and the winger often managed to pick the right pass to progress the team further up the field. His set-pieces are improving too; He could count himself unlucky not to have picked up an assist when Morrison headed wide at the back post. My criticism of Ejaria has always been that he wasn't incisive enough in the offensive third, but his role is actually changing to pick up the ball deeper and create space for others to do just that. Plus, when needed, he's also starting to make runs in behind. It all gives him more dimensions and make him harder to defend against. It's an exciting season to be watching him.

An unbelievably good through ball from Josh Laurent. Ovie making that run in behind to give him an option.

Josh Laurent seems to be moving up the gears too. He played one of the best through balls of the season to Ejaria to square for Baldock early on. Then, in the second half, often looked to drive into the space offered to him. Almost Danny Williams-esque. All that while still performing his role protecting the defence. The thing that midfield screen was missing was the ability to properly progress the ball, and Reading seem to be starting to find a fix for that.

Going into a home game against top of the league will inevitably be a tough ask. For me, I'd keep Baldock. I think he did exactly what was asked of him - and realistically the other options are untested. If he can get on the end of one of those crosses then he's completed his task. Obviously, Olise deserves to start ahead of Semedo, but more likely will take Aluko's place on the right. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Tom Holmes come back into the starting eleven. Norwich will undoubtedly look to dominate possession, but that's not a worry - Reading play their best football on the counter. Let's just hope defensively resolute Reading turn up, and not the lads we saw for a few weeks in November.


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