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Reading 1-2 Birmingham City

If there's one side you don't want to face when your team is largely built on transition, it's an Aitor Karanka side. 

The Royals, yet again, showed their deficiencies against a packed defence. Far too tentative in possession, and not brave enough with trying to beat a man or switches in play to stretch the Birmingham defence. The away side defended in a 4-4-2, which caused almost identical issues to the match away at Millwall. They screened passes between the lines and forced play wide. Reading's lack of legitimate width killed them - with Ejaria looking to dribble inside, and Meite making out-in runs, meaning that everyone was looking to play in the congested middle.

Reading started with a 4-2-3-1, but switched to a 4-1-3-2 later in the match.

There were some attempts to play long into, or in behind Joao and Meite, but that tactic really only started in earnest in the second half. Reading swapped early in the half to a 4-1-3-2. Having Laurent sit deep, with the rest of the team further up the field stretched the Birmingham shape and opened up space to play in. You could call it a 5-3-2, especially given how high the full-backs were, but Laurent didn't stay sitting between the centre backs.

At the time I was aggrieved by the Olise substitution, but he had a poor game. I still find it difficult to justify substituting him in my mind when we have consistently looked more dangerous with him on set pieces. Although Reading barely ran any set-piece plays, and when they did Olise tended to miss the target.

Reading free-kick positions

The fact that we took so many quick free kicks, especially after going two down, is a little confusing to me - for a team that clearly works on making the most of those situations. We actually drew more fouls than in any other game so far this season, but only a couple of the resulting dead balls were targeting the penalty area. There seemed to be a desire to keep the ball moving, in the hope that would pull the away side out of their shape - but it clearly wasn't working.

Ovie Ejaria - too often playing in tight spaces down the left wing. When he found pockets more centrally he would target Meite coming in off his wing in the first half.

It was also hard to justify withdrawing Ovie, who was the only one early on looking for Meite's runs, in place of Olise. The LW -> RW attack line never clicked, indeed they stand out because they're basically Ovie's only missed passes, but there were promising signs. Ovie seems to be adding some more strings to his bow, and while they're taking a bit of time to perfect, hopefully, we'll see the benefit of them down the line.

If Rafael gets anything on the ball he stops it - but doesn't even dive. Was he expecting it to go wide? Or is it legitimately out of his reach?

Yet again, Reading were somewhat FMd. The side kept Birmingham to shots outside the box - four out of five coming from outside the area, but nobody reckoned for Jon Toral. The Spaniard hadn't scored a Championship goal since February 2018, but found the inside of the post twice from over 18 yards. Could Rafael have dived for the first? Had he have got anything on the ball it surely would have rebounded out, but maybe his lack of a dive conceals how far away he truly was. Then there was the suggestion Hogan was offside for the second - which he did seem to be, albeit marginally. Toral's second was Birmingham's last shot of the match.

Pederson gets space, and the screen are pulled over to the right hand side, allowing Toral space.

Not that there weren't mistakes in the build up. Birmingham got a bit of luck for the first goal when Leko's failed touch (if he meant it, it's genius) ran to Pederson. Meite had been expecting the winger to control the ball and wasn't tracking the left-back properly. Then Toral manages to do what he shouldn't be able to - pick up space in front of the defence. This is maybe where the aggressive nature of Reading's shield has a downside. Early in the move, Laurent is tracking Toral, but both Rino and Laurent get pulled progressively to their right. In the end, Toral can almost pick his spot under little pressure.

Ejaria fails to stop Toral, but Olise should come across to close down the goalscorer quicker than he does.

It's much the same story for the second. Rinomhota knows where Toral is, but ends up doubling up on Sánchez. Ovie comes across to pick up the goalscorer but does a really poor job when the ball actually comes to him. Still - Olise should come across quicker once the Spaniard starts to cut inside, but gets nowhere near him.

Pederson is still acting as though Meite is a winger, leaving space for Rinomhota to run into

Even after the first hour, Reading should probably still have won the game. Joao finally finding some space with runners ahead of him slipped a ball through to Rinomhota, whose deflected cross was prodded in by Meite. Birmingham hadn't reacted to Reading's change of shape, Pederson still tracking Meite into the centre, and left so much space down the right-hand side.

Then the Ivorian won (and I think it was won) a penalty, and Dean was sent off for a second yellow - both on Meite. In the first half, Pederson dealt easily with Yak, but the change to put him on the CB was inspired. That switch created Reading's goal, won the penalty, and saw Birmingham down to ten men. If only every tactical change could be as effective.

Joao wants the keeper to make a decision which side to go, but Etheridge stays rooted to the spot. After his stutter-step, Joao concentrates on making contact with the ball - which means Etheridge can subsequently pick his side. The penalty itself was a good height for the goalie, and not tucked into the corner.

Joao missed the spot-kick, which does sometimes happen. It looks a poor penalty, it is a poor penalty, but the striker is gambling on the keeper going early. He wants Etheridge to make the decision for him, and when he doesn't it's presumably difficult to properly pick a corner. If you could do that every time, you surely wouldn't rely on mind games.

Paunovic's use of subs came back to bite him. Reading have five subs, but these can still only be made over three windows. Pauno's decision to sub Semedo and Esteves on in separate stoppages three minutes apart has to go down as a mistake, particularly when that leads to you finishing the game with ten men. With the clock ticking over into stoppage time Meite stretched for one ball too many and clattered into Etheridge - picking up a yellow and an injury.

Admittedly a quick (ish) free-kick, but Reading need more bodies in the box for a last-minute set piece. Somebody should have been coming in at the back post and would have easily finished Joao's shot.

Still, like Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers, Reading's best open play chances actually came with both sides a man down. A cleverly taken free-kick by Esteves slid Joao in down the side, but his dink over the onrushing keeper went just wide of the post. With minutes left you would expect a few more bodies in the box, and someone to be following in at the back post. A huge opportunity missed.

Just smashing the ball across goal surely would have seen Joao get on the end of the ball, whatever his condition, but instead he looks for the cutback. Again, so few bodies in the box costs Reading - as does the fact they're attempting to go DM-CB.

Then the last half-chance of the game was also squandered. Esteves, involved again, had a throw-in halfway between the 18-yard-box and halfway line. He threw the ball over the head of Semedo and his marker, and into space in the right channel. The Reading substitute galloped past his man and pulled the ball back toward Moore but just wide of the mark. Most of the Birmingham players collapsed on Moore anyway, and maybe Semedo could have fired the ball across to Joao instead - although that was hard once he was forced against the byline.

Just because you create chances doesn't mean you deserve to win the game, and Birmingham will surely show how well they defended for 90 minutes and how clinical they were at the other end. Still, as Reading started to make the extra man pay, they have to find the finishing from early in the season. After losing once earlier in the season the fixtures were relentless - Preston (away specialists), Stoke, and Bournemouth. This time a game away at QPR provides the perfect opportunity to reset, before a run that will make or break our season.


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