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Reading 1-2 Millwall

Ouch. Thankfully not many games this season have held the gut punch of Saturday, but it's always nice for Reading to stay grounded in their past.

Things were fun right from the team selection on Saturday, as Veljko Paunovic opted for four centre-backs across the defence. Presumably to manage Yiadom's return from injury, and potentially to give Richards a slight rest in the middle of a busy February schedule. 

The talking point as the match got underway was Alfa Semedo dropping into the midfield screen with Andy Rinomhota taking his place at CAM. Rinomhota's tireless running was admirable, but rarely caused issues. He didn't make a key pass and failed to wrap his foot round a volley in a great position after Bialkowski saved Olise's free-kick. The decision to split up the midfield pairing of Laurent and Rinomhota, without resting either, could end up being a decision to regret, though maybe the reassurance of a decent Semedo performance will allow for that down the line.

Semedo almost picks a really nice pass into Rinomhota, but the defender just gets there. Joao still gets a shot off and wins a corner

Our Benfica loanee was impressive in his natural role. His play both with and without the ball were real assets at the weekend - not something that has been said often. His passing range is better than Rino's, and his vision impressive when he's facing the play. It was his job to offer the ball out from defence centrally, as Laurent was allowed a slightly freer role. Obviously, the game will be remembered for his outrageous goal; Surely a completely unintentional tackle that managed to find its way into the back of the net.

Alfa still needs to work on his positioning at times, but given it's his first real outing in the screen it's not too surprising. He still made a couple of important tackles and picked up second balls - as he does further forward. His ball recovery especially was a useful tool, often disrupting Zohore as he controlled the ball with his back to goal. The only other downside of his performance came from set-pieces, where he was often in the way as others attempted to clear the ball.

In the first half there was a lot of open space for Olise to drive into. Joao should do far better with this chance

Michael Olise had plenty of opportunities to create new highlights for his WELCOME TO ? video in the summer. The lack of any Millwall defensive midfield meant he could pick up the ball and run at the back three with freedom. He pinged a lovely ball across to Ovie and fed through Joao - who really should have added to his tally. Olise seemed to have that swagger that feeds his game. 

Average position charts are an average of events the player took part in - rather than a true average position - but Olise played noticeably more central in the second half.

In the second half, he started to go looking for the ball a lot more and wasn't quite as influential - in part due to Millwall's formation change. He still had a couple of shots, found Gibson in space after Reading went behind (before the left-back had a bit of rush of blood), and put some threatening deliveries into the box from set-pieces. Maybe he should have used 

Further back, Rafael changed his target from goal kicks. Obviously, Joao was still an option but, instead of Holmes being the secondary out ball, Rafael looked to Gibson on the opposite side instead. The left-back had a mismatch against Mahlon Romeo and won the majority of his aerial duels. One of the benefits is having Ejaria down that side, and if the ball falls to him then Reading are in a good position to keep it.

Both full backs were focused on their defensive duties first

One of the noticeable things about both starting full-backs was how reticent they were to venture forwards. Both barely registered a pass in the final third, and Holmes not going forward in the second half meant we didn't restore the width lost from Olise drifting inside. Gibson was reminiscent of early Holmes performances where ball retention was favoured over all else. As the pass map above shows, Holmes reverted to that sort of safe play too (and both are great examples of why you shouldn't always value a 'key pass').

That decision was likely down to not wanting to be outnumbered at the back - easily done with Millwall's three forward players. Combined with the fact the wide midfielders were a bit slower to trackback given there was only one wide player to have to contend with. Something you could potentially argue cost them toward the end.

The decision to substitute Tom Holmes with Andy Yiadom has come under scrutiny, but it's difficult to understand how much is deserved. Is Tom Holmes better aerially than Yiadom? Yes. Does that matter when we're talking about the ability to block crosses coming in from his side? Not really. In fact, Holmes had been increasingly powerless to stop balls coming in, and that seemed to be part of the reason for his withdrawal. Millwall changed shape in the second half to a 4-2-3-1 (or even a 4-4-2 briefly), and that was incredibly effective in getting extra bodies down the sides - allowing them to put balls into the box almost at will.

Gibson pushes past Smith to pressure the ball, leaving Smith free to tuck home. Gibson didn't need to press as McIntyre was already there.

And to put all the blame onto Paunovic would be to ignore the mistakes made on the field. Like Gibson leaving Smith to close down Bradshaw, or McIntyre then not dropping to deal with the goalscorer. For the second, Yiadom probably should follow Bennett all the way into the box given Morrison's positioning but arguably Olise or Rinomhota could have got closer to Malone. I'm not sure if Olise was drained, or didn't think it was his job, but it feels like he should have been tight to the left-back. Rino was filling in on the right wing but got attracted to the ball in the box rather than the man over. At the end of the day, both goals had a healthy slice of luck too with deflections falling perfectly for the away team.

None of this is to say that Paunovic couldn't have made a different decision, or that he should be completely absolved of responsibility. He could have moved Holmes inside and gone to a back five, which surely would have stopped the second goal at the very least as Holmes would have covered the hole Morrison leaves to pressure Bradshaw. Especially as Rinomhota was a prime candidate for going off given he'd lost the little influence he'd exerted anyway and must have been shattered from all the running in the first seventy-five minutes of the match.

Final thought: while I think the referee got the big decisions right at the weekend, they're the sort of calls that just haven't gone for The Royals all season. On another day Ejaria wins a penalty and there wouldn't be too many complaints, or the officials make a different decision when the tackle on Rinomhota just before Reading's goal comes in. As I say, not disappointed about the calls because I believe both to be correct, but they're the typical 'seen them given' type.

So once again Reading have to arrest the slide, and there aren't many better fixtures to try to do that than against a side that have lost four on the bounce and conceded six in their last match. We still have an eight point gap to seventh, but given we play Middlesbrough next week that gap could shrink fast if we're not careful.

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