It’s not often that you find yourself genuinely happy to be proven wrong but for me, this is one of those times. In my last post, it’s fair to say I may have been a little heavy-handed in my criticism of the Royals both on and off the pitch.
Confused by our team’s apparent willingness to line up every week for defeat after defeat without any kind of tactical change, I don’t think I was alone in thinking that Reading were on a one-way path to relegation.
But since the turn of the year, it seems the tide has changed and suddenly we find ourselves in with a genuine chance of survival after a series of jaw-dropping performances.
So what’s changed?
First, it can’t be denied that a change of formation has had a huge impact on our success. Whilst the traditional 4-4-2 led to some interesting spectacles, Royals manager Brian McDermott was right to point out that you don’t get points for entertaining the neutrals and he should be applauded for biting the bullet and overhauling the system.
Our current tactics see us pack the midfield in a way that takes significant pressure off our usual midfield pairing; Mikele Leigertwood’s passing range has never been fantastic but now he has other options than passing to the defence, kicking it into touch or just surrendering the ball to the opposition. Greater command of the midfield has helped the Royals to recover the counter-attacking, wing-based style that got them into this league in the first place. Jimmy Kebe and Jobi McAnuff no longer have to wonder across the park to find the ball but can stick to the flanks where they can do the most damage while Alex Pearce and co. can now play the ball out of defence rather than sending it into orbit.
In short, the team are using the ball in a manner that one would expect from a top-flight side, rather than treating it like a time-bomb that could go off at any moment.
McDermott should also be praised for (finally) getting the personalities in this team pulling in the same direction. Danny Guthrie has come in from the cold and has put in some fantastic displays, showing both skill on the ball and a physical side to his game that, again, eases the pressure on Leigertwood as our ball-winning midfielder.
Pearce’s contractual issues may not have been resolved but McDermott has done the right thing by playing him despite this for two reasons. First, Pearce has been phenomenal since his return to the side and has turned a shaky defence into a sturdy outfit through his marshalling of Adrian Mariappa. Secondly, there can be no better way to convince a player to sign a contract than by showing him how important he is to the side and how much he is loved by the fans.
Our new signings mostly seem to be shrewd acquisitions (and I will give Stephen Kelly a special mention as my unsung hero of the side since he arrived) but it is the vast improvement in the performances of the players that we already had that has been more important in this turn of form.
My final explanation for this dramatic revival is, I think, the most satisfying. I don’t need to remind any Reading fans how McDermott has repeatedly created sides that suddenly come to life in January. This time last year Southampton and West Ham seemed bemused rather than threatened by Reading’s rocket up the table…until it was too late for them to do anything about it. It seems to me that most Premier League sides are currently doing the same. West Brom were already thinking about the journey home when Reading pounced while Alan Pardew was probably practicing his French with some of the subs when it all went wrong for the Toon. A lot of the Premier League clubs place so much emphasis on the cost and pedigree of players that they forget how important simple things like team spirit and playing until the final whistle can be.
Reading don’t take these things for granted and this is something the club should be proud of. The fact that other teams now start to sweat as they enter the last quarter of matches against the Royals is deeply satisfying; ‘Reading time’ – the period of each game that haunted so many teams in the Championship – is making a comeback and woe betide any team that fails to notice it.