Three thousand Brentford fans are due to make the short hop, skip and a jump down the M4 motorway to The Madjeski Stadium, Reading to support their team who – after a small blip at the beginning of the year losing in the league to leaders Wolves and 2nd Division Notts County in the FA Cup – are looking to pick up where they left off at the back end of the year when they won three straight matches over the Xmas period. Billy Grant caught up with Reading fan and blogger Dave ‘Handbags’ Harris (@handbags82) from The Tilehurst End blog to get the lowdown on why the playoff finalists of last season are struggling to cop with The Championship this time around
After an almost moment last season – losing to Huddersfield in the playoff final – this season has not gone according to plan for Reading. What has gone wrong?
Quite frankly, we’re not creating enough chances and not scoring enough goals. The main issues stem from the failure to sign a top Championship quality striker (despite our best efforts, Nelson Oliveira the primary candidate), underperforming creative players and the slow, deliberate nature of our build-up play.
It’s generally felt that the biggest issue is the style of play which Stam is steadfastly refusing to budge from. It leaves our defence exposed and it stifles the talents of our attacking players in particular. We particularly struggle to break down teams that sit back and dig in which in turn feeds through to the stands.
Burton just before Christmas was the absolute nadir – conceding two hopeless goals.
We talked about this on the Pride of West London Podcast (below) in our interview with Reading fan and blogger Becka White from The Tilehurst End. You said to me last season that – although you were bouncing around in the top six very nicely, you received word from a statistician that you were massively punching above your weight. According to the stats guys, you had luck on your side and your ‘true’ position was actually around 18th in the final few months of the season.
At the same time, the same person had Bristol City near the top of the league. You questioned the accuracy of that info but In retrospect, do you think he was spot on?
Well those pigeons are coming home to roost aren’t they?! I think when results are going your way you tend to ignore the statistical analysis somewhat, and this is probably a case in point coupled with the hope that the results continue in spite of the performance-to-result ratio inevitably levelling itself out.
Quite frankly, it clearly has. Having said that, it was good while it lasted. Particularly at the end of the season when Cottagers Confidential released their playoff semi-final preview which arrogantly based its argument that Reading wouldn’t be able to live with Fulham heavily on the expected goals stat.
The fact is after the 5-0 drubbing at the Cottage in December we played seven halves of football against them (including the New Year fixture which was abandoned at half time) and conceded once in that time. Stam took a much more defensively minded approach to them (and Huddersfield, irritatingly) in the playoffs, playing a back five and squeezing the space in which Fulham like to play in, and it worked a treat.
Irrespective of that, however, every rational football fan understands that we over-performed. To what degree is open to conjecture. But one thing is certain – when you look at underperforming or over-performing teams via performance stats there is inevitably a levelling out of the field.
We’re seeing that now…
So do you think Jaap Stam rested on his laurels after getting to Wembley
No. I think his system is quite simply finding its level now. His team has begun to display a more direct tendency in certain matches at times which he has stated he doesn’t necessarily like but understands players have to make decisions at times, but the fundamentals of the system remain.
Possession based. Very calculated and tactical rather than intense football. There is no doubt though that we should be higher than where we are in the division given the talent we have in the squad.
Your recent cup match with Stevenage saw verbal exchanges between Stam and the Reading fans. Once it gets this toxic do you think it’s terminal for the manager?
Our Chief Executive, Ron Gourlay, has very publicly backed him and stated he wouldn’t be sacked because Stam was in it for the long haul and we’re in the middle of a transitional period (every season since 2013/14 seems that way to be honest). Stam is feeling supporter ire currently but the problem is far more deep-rooted to just him.
Reading fans have been far from united since our first relegation from the Premier League in 2008, pretty much every season since then has seen extended periods of vapid football (even in the three playoff campaigns and the season we won the Championship!). We have also lost a fair proportion of our core support who cannot accept the way modern football is going which RFC wholly buys into.
The shy and retiring overseas owners. The procurement of perceived first team-ready mercenaries over the development of youth. And the intensely tactical nature of British football these days over and above the wholehearted 4-4-2 big man small man combative midfielders with quick wingers slinging in crosses style supporters have grown accustomed to since the sixties.
The owners aren’t going anywhere. However, we could certainly do much more with our academy (and there are a couple of recently released, conflicting articles on this very subject on The Tilehurst End if you care to look). The biggest and most immediate factor, however, is the boredom. Unless the style morphs into a more exciting, intense brand of football that engages supporters and gives them a confident level of hope in every match then quite frankly the support will gradually dwindle to the hardcore few.
We’re not exactly renowned for our atmospherics but the continual seasons of boredom affects both the attendances and the vibe in the ground simply because of the boredom-inducing football.
You’d think that would have an affect on the boardroom thinking…!!
Stam made wholesale for Stevenage in the FA Cup replay and you got a result. Do you think he should stick with the same team for Saturday and will you kick on from this?
We rung the changes for Stevenage – 10 in total – and a second choice centre back pairing of Tiago Ilori and Tyler Blackett. Definitely returning will be Mannone and ex Bee loanee Liam Moore. Full backs will be from Gunter, Blackett, Bacuna and Richards. Midfielders – any three from Kelly, Edwards, Bacuna, Clement, van den Berg or Evans.
Given he scored a hat trick it would seem that Jon-Dadi Bodvarsson will get the nod over Kermorgant. But then we simply don’t know with Stam!
Out wide – any two from Beerens, McCleary, Aluko, Barrow and Popa (if he’s given a look in).
In our pre-season bloggers’ prediction article, you predicted Reading to finish 11th. Would you like to make a half-way reassessment on that?
I think, based on the opening half a season you’d have to downgrade. Make no bones about it, we’re currently in a relegation battle. And if recent history shows anything, when the year ends in 8, Reading relegate. Check our records from 87/88, 97/98, 07/08!! Each of those season we sleepwalked into a relegation battle as the season wore on, and unless the club wakes up now and smells the coffee, a similar fate could befall us.
Ex-Brentford loanee John Swift broke down recently with a hamstring problem only a few weeks after returning from another month-long lay off. He looks like he’s going to be out for a while. How has he been for you when he has actually played?
Exceptionally skilful. His vision is excellent but his pass execution can leave something to be desired. He won’t bust a gut for the team or take a hit, but when you play a three man midfield with workhorses behind him that can be forgiven as they’re basically deployed to enable Swift’s best talents to be displayed.
His knack for getting in the right place at the right time is uncannily Frank Lampard-like and he’ll always be a goal threat from midfield but the reason he isn’t playing in the Premier League is simply because he blows so hot an cold. You’ll rarely see an indifferent performance from him.
He’s rather black and white!
Reports say you are looking to sign Chris Martin. With goalscoring a problem, do you think he is the missing cog?
We desperately need an effective focal point to our attac – a role that Yann Kermorgant has failed to continue from last season – and if Bodvarsson is to not be given adequate opportunity then the type of player we require would be in the mould of former Reading favourite Shane Long – strong as an ox, exceptionally quick, pulls defenders everywhere and has a good touch.
Chris Martin is built from similar stuff so would be an acceptable alternative. I’d just want him permanently.
Who should we be looking out for?
If Bodvarsson starts, he’s deceptively quick and possesses good ability on the floor. Two of his finishes on Tuesday were tap ins but watch the second if you haven’t seen it – up there with the best headers I’ve seen from a Reading player since Lloyd Owusu’s effort against Crewe in 2004/05.
We both like to play football on the floor. With ex Brentford loanee Liam Moore and Paul McShane (who is currently injured) the most successful passers in the Championship, and Brentford’s high pass-rate this season, will it be a game of pass the parcel on Saturday?
No. You’ll undoubtedly play your normal way, high intensity with quick, skilful players moving around Sensible Soccer style. Give us the ball and we’ll trickly the ball around our back line and midfield for ten minutes before reaching your final third and losing the ball.
I fear an absolute gubbing. Our play recently has been such that we feared defeat against Stevenage as a real possibility. In the end the scoreline flattered us somewhat as they consistently created clear cut chances – the like of which would have been punished by better sides.
If you play to your potential and we continue our insipid form you’ll comfortably beat us.
A 2-0 defeat is an optimistic prediction.
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