|Arsenal catastrophe leaves Royals at a crossroads â opposition focus|
Thu 01st Nov 2012 23:36 by Clive Whittingham
A capitulation from 4-0 up to a 7-5 loss in the League Cup during the week risks leaving Reading demoralised as they enter November without a league win to their name.
As Theo Walcott, eager to prove he can play as a central striker for Arsenal, roared through on Adam Federici on Tuesday night and chipped home the visitors’ first goal of the evening the complexion of an apparently prematurely settled League Cup tie changed somewhat. Don Goodman is never shy of trotting out a saying or cliché in his role as Sky’s co-commentator even if he’s not sure of it’s true meaning – he recently described the clinical finishing of a Championship striker as “inhumane” – and he quickly wheeled out a pair of beauties to sum up the situation. The goal, Goodman surmised, was either a consolation strike, or a turning point in the game.
Turning points are odd things to try and spot. When QPR were denied an opening goal by incompetent officiating at relegation rivals Bolton last season and then went onto lose 2-1 those present thought for all money that it was a sign Rangers would be relegated. Similarly, not long after that, an improbable comeback from two goals down to win 3-2 against Liverpool with an injury time strike sealing the victory felt like a sign the R’s were destined to remain in the top flight. Eventually, only Bolton’s inability to beat Stoke on the final day kept Mark Hughes’ men in the division.
Back in 2007, Derby County thought that a 1-0 home win against Newcastle sealed by a spectacular Kenny Miller goal on Sky’s Monday Night Football was a turning point in their season. Ultimately it turned out to be their only win of a campaign that was very much a long, straight road with a sewage plant at the end of it. Pretty much like driving into Derby itself actually.
If Reading are relegated this season, it feels like this week might be the one they look back on as the pivotal one. They shipped three last Saturday and drew against a Fulham team that is undoubtedly talented but notoriously awful away from home all the same. That stretched Reading’s search for a first league win into November and to make matters worse summer signing Danny Guthrie was left out amid stories of a training ground row.
Then having led 4-0 against a very poor, apparently demoralised, second string Arsenal team they contrived to throw it away and lose 7-5. Walcott’s goal, in hindsight, was indeed a turning point in that match. If they were to lose this weekend as well against the only other side without a win to its name this season it will feel like a savage blow at the end of a week when they’ve given up crucial league points, and hammered their own self belief and confidence with a farcical collapse in the League Cup.
But what if they don’t lose this weekend? What if they win? Then suddenly it looks like a seminal point in their season for the right reasons. They’ll say, ‘Remember that day back in November when we’d conceded ten in two matches and we went away to QPR and won? That was the day I knew it would all be alright.’
We won’t know which it is until May, and that’s sort of the beauty of football: there is no hard and fast rule to this sport.
Last season it seemed as though QPR abandoned the players that won them the Championship too quickly. The R’s brought in too many new faces, both in the summer under Neil Warnock and then in January after Mark Hughes took over, and it was only when injury, suspension and desperation forced a return to the likes of Shaun Derry, Clint Hill, Jamie Mackie and Adel Taarabt that results started to improve. Meanwhile up in Norfolk, Norwich stayed up with plenty to spare using largely the team that had brought them up through two divisions with consecutive promotions – any additions that were made came from other people’s reserve teams or the division they’d left behind.
So on that evidence the formula for success would appear to be keeping faith with what you have, and supplementing it with the best of what you left behind. Reading did just that this summer, bringing in the likes of Adrian Mariappa, Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary from the Championship to add to the nucleus of their Championship winning team. Only Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak could be said to be an outlandish purchase following the takeover by wealthy Russian Anton Zingarevich. And yet here they are, without a win to their name.
Reading haven’t come too far too soon – a criticism that could perhaps be levelled at fellow newly promoted side and early strugglers Southampton – having been in the Premier League just five seasons ago and winning promotion a year after they’d lost a play off final. They haven’t swapped and changed managers, or signed ridiculous amounts of players, which seems to be the reason for QPR’s lack of cohesion.
They’re either not good enough, or they need something to break for them. The same two things can be said about QPR and that means that this Sunday’s game could either be a turning point, or a confirmation of the straight road they’re already a long way down, for either of them.
For the second time this season already we’re welcome David from the Royals Rendezvous website for an insight into Reading and the start they’ve made to the new season.
Reading, like QPR, are without a win yet this season. Where are things going wrong?
If I’m truthful, it’s hard to put a finger on it. At first, we put it down to an unusual start to the season – the Chelsea game was brought forward, and then the Sunderland waterlogged pitch meant a postponement, and that coupled with the international break meant nearly a month without a competitive game. “Never mind” we said, “it’ll start now” – but it didn’t. Totally outplayed by Spurs, then games which we couldn’t see off, such as Swansea, Newcastle and the almost comical showing against Arsenal just this week. That’s the thing – we’re blowing hot and cold in nearly every game; how is it possible to show such glimpses of quality and yet plain fumbling alongside each other during every match?!
What do you put the midweek collapse against Arsenal down to? Do you worry it will have a lasting effect on the team?
I think we could try to look for answers, such as considering that sitting back and defending in the second half against a team like Arsenal with its attacking prowess was suicidal, given that defence – especially on the wings – is hardly our strong spot. Or that, for once, Brian McDermott got the substitutions all wrong. Or that Arsenal’s last goal for 4-4 came with time already up (but I don’t buy that despite widespread Reading fan protest, you play until the ref blows). Hey, it happened and that’s it.
Will it have a lasting effect? I doubt it, even allowing for Brian’s very long face after the game. The negative – how could we let a four goal lead vanish into thin air? Proof of incompetence? The positive – we scored five against a consistently good top four side of the last decade, and few teams manage that. McDermott is in theory famed for being an expert in ‘man management’ so in him we trust. In that sense losing 5-7 is more positive than 0-2.
Is there any suggestion that Brian McDermott might be under pressure, either from the fans or the new owner?
I can’t speak for Royals fans everywhere, but on Royals Rendezvous I see them as remarkably mature. He probably already is under pressure of some sort from the ‘authorities’, but I don’t believe that it’s an intense pressure that is really going to get at him at this stage. But historically we’ve been moving on an upwards curve since the horrible fourth division spell in the 1970s – we made it to the Premier League in 2006 but it only lasted two seasons. We don’t want this to be a one season wonder; we don’t want to be a yo-yo club with all the pain and tears that ensue with every relegation. Therefore fans are aware that president Anton Zingarevich has been planning a five year programme, which in theory includes substantial ground expansion where the current 24,000 capacity will go up to anything approaching 38,000. He wants a new training ground and facilities, and for the first team to be in/on the fringes of European places by 2017. Of course, that doesn’t include relegation so the president would be unlikely to put up with a whole season of failure. Where’s the cut-off point? When might he decide “enough is enough”? None of us know, not even those ‘in the know’ …
Are you still confident Reading can survive this season? What reasons for optimism do you see?
Yep, of course we can, but ... will we? In our favour: McDermott is a wonder worker in the second half of the season – in all the last three season we’ve come up from the depths of the championship to finish, eleventh, then fifth, then last season as champions. Last season we were floating around relegation too at this stage, before storming through as champions, so we are comforted by recent history. But the Premier League is a different kettle of fish. It's no charity - there might be no recovery out there.
Then, as an honest impartial view I don’t think we were as good as QPR were the previous season when you came up as champions. That season you always seemed in control, always first in the table, we all looked up to you. Love him or hate him, any team is wary of a Warnock team. Reading almost came up by accident – I mean, by others faltering, perhaps by others not noticing us, and certainly not banking on us almost to the level of disrespect. Perhaps we even over-achieved, though it was basically a solid side, all working for each other. But it was a good Championship side, not a Premier League side in waiting like the 2005-06 title team who came up with a record 106 points and were one place and one point off Europe first time off.
Then where are the stronger/weaker points of the squad? I believe our attack is top flight quality - I've no issues there. The midfield is OK, though it needs a bit more energy levels seeping through, the guys can play but we are getting a little outmaneuvered by the best midfields. They are not providing good enough service to the guys up front, that's a general complaint so far. The defence is a big worry; simply too slow thinking against such fast forwards, they don’t read the game together sufficiently perhaps, and above all lack confidence. The confidence thing was also affecting goalie Federici though since McCarthy has come in things have definitely clamed.
I believe – as an optimist – that when a couple of good results come in it will serve as a springboard. We’ve generally had good comments from fans of other teams, including established teams like Chelsea and Liverpool. But it's all very well saying "bad luck, you don't play bad" - but we picked up zero points.
What does the team need adding to it in January?
I think we need to sort this out well before then with the present squad. If we’re isolated in the table by then, then which of the very good players would even want to come here? I reckon that big summer signing Pogrebnyak, for example, was not expecting a relegation-haunted campaign by any stretch of the imagination. Will Zingarevich get his cheque-book out in a big way? He could, to safeguard his five year plan, spend more than Saints did in the summer (£30m+). But in that case, I think that would not be (unfortunately) with McDermott still in the hot seat. Into specifics, the attack won’t a lot of change but we need a ‘motor’ or two in midfield to up the tempo substantially - it was to have been Danny Guthrie, but there have been all sorts of problems there, as you may know. As for the defence – oh dear. We need another couple who can really read the game, but they won’t come cheap.
Saturday’s game could go any way, let’s be honest. The League Cup game shouldn’t have any bearing; we both start off at 0-0 with a clean slate. Plenty of nerves I’d say, however, the team who wins may well do it by at least a couple of clear goals. I’ll say QPR 0 Reading 2, but please understand that’s simply out of blind faith, nothing more.
So there I sat on Tuesday night, laptop on one knee and notepad on the other, ready to go through the routine of scouting another game for another LFW match opposition focus. Within a quarter of an hour of Reading’s cup game with Arsenal the computer was off, and the pad had been tossed aside. Entertaining and farcical though it may have been, as a scouting exercise that 5-7 nonsense was almost totally without value.
What we know now is pretty much what we knew after the Royals knocked QPR out in the previous round. On the attack they are a very traditional English team in that they like to get the ball out to the flanks for the likes of McCleary, McAnuff and others to deliver good crosses. They then have good, physical, mobile forwards like Pogrebnyak, Roberts and Hunt on the end of those crosses.
That was enough to knock QPR out of the League Cup and could well be enough to beat them in the league as well. Rangers cannot get a settled centre half pairing together because of injury and suspension, and have struggled with fitness in the full back slots as well. Brian McDermott will have seen little in Rangers’ recent performances to dissuade him from his usual modus operandi for this match, the only question in his mind will be which two of Pogrebnyak, Roberts and Hunt get a start here. I’d be amazed if he only picked one of them.
QPR could help themselves by stopping Reading getting into crossing positions in the first place. Pogrebnyak must be marked with a centre back behind and a man in front of him at all times to prevent his hold up and lay game working the ball into wide positions. Reading will look to him early, and he’s a hard working, physical, talented striker.
And, as we knew before and after our cup game, Reading really cannot defend. Before Arsenal had destroyed them I sat through their home match with Spurs which finished 3-1 to the visitors and could have been more decisive than that. There’s a reason the Royals are without a clean sheet this season and have conceded 28 goals already, including ten in the last two outings.
Despite keeping goal almost uninterrupted since Marcus Hahnemann left, including last season’s promotion campaign, Australian Adam Federici was replaced by England Under 21 stopper Alex McCarthy earlier this season and Federici did little against Arsenal to suggest he’ll win a permanent recall. McCarthy’s previous experience has come during eight loan spells ranging in length from one match at Cambridge United to 44 at Yeovil and in levels from Team Bath up to Leeds United. Watch out for them loading the right side of the field from his goal kicks if he plays – and the opportunities that can create on the opposite flank if you can win possession and switch it quickly from the kick.
The defence in front of him is a disaster zone. They paired Alex Pearce and our old charge Kaspars Gorkss at centre back against Spurs, and the pair of them held a very high line in an effort to get Tottenham’s lone striker Jermain Defoe offside whenever they could. Spurs combated this – somewhat bizarrely given the relative physical stature of the three players involved – by going long, direct and early to Defoe. Now you would think that the tiny England international would simply be dominated physically in such circumstance but whether Gorkss and Pearce were terrible, Defoe was exceptional, or a mixture of both it worked superbly for Andre Villas Boas all afternoon. That wasn’t a one off either. Against Arsenal Gorkss played alongside Sean Morrison and although both were very dominant in the air from attacking set pieces they were battered in every department defensively.
That attacking set piece threat is not to be overlooked though. Morrison didn’t lose a header in the Arsenal box on Tuesday and in the Spurs game Pearce was similarly effective. The Reading centre back tends to arrive late, and drifts out of the crowd in the box to the back post where the free kick taker will look for him. Luckly for Rangers Ian Harte’s lack of ability ad Danny Guthrie’s dreadful attitude mean neither is likely to play, and they’re the two best dead ball deliverers in the squad.
Pictures – Action Images