WRITTEN BY DAN LAMBERT
What a time to be alive. Perhaps I am being too hasty here, as the result on face value does not capture the game in full light- a tale of two halves, a mindboggling yet starstruck performance all in one. That is ultimately why we support Rangers. For the thrills, the spills and most importantly catching ourselves by surprise.
It felt timely the win, after the wretched performance against Huddersfield which we couldn’t possibly replicate that again surely? Well, the first half we did anyway. Stemming from the team selection the likes of Cameron in midfield and Chair dropped was concerning when the lineups arrived. Creativity we craved- our best chances coming from bleached blonde Lyndon Dykes, a weapon of sheer enigma turned surprise when a goal was disallowed from one of his launched balls.
But for our lacklustre attack, the defence and midfield were far more concerning. Ryan Woods playing two defence splitting balls in behind our defence, Super Seny was the hero of the half- keeping us only two behind. As for Cameron his legs had deceived him, we were far too open in midfield. At times it felt like it was Johansen vs the Millwall three, we lost the battle and were very vulnerable with the lack of pace we have at our disposal- a game where perhaps our physicality failed to combat their offensive intelligence or most alarmingly our defensive awareness.
To my surprise we turned it around and there is something about Warb’s stubbornness that makes the win feel even sweeter. The cries for subs at half time, the moans and begrudges all, of which me included demanded, yet we fail to recognise that Warb’s is paid the money for a reason. His adaptability in system (in the end!) has changed the side around, his stubbornness has held us back at times but his execution with the timings of the substitutions were well executed on Wednesday just like at Watford away. Adomah for Kane was much needed, a player whose experience and delivery into the box is of a higher standard than any other member of the squad. As well as Chair’s arrival for Willock made a big impact. Ball carrying at his best, decision making was a lot better, balls fizzed in at pace into the box without cutting edge at times but creating chances nonetheless, something we lacked very much so in the first half.
I don’t want to blab on about individual substitutions for the whole piece but credit has to go to Warbs in these types of games. Striking the balance between stubbornness and panic can cost you by the finest of margins in a league so tight and changeable that sides like Dean Smith’s famous Aston Villa, produced ten wins in a row to reach the playoffs and promotion in his first time of asking all against the odds. Now sure, Warbs hasn’t been perfect at times- especially at the start of the season but for someone with a very different team at his disposal to last seasons with the talent loss of Ryan Manning, Ebere Eze, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Grant Hall, Nakhi Wells and Jordan Hugill and to still better the 46 points of last season at the 36 game mark, having to rebuild the following season with a limited budget due to COVID restraints, it certainly deserves immense credit after such a slow and ragged start to the season.
What we have now is a brilliant spine to the side. The three centre halves are reliable- Dickie, De Wijs and even Barbet who has come under leaps and bounds this season. The midfield of Johansen and one other of Field/Ball is respectable enough in this division, they offer short of the flair players and the ‘WOW factor’ but are not afraid to get stuck in , do the dirty work and run their socks off for the team. And as for the striker, he speaks for himself. Austin, ‘the veteran striker’ as he is deemed amongst the jealous waves of people itching to get such a wonderful striker in their very hands. His ruthless edge, his passion and desire cannot be questioned unlike the bed of bleach blonde like his Scottish counterpart Lyndon Dykes, who is still searching for his goal but is able to put up a MOTM performance against Millwall similar to his performance at Luton away. Perhaps this is the partnership worth pursuing. Like Stephen Dobbie at Queen of South, Austin provides the goals and ruthless nature of a selfish striker. Big Lyndon offers you everything but the goals, who has a strong assist record whilst in the Scottish second division. Perhaps with pace, like Warbs alluded to as a necessity in the summer window, that a true partnership blossoms but to the outcome of Project Dykes, the future really id unknown.
Last time out away to Reading we were defeated 1-0 to a John Swift wonder strike, the curl was far too much for Joe Lumley to handle. A game where we were on a mini run of 3 defeats in four, to which we just could not find the back of the net. Reading goalkeeper Rafael, was somewhat like a robot keeper, preventing a Jordan Hugill triple save, the latter off his face whilst an Ebere Eze pirouette turned goal line clearance was as good as we ever got. It goes without saying that this Reading side to the one we faced in mid-December this season, have not dropped out of the top six for little less than 72 hours all season. That game we faced a prolonged spell of not winning for nine games until the new year away at Luton- nothing like Rangers dampening the Christmas spirit in a wretched long Lockdown! But for the sacrifice of bleak spells and mere painful watches we encounter a Reading side in the play offs on a mixed bag of form, we have a charisma about us, hunger and desire to do nothing but the best- thanks to the effect of De Wijs, Stef Johansen and the Messiah, Charlie Austin.
Opposition view- Reading
I spoke to Reading fan Harry Smith ahead of Saturday’s encounter at the Madjeski Stadium, where he spoke about Readings season so far, the playoff aspirations, Veljko Paunovic and the key men who are part of their ongoing success this season.
Firstly, how has your season been overall?
Harry: When Mark Bowen was sacked in close proximity to the start of the season, few fans imagine that we would be battling at the top end of the table, especially considering the unknown quantity we had appointed in Veljko Paunovic. With nine games to go, we have a real shot at a top six finish. The current mood amongst fans is one of caution though. With just two points separating ourselves and seventh-placed Bournemouth and tough games against Norwich, Barnsley and Watford still to come, we need to gather some momentum.
Interestingly you have only dropped out the top six once all season. What has been the main factor in your consistency throughout the season?
Harry: It is no secret that our lightning-fast start to the season has contributed to our current position. Our consistency is owed in part to the midfield partnership of Josh Laurent and Andy Rinomhota, who have been ever-present in midfield and incredibly consistent. An array of attacking talent has allowed Paunovic to mix it up tactically, which has benefitted us in big games.
Paunovic for much of the season has opted for a 4-2-3-1 system with a consistent core group albeit injuries, why has he opted for a recent change to a 4-3-1-2 and has it worked?
Harry: Things had become stale with the 4-2-3-1 and injuries to attacking players such as Yakou Meite, Ovie Ejaria and John Swift forced a tactical rethink. The 4-3-1-2 saw defender Tom McIntyre step into midfield as the deepest of the three. His performances, combined with the form of George Puscas, have helped us pick up results against the likes of Rotherham, Blackburn and Sheffield Wednesday. After Wednesday’s torrid performance against Birmingham, expect to see a 4-2-3-1 system utilised on Saturday with Ovie Ejaria and Andy Rinomhota both returning to the midfield.
What has changed for the club under Paunovic since his arrival and how is he regarded amongst Reading fans?
Harry: Ambition has been the key to Paunovic’s success. The spirit among the players is clear to see in interviews and on the field. The Serbian is also more tactically flexible than Mark Bowen and has no doubt benefitted from the arrival of Josh Laurent, a player whose signing was actually sanctioned by Bowen before his dismissal.
Lucas Joao, a man in the form of his career. How can he be stopped?
Harry: Lucas Joao’s recent form has been one of the major causes for concern. The Portuguese frontman has scored just once in his last seven league appearances and was completely ineffectual against Birmingham in midweek. His link-up play will benefit the returning Ovie Ejaria, but watch out for Yakou Meite, who has scored in back-to-back league games since returning from injury and is a player who poses an aerial threat from a wide position.
What are the strengths and weaknesses in the side?
Harry: Movement and athleticism are key to Reading’s play under Paunovic. The attacking ability of full-backs Omar Richards and Andy Yiadom could cause QPR problems if they’re given the freedom to overlap by Todd Kane and Lee Wallace. Their overlapping runs will allow Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise time to occupy the half-spaces, which is where Reading are at their most dangerous. Our biggest problem this season has been breaking down teams who like to sit deep, as was the case against Birmingham on Wednesday night. Too often this season our success has come down to the form of Joao. When he plays well, Reading tend to win games.
Finally, the playoffs and the lure of promotion are in sight. Where do you see this team going?
Harry: Play-off Final defeats against Swansea and Huddersfield have left me cautiously optimistic. We have a tough run of fixtures coming up and are just two points clear of Bournemouth in seventh. If we can make it to the playoffs then I’d fancy our chances against the more ambitious and attacking sides such as Watford, Brentford and Barnsley, but it’s getting their that’s going to be the problem. Anything but a victory this weekend is not an option.