Reading FC Match Report: 2016/2017 Season - Championship
READING 1 PRESTON 0
Reading: J Swift (35)
Jaap Stam and his Reading side got the new 2016/17 Championship season off to an ideal start on Saturday afternoon. Midfielder John Swift scored on his debut for the club- having signed from Chelsea during the transfer window- and handed Reading a 1-0 at the Madejski Stadium.
Following the departure of Oliver Norwood only a matter of days before the start of the season, Stam's first team choice became all the more interesting. Predictably Ali Al-Habsi started in goal, with Chris Gunter and Jordan Obita as full-backs. Somewhat surprisingly, partnering Paul McShane at centre-back was Joey van den Berg- Who after his chaotic performance against AFC Bournemouth could have been moved forward to cover Norwood's position. Instead George Evans, Danny Williams and John Swift filled the three central midfield positions, with Roy Beerens making his debut out wide with Garath McCleary. Deniss Rakels was subsequently asked to play up top as the sole striker.
After an emotional and perfectly delivered tribute to Eamonn Dolan before kick-off, the game started with Reading on top from the off. Preston's tactic of sitting deep was also immediately clear. McCleary presented the Royals with their first opportunity of the game after just five minutes but his drilled cross could not be turned in by Obita. Throughout the first half, Preston were well off the pace and often could only watch as Reading tried to pass the ball around their two compact lines of four. The away side thought they had the upper hand when Jermaine Beckford applied the finish from close range but the play was pulled back for a Joe Garner handball.
It was Reading, however, that looked the more likely to get the opening goal. Full-backs Obita and Gunter were getting forward on every opportunity and the latter set up a great scoring opportunity. After driving down the right wing, Gunter put a cross into the middle. Rakels, however, missed his kick and Swift coming onto it at the back post could only direct it wide.
Rakels playing as the lone striker is always a concern, but on this occasion you could not say that he did not have his chances. Beerens, looking particularly dangerous on the wing, drove down the left before delivering an inch perfect cross. Rakels rose to meet it but he could not direct the header on target. Beerens continued to look dangerous as his effort on goal was then seemingly blocked by a Preston player's arm but the referee decided otherwise. Beerens and Rakels combined once again after half an hour, this time with a chipped pass falling to the striker. Once again Rakels tried to shoot at goal but could only hit it wide.
With ten minutes of the half remaining, however, Reading were to take a deserved lead. McCleary drilled a low corner to the edge of the box where Swift was waiting. Moving free of his marker, he fired an effort into the top corner of the goal to give the Royals a 1-0 lead. It was a well worked corner routine and it made a change to see the team thinking outside the box with set pieces.
Reading could have had more before the end of the first half, with a Beerens effort being blocked. Some lovely interplay between Beerens, Swift, Rakels and McCleary then opened up a chance for the latter but his shot was again blocked. There was some beautiful play from the Royals in the first half but their dominance was not suggested in the score-line at half-time.
As the second half got underway, home fans will have been expecting more of the same from their team. Preston came out with a different mentality, however, and with only a goal in it were looking for the equaliser. Beckford found some space down the left before cutting the ball back, only for it to be intercepted by van den Berg. It was the Reading defender who then nearly handed Preston the equaliser on a plate when his ball to Evans was intercepted. Daniel Johnson looked like he would almost certainly score but a great save from Al-Habsi kept the score at 1-0. Garner was the next player to threaten the Reading goal but his headed effort went comfortably over the crossbar.
Reading were having to face more pressure than they did in the first half, but it was pressure that they were inviting upon themselves. The home side did, however, have yet another great opportunity to score, again through Rakels. McCleary picked out Swift on the right who passed the ball perfectly to Rakels in the middle. Seemingly lacking confidence, Rakels' side-footed effort was blocked by an oncoming Anders Lindegaard in the Preston goal.
The main concern of the second half will have been the injury to Obita just after the hour mark. Obita was missing for a fair portion of last season, which gave Andrew Taylor the opportunity to get some first team action. This season, however, if it is a long-term concern for Obita there is no one to cover his position. His replacement in the game was Tennai Watson- who aptly as a product of the academy was making his debut. He played at right-back while Gunter was moved over to cover the left.
Reading went on to have a couple of chances to seal the victory. Firstly Swift hit his effort wide of the goal. Callum Harriott came off the bench to replace McCleary and he very nearly made it two. Playing only a day after joining the club, the winger ran down the right before crossing low into the area. A Preston defender then nearly turned the ball past his goalkeeper into the corner of the goal. Instead it narrowly rolled past the post.
As the game approached the last few minutes, however, Preston began to apply more pressure on the Reading defence. Cunningham could not get the final touch after a Huntington flick, while Watson was showing his worth when he blocked another effort. There were six minutes of added time where the game descended into a heading contest, with Reading sitting increasingly deep. Preston could not make the breakthrough and the Royals were able to see out the game. It was a nervy few minutes but in the moments when they would have conceded last season, Reading were able to stand firm.
Overall, it was a very impressive performance from Reading. The quality of their play in the first half was the best fans have seen in a long time and it will have left them with a lot of positivity surrounding the rest of the season. It is still only early days, however, with much tougher opposition to come. The second half was not as good from a Reading perspective, but at this stage of the season that is to be expected as players still work their way up to full fitness.
It is clear that Stam has brought a certain style of football to Reading and the possession stats of around 80% in the first half and 71% by the final whistle demonstrated how well the team have adapted. There were some lovely passing moves in and around the box which were both incisive and exciting to watch.
The main concern going into the game will have been van den Berg at centre-back but he put in a largely impressive performance. Other than a couple of early tackles and his intercepted pass to Evans, he was composed at the back and was more than happy to take the ball out of defence and pick out a forward ball. It would appear based on his forward runs that he may prefer to play in midfield but it is clear that he can do a job for Reading in defence. Against stronger opposition, however, I may not be saying the same thing.
The main standouts in the side were the midfielders. The pace and skill of Beerens and McCleary on the wings was effective in stretching the play and creating chances. It was the central trio of Evans, Williams and Swift who were my players of the game, however. Evans seemed to be the one taking up the Norwood role and did so with relative ease. Williams was effective both defensively and going forward and was a key player for the home side. Swift, meanwhile, got a goal to mark a very impressive debut and already seems like a player to get excited about.
The only concern from the first game will have been Rakels. Usually playing with a sole striker does not work for Reading- and for large portions of the game it didn't- but Rakels had a number of opportunities to score. Hopefully it is just rust and it does not continue, as having a striker who can't shoot on target is a problem.
It is still very early in the season, but the signs are promising. Harriott looked impressive in the few minutes we saw of him and there are many players such as Yakou Meite who are yet to come into the team. On a day that commemorated a Reading legend, there was no better way to start the season and long may it continue.
This Championship game took place 320 days ago in the 2016/2017 season.