Derby County 3 : Reading 2 – 21st January 2017

This was a fantastic win in the circumstances. A defeat would have left us significantly adrift from those play off places, so it was important to stay in touch. Also, McClaren, eventually, got a reaction to that embarassing, soul destroying defeat by Leeds last week. That was important, it’s what McClaren managed to get from the team last time around, whenever we’d suffer a setback. We certainly had “bouncebackability” in that first McClaren season and the team doesn’t lack resilience now. We needed it in this game. Our performance was haphazard at best. As McClaren said, though, we found a way to win (didn’t Pearson used to say that?). It was a win against a top six side too, not to be sniffed at.
It was a bit of a strange game to be honest and it ended up with us playing about four central defenders and Reading’s hapless goalie, Al-Habsi, playing up front, as we desperately held on for the result. Let’s not forget the fact that Reading dominated the first half hour and we basically weren’t at the races. We got back into it though, either by accident or design. We seemed to take the foot off the gas after going 3-1 up and after conceding a second goal, from a set piece, we looked pretty vulnerable.
The team selection seemed sensible. Thankfully, Pearce came back instead of Shackell, Olsson returned from injury to consign Jamie Hanson’s first team chances for the rest of this season to the dustbin, Hughes came in for the suspended Johnson and Russell replaced Camara, who had such a difficult game last week against Leeds. Nugent was injured, so we’ll have to wait a while to see where and how he will play. 
The game? Well, we knew Reading played the possession game, they were probably going to pass us to death but at least they weren’t going to press us and blow us away like Leeds did last week. And a team playing as open as this was really going to suit our own game, wasn’t it? Er.. Yes and no.
Reading controlled things right from the start. Knocking the ball out from the back,  ambling forward and keeping possession easily. And we let them play like this. We sat deep, didn’t press and didn’t play with any sort of tempo whatsoever. We were so stuck in this way of playing that it almost seemed as if we were doing it deliberately, as some sort of tactical masterplan.. I bloody well hope not! 
Reading were in the lead on 16 minutes. Kelly waltzed passed ineffectual challenges from Bryson, de Sart and then Russell before getting to the byline and sliding the ball to Swift to score.  It was just what Reading deserved for all their domination (although, to be fair, they weren’t creating many chances). We all settled down for another dispiriting defeat,  Reading settled down for a further ineffective passing masterclass and I began to doze off (well, I had been up since 630am). 
Then, unexpectedly, we were back in the game. Keogh stayed up after a corner, the ball squirmed out to him on the right and he whacked a decent cross into the six yard box. We could see that Bent had sort of bundled it in but I didn’t realise exactly what part of his anatomy the ball had hit until after the game. Well done, brave Darren..
After that goal, we began playing the way we should have been playing from the start – pressing them, ratting them and not letting them have any time on the ball. 
Thankfully this continued into the second half and when Reading naively tried to play the ball out from the back again, we punished them mercilessly, with Hughes tenaciously winning the ball and Bryson (with his first positive contribution to the game) sliding a simple ball into Master Ince to finish astutely. 
Before you could say, “we need a third to be comfortable here”, we were 3-1 up, thanks to Olsson’s dynamic run into the box and Hughes’ incisive finish. Olsson had had a brilliant game, demonstrating how essential it is to have at least one attacking full back in this system.
It would prove to be crucial in the end. We started to sit back again and allowed Reading to get back into the game. All it took was some sloppy defending at a corner and Meite scored with an unmarked header.
It was a bit desperate after that, desperate enough for Al-Habsi to go up front and a dramatic formation change from McClaren. I can’t see 5-1-3-1 catching on though..
There was still time for a little bit more drama when Obita was shown a second yellow card but we managed to see it out in the end. Phew! 
What did we learn from this then?
Well, perhaps, some of our top six rivals aren’t as invincible as we (or was it just me?) thought. Reading were so naive to play the way they did. There was a way of countering it successfully but it should also be of concern to us that we took most of the first half to work that out.
This was my first opportunity to see de Sart play in the flesh. I know it’s early days but he seemed pretty ineffective. Although he’s obviously a neat passer, has he got the physicality we need in that role? He was too easily bypassed, too easily brushed aside. 
Russell had a great game. The epitome of the tenacious, battling hard working wide forward that McClaren thinks is essential for this system. Can he keep it up? Or will we take the cash from Brum and look for another alternative?
Christie came on at the end with Baird moving to first centre half and then the holding role. Will he be back from the start against Leicester? Probably but in the medium term I’d prefer Baird to stay there. He’s been excellent since he came in and I’m not sure two attacking full backs is a risk we want to take at this stage of the season.
Bryson. Although I think he may have been carrying an injury and he did set up the second goal, most of this game passed him by. It will be interesting to see if he retains his place once Butterfield and Johnson are available.
One last word, on the transfer window. In a sense, it’s nice to see that we haven’t gone for broke in this window. It’s hard to assess the impact of de Sart or Nugent yet and our other business seems to have focussed on shipping out peripheral squad players (Weimann, Hanson) and U23 players who need league experience (Guy, Vernam, Rawson). Added to that, our scouting regime appears to have focussed on identifying some talented lower league players. All sensible stuff but not necessarily the boost to our squad most fans think we need. Perhaps we’re taking it slowly and thinking long term. At last.
Onwards and upwards.

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