Matthew Crichton: Reading are without a league win in 2023, but you’re still only six points from the playoffs - how is the mood amongst supporters currently?
Simeon Pickup: Quietly confident but not without some nerves. While we’re closer points-wise to the top six than the bottom three, the focus is very much on whether Reading can avoid relegation this season and little else. Given the mess the club was in last season and the severe difficulties over the summer in recruitment due to EFL restrictions, avoiding relegation is all we were ever really concerned about, even when we went top of the table with a 1-0 win at Millwall.
I’d say the consensus among fans is that we’re on track to achieve that goal. Despite the recent poor winless run, supporters are on the whole confident that we’ll be able to grind out enough wins to keep our heads above water. While there are certainly frustrations over Paul Ince’s tactics, few are calling for him to go.
MC: When the two sides last met Reading were sat third in the table - how are the key reasons behind your downturn in results?
SP: We’ve stagnated tactically. Reading had been a pretty basic but solid and competitive side in a defensive 3-5-2 and were able to grind out narrow wins effectively. It wasn’t sustainable though: we needed to get better in possession and improve in the final third. That was always going to be tricky (there isn’t a lot of outright creativity in this squad), but we’ve got various options up top and at wing back to try different things.
Paul Ince has however failed to develop the 3-5-2, he’s not come up with any effective alternative (despite flirtations with 3-4-3 and various back-four systems) and can’t get the most out of attacking players such as Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite who were such threats for Reading in recent years.
MC: Paul Ince’s side have also failed to win away from home since before the World Cup break - why do you think there is such a vast contrast in your results home and away?
SP: Our away form’s been abysmal all season really. We’re occasionally able to grind out a one-goal win (Millwall, Wigan Athletic, Hull City), but we can also get a pasting on other days (Rotherham United, Sheffield United, Stoke City) when we don’t show up.
I’d put the divergence between home and away form down simply to supporters’ advantage. It’s not that we’re a distinctly better side on our own patch - we’re generally not a particularly good side but do benefit from being on our own turf. When we play at the SCL we have that bit more of an edge, but when we’re on the road we lack that edge.
It also doesn’t help that we’re not much of a threat as a counter-attacking side. This team lacks pace going forwards and is constrained in the 3-5-2 anyway, so can’t break on home sides convincingly when we win the ball back.
MC: Reading remain under a transfer embargo and can only recruit free transfers and loans, with this in mind do you think securing survival would make this a successful season?
SP: Yes absolutely. Reading have been under severe recruitment restrictions from the EFL since November 2021 when we were issued with our six-point deduction (applied immediately) and a suspended six-point deduction for this season that related to an agreed ‘business plan’.
This included cutting the wage bill from £21m last season to £16m this season, capping the squad size at 25 ‘permitted players’, and banning all transfer and loan fees. Adhering to those rules also meant putting all signings through three levels of checks, making the whole process of bringing a player in that bit more difficult and laborious. It was harsh medicine indeed and, while it was hardly unwarranted given our breach of FFP, I suspect the EFL were keen to make an example of Reading by making relegation a distinctly likelier possibility.
However, we ultimately managed to put together a squad that’s competitive, experienced and balanced enough to stay in the division - hence us being in lower-mid-table rather than the bottom three. But it’ll still be a big achievement to get this side over the line and secure safety, given that we’ve essentially had one hand tied behind our back all season.
MC: Andy Carroll rejoined Reading a day after our last match - how would you summarise his season so far?
SP: He’s had some good moments and I can’t fault his character and experience but, on the whole, he’s seemed out of place in this side. That shouldn’t be the case as his playing style in theory fits a team that is happier to go direct than it was in recent seasons, but Paul Ince hasn’t worked out how to use Carroll as part of the system.
Reading aren’t committed to going long into Carroll or getting crosses in for him to attack, so he often tends to drift through games somewhat.
MC: Ex-Sunderland midfielder Ovie Ejaria has only started five matches this season - has he been struggling with injury issues across the season?
SP: He’s been severely struggling with a trio of issues this season: injury, bad discipline and not being very good at football.
On the first of those three, he’s missed two big chunks of the season through injury. His luck on the fitness front has gone south in the last couple of seasons and I do wonder if it’s at least partially related to being overplayed in 2020/21 when former boss Veljko Paunovic refused to rotate properly.
Otherwise, he was excluded from a training trip to Tenerife during the World Cup break due to ill discipline. Paul Ince didn’t say what Ejaria had done specifically, but the fact that he came down so hard suggests it wasn’t anything minor. And even when Ejaria has made it onto the pitch this season, he simply hasn’t been good enough. He’s a shadow of the cocky, flamboyant dribbler who went past defenders as if they weren’t there.
All in all it’s a massive shame. I’d hoped Ejaria would properly step up this season as Reading’s playmaker in chief, taking on that role after Michael Olise departed in 2021 and then John Swift left in 2022. But this season has gone so badly for him that it’s hard to see any way back for him; it might even be difficult to get him out the door in the summer.
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, who do you think can cause Sunderland problems during the match?
SP: Tom Ince is the stand-out candidate here. He’s often our only real source of creativity in open play or from set pieces, so if you can shut him down then you’ll go a long way to keeping a clean sheet.
Then again, January signing Cesare Casadei is also one to watch. He’s a number 8/number 10 with bags of talent and, when he’s up to speed, should give our midfield the creativity it’s been crying out for all season - in no small part due to Ejaria misfiring. Casadei has been likened to Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack for being a goal threat from midfield who’s also a real powerhouse in the air.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Jeff Hendrick, who’s scored three times recently (admittedly all at home). One of those strikes (his opener against QPR) has been nominated for January’s goal of the month and I wouldn’t be surprised if his equaliser against Watford makes it onto the February shortlist. Given that he’s on loan from Newcastle United, it’d be typical if he scores at the Stadium of Light.
MC: How do you think Ince will approach the match tactically?
SP: It’s a safe bet that we’ll play a back three and use a pretty defensive and reactive style, as we have done for the vast majority of the season. Beyond that though I’m not quite sure - Reading unexpectedly went to a 3-4-3 against Watford last weekend rather than 3-5-2 and it didn’t really work as the midfield couldn’t impose itself on the game, the two players behind the striker (Tom Ince and Cesare Casadei) couldn’t get into the match and lone forward Shane Long was too isolated. I doubt though that Ince will have learned that lesson. He should go 3-5-2 but I’ll guess he sticks with 3-4-3.
Then again, he has a tendency to surprise us sometimes, so because I’ve said all of that he’ll probably pick this game to switch to a back four.
MC: Which eleven players do you think he will select?
SP: 3-4-3: Lumley; Mbengue, Sarr, McIntyre; Yiadom, Hendrick, Fornah, Rahman; Ince, Carroll, Casadei.
MC: Sunderland’s last home win against Reading was back in 2012 when we won 3-0 - what is your score prediction for today’s game?
SP: 3-1 Sunderland with Andy Carroll scoring a penalty.