• James Barker

The Build Up: Middlesbrough vs Reading

In-form Middlesbrough welcome relegation threatened Reading to the Riverside Stadium this Saturday.


The feel-good factor is back on Teesside, and boy oh boy isn’t doesn’t it feel great! Gone are the sleepless nights tossing and turning with a Warnock cackle running through your head. Chris Wilder is here, and we can sleep soundly again.


As for Reading fans, I don’t suppose many would have slept particularly well this week, as the club have endured one of their most embarrassing weeks of the club’s existence.


A 2-1 FA Cup third-round defeat to non-league Kidderminster Harriers was perhaps trumped by a 0-7 club-record home league defeat to Fulham on Tuesday night. Boro would normally be seen as an oasis in a desert for teams looking to snap out of losing streaks and put horror shows behind them, but under Chris Wilder, that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.


Boro will be looking to pile on the misery, and indeed the pressure on Reading boss Veljko Paunovic this Saturday, and here’s everything you need to know ahead of it.


The Opposition


Reading FC


Nickname: The Royals

Founded: 1871

Stadium: Select Car Leasing Stadium

Current league position: 21st

Last season finish: 7th

Manager: Veljko Paunovic

Current Top Scorer: John Swift (8)

Fun fact: The Royals isn’t the nickname that the club have always gone by, their original nickname was The Biscuitmen due to the club being located in close proximity to the headquarters of confectionary company, Huntley & Palmers. Tasty!


I never quite know what’s happening at Reading Football Club. They appear to swing back and forth from being a promotion contender to a relegation one. So in an attempt to try and wrap my brains round the situation in Berkshire, I sought out some insider knowledge. And when it comes to Reading FC, there aren’t many better to seek this knowledge from than the FBA (Football Blogging Awards) nominated fansite, The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd on Twitter). So here’s the lowdown on our weekend’s opposition from Simeon from The Tilehurst End.


General State of Reading

“Reading go into this game with the general mood at one of its lowest levels in years. Historically bad, embarrassing defeats to Kidderminster Harriers and Fulham caused angry reactions in the stands towards players and the manager, who’s facing overwhelming calls to be sacked.


“Those losses also underlined long-standing fears about the direction the club’s going in. Fans get no communication from the owner in general, but there’s a particular lack of clarity on the strategy Reading will use to develop in the long term while under FFP-related constraints from the EFL. Frustrations on those fronts came spilling out in the last week; everything is increasingly toxic.”


What’s Gone Wrong


“Where do I begin on what’s gone wrong? Reading have been battered by problems on and off the pitch for months, which in hindsight wrote off any chances of getting into the play-offs even before considering player and manager performances.



“To pick some of the highlights, an ongoing injury crisis has meant the Royals have been restricted to a maximum of 15 senior players in all but one league game this season. Most notably that’s included our two biggest goal threats: Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite. Key players Michael Olise and Omar Richards were lost in the summer. Recruitment was also badly hampered by the club getting no clarity on the business it could do for months, meaning signings only arrived after the start of the season.


“While Reading fans disagree on how to assign blame for this poor season, for me the volume of problems outside the manager’s control outweighs what he’s had control over. Still, he’s increasingly lost control of the situation in recent weeks and appears to have lost the dressing room.”


Tactics


“Given that injuries have forced the manager into playing whoever’s fit, judging tactics feels a little harsh. As soon as we develop an aspect of the side that looks promising, we then lose someone and have to adapt. The reverse fixture against Middlesbrough is an interesting case in point – we started it with a full back and midfielder at centre half, a midfielder at right-back and winger as a false nine.


“Still, the 4-1-4-1 was promising for its creativity in midfield and I hoped we’d build on that system, but goalscorer Alen Halilovic would play just once more before an eight-game hamstring injury. A source of particular frustration recently has been Reading sitting back on a lead rather than being more positive, before then succumbing to the inevitable pressure.


“That was evident against Derby County (2-2) and Kidderminster (2-1). That being said, our best results on the road have come when we’ve been able to stay solid at the back and hit a team on the counter. That approach worked at Fulham (2-1) and Swansea City (3-2), and will need to be replicated if we’re to get something at the Riverside. ”


Players to Watch Out For


“Picking stand-out threats is more about who turns up really. On paper Reading have some talented players and we’ve seen that talent shine through earlier in the season. John Swift is the obvious example as our leading scorer and assister. But he, like pretty much everyone else, has gone badly off the boil recently. I’ll go with Junior Hoilett due to his brace against Derby (the first one was an absolute rocket).”


Reading Match Prediction - Simeon from The Tilehurst End


“Predicting Reading’s team is pretty much impossible with the injury situation always hard to judge. For example, Scott Dann, Dejan Tetek, Tyrell Ashcroft, Femi Azeez and Alen Halilovic have featured recently but then picked up some kind of knock, while long-term absentee Andy Rinomhota made a surprise return. We do know though that we’ll struggle for fullbacks.


“Reading have two such players with experience and quality – Andy Yiadom and Baba Rahman. Just our luck that they’re both first-team picks for Ghana during the AFCON (African Cup of Nations). In their stead we’ve seen Dejan Tetek/Tyrell Ashcroft start at right back (he did so in the reverse fixture) and Ethan Bristow at left back. They’re capable of a decent shift but are overall inexperienced.


“I’ll have a stab in the dark and guess Reading will set up something like: Southwood; Ashcroft, Holmes, Dann, Bristow; Rinomhota, Laurent; Dele-Bashiru, Swift, Hoilett; Carroll


“We tend to start off OK and then tail off (to varying degrees). I guess the game will start off looking relatively promising for us before Boro pull away and get a comfortable, if not resounding victory. Boro 2-0 Reading.”


The Form Book


Middlesbrough (Last six: WWWWDW)


Mansfield Town 2-3 Middlesbrough (FA Cup)

Blackpool 1-2 Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough 2-0 Nottingham Forest

Middlesbrough 1-0 Bournemouth

Stoke City 0-0 Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough 1-0 Swansea City


Reading (Last six: LLDLDW)


Reading 0-7 Fulham

Kidderminster Harriers 2-1 Reading (FA Cup)

Reading 2-2 Derby County

West Bromwich Albion 1-0 Reading

Reading 1-1 Hull City

Swansea City 2-3 Reading


Head-to-Head League Record


Matches played - 29

Wins - Middlesbrough 14-9 Reading

Draws - 6

Goals - Middlesbrough 36-27 Reading

Points - Middlesbrough 48-33 Reading


Last Meeting



Last six:


Reading 1-0 Middlesbrough - September 25, 2021

Reading 0-2 Middlesbrough - February 20, 2021

Middlesbrough 0-0 Reading - October 17, 2020

Reading 1-2 Middlesbrough - July 14, 2020

Middlesbrough 1-0 Reading - September 14, 2019

Middlesbrough 2-1 Reading - April 27, 2019


League Statistics


Middlesbrough:

7th, won 11, drawn 6, lost 8

Goals scored 29, goals conceded 24

Clean sheets 10

Points 39


Reading:

21st, won 8, drawn 4, lost 12

Goals scored 29, goals conceded 43

Clean sheets 3

Points 28


Team News


Covid was finally able to infiltrate Rockliffe Park during the Christmas period, which meant that the eagerly-anticipated return to Bramall Lane for Boro boss Chris Wilder had to be put on hold (after some unnecessary convincing of the EFL I might add).


However, it appears as if the group have now come out of that stage in fairly good order, and the playing of the Mansfield match would indicate that most, if not all of those who were infected are now back and ready to go.


Saturday could see Boro fans getting their first glimpses of some of their new arrivals too, as on loan strikers Aaron Connolly and Folarin Balogun both look set to make their debuts. For the latter, it would be more likely that his appearance would come from the bench, as not only has the Arsenal youngster been on Teesside for a matter of days, a bout of Covid delayed his move to Middlesbrough for a week. So it remains to be seen if he feels fit enough to play from the off.


And could the next player to follow in the line of Riverside Aussie greats be making his first display in a Boro shirt this weekend? (And when I say greats, I am of course talking about Mark Schwarzer, Mark Viduka and Scott McDonald). Wilder would confirm on Friday that Riley McGree was to become Boro’s latest signing, and appeared hopeful that he could even make his debut this weekend.


Wilder would say: “It’s just got to go through the final bits and pieces but we’re fingers crossed he’ll be able to come straight in tomorrow.” Boro are (at the time of writing) just waiting on international clearance to be signed off before kick-off and would have needed the EFL to register him in time.


As for Reading, Veljko Paunovic is enduring a selection headache ranging from injuries to absentees as a result of the African Cup of Nations. Young winger Femi Azzez who has played 10 times for The Royals this season is most likely out with an ankle injury, whilst star winger Ovie Ejaria is dealing with a groin issue whilst also recovering from Covid, and is also expected to miss this weekend’s clash.


One of the Reading’s most impactful absentees is none other than their captain Liam Moore, who has not featured for The Royals since their defeat to West Brom in mid-December. The central defender will not be available to Paunovic this Saturday either, nor will his centre back partner Michael Morrison, who was expected to make his return from a knee injury at the start of this month, but is now not expected to be fit until the beginning of February.


As Simeon from The Tilehurst End touched upon earlier, Reading have also lost their two starting full backs in Abdul Rahman Baba and Andy Yiadom to the African Cup of Nations, meaning youngsters Ethan Bristow, Dejan Tetek and Tyrell Ashcroft have taken turns in stepping in at those positions.


Striker Lucas Joao could make his return to the side this weekend, but strike partner Yakou Meite will not be. This Saturday may also be the enigmatic Andy Carroll’s final game in a Royals shirt too, as his short-term contract with the club expires at the conclusion of this weekend’s match, and he is yet to accept the extension offered to him by the club. Burnley are now reported to be weighing up a short-term move for the striker as a replacement for Chris Wood.


Managers Thoughts


Following his sides hard-fought 3-2 FA-Cup victory over Mansfield Town, a relieved Middlesbrough boss Chris Wilder would say: “I knew, without sounding clever, I knew this was going to be a really difficult afternoon for us and so it proved to be.


If we’d have said off the back of the week we’ve had and the issues we’ve had over the last eight or nine days we find ourselves in round four on Monday, would we have taken that? One hundred per cent we’d have taken that.

“I’ve got to say they played and we can play better of course but you’re chucking in Joe Gibson, Caolan (Boyd-Munce) coming in to training yesterday and starting, Williams Kokolo not being involved and then putting the shirt on with no preparation. They are not excuses, they’re facts.


Wilder was also fully aware of the mindset that Boro’s opposition would be taking into the game, and was delighted with how his youthful and rotated side handled the affair, saying: “If I was in their changing room and some of the things they would have said about Championship sides, then I didn’t want that to be the questions asked about us.


“Being on the opposite side of the fence, you go ‘they won’t be up for it and they’ve got some issues’. It’s a tight ground, they’re away from home, it’s passionate home support and it’s a right opportunity. But I’ve got to say, we handled those questions pretty well.”


Looking ahead to Saturday’s clash with Reading, the Boro boss was keen to remind his players to not become complacent in the midst of a their current winning run, saying: "…But we all know the dangers in football, the dangers of arrogance, the dangers of complacency, and that's not just the players, but the supporters as well, they understand it has been a tough period for our football club over the last five years, and we are on an upward curve, but I am definitely not taking anything for granted.


“I am believing that Reading bring their A-game to the Riverside on Saturday and you only have to look at the top end of the pitch, they've got Andy Carroll, Junior Hoilett, John Swift, who is an outstanding player, and especially has been in the first part of the season.


"This is the sort of game we have got to take care of, because we are expected to win, because of people chucking 7-0s at us and being beaten by a non-league team, but there is always another game to turn it around, and they will be looking at this as a chance to kickstart their season.”


Speaking after his side were hit for seven on Tuesday night, a bewildered Reading boss Veljko Paunovic would say: “It’s hard to describe how we feel right now. Embarrassment is the only word. We let down a lot of people today. We shouldn’t have lost like this.


“It was not acceptable at all. Our players wanted to fight back, but in the desire to fight back, we started to make more individual mistakes and we lost our patience, our structure and our shape.


"We are now under a huge test, for everyone. How we handle this moment and this situation, and how we handle ourselves, will determine our future.”


In a show of resilience, Paunovic would state: “In this difficult moment, we need to find belief, to find trust, to find motivation and I’m ready to help the players do that. I am a professional, I am a fighter and I’m ready to fight.


“I believe in this group and believe in the team and I believe that we can turn this around, because there is a long way to go. And the way we behave now will define how we overcome our issues.”


Predicted Line-ups


Middlesbrough (3-5-2): GK: Joe Lumley DEF: Sol Bamba, Anfernee Dijksteel, Paddy McNair MID: Isaiah Jones, Jonny Howson (C), Marcus Tavernier, Matt Crooks, Neil Taylor ATT: Aaron Connolly, Andraz Sporar


Preston (4-2-3-1): GK: Luke Southwood DEF: Tyrell Ashcroft, Thomas Holmes, Scott Dann, Ethan Bristow MID: Josh Laurent (C), Andy Rinomhota, Tom Dele-Bashiru, John Swift, Junior Hoilett ATT: Andy Carroll


Officials


Referee: James Linington

Assistants: Robert Merchant & Nik Barnard

Fourth Official: Carl Boyeson


Match Prediction


After the night when the away end shook at Bloomfield Road, and in my case, snapping something in my foot falling backwards off the chair in front of me after giving it large as if I was a character in the latest instalment of the Carry On films, ‘Carry on Hooligan’, it felt like a lifetime before the Mansfield cup tie finally came around. I do however suspect that I was not the only Boro fan limping back to a Blackpool hotel that evening.


That wetted the appetite both figuratively and quite literally if you were stood in that Mansfield away end, but we’re used to biting winds and swirling rain us Smoggies, it was shorts weather that!


But Saturday marks the return of Sky Bet Championship action for the Boro, and they’ll meet a Reading team who if they are not careful, and everything goes to plan for The Stags, may too be sampling the Mansfield away end next season in Sky Bet League One.


A fate so unfathomable may well spark The Royals into life yet, however, and it isn’t entirely through a lack of talent that they find themselves in the situation they’re in, with some high quality and proven performers across the team, especially in forward areas.


Reading have indeed scored as many goals as Middlesbrough have this season (29), and have scored two more goals in open play (21) than Boro have (19). The problem for The Royals is not putting the ball in the back of the opposition’s net, it’s keeping it out of their own.


Reading concede on average 1.8 goals per league game so far this campaign, that’s the joint second highest in the division. They’re also joint second last in the league for keeping clean sheets, with just three with Cardiff City only keeping less. One final telling stat to end this defensive witch-hunt is that Reading’s goalkeeper has to make an average of four saves per match, that’s the highest average in the division.


And with two of not only their best full backs, but indeed two of their best players out due to AFCON in Andy Yiadom and Baba Rahman, add into the mix the loss of their centre back pairing of skipper Liam Moore and Michael Morrison, then you have a recipe for success if you are from a Boro persuasion.


A makeshift Royals defensive line should have the likes of Isaiah Jones, Andraz Sporar and indeed any Middlesbrough forward player licking their lips. And ultimately, I can’t see this ragtag Royals band of blue and white shirts that have been thrust together through injuries and national team duties having enough to stop a potent, and now reinforced Teesside attack.


This fixture also has a slight extra meaning for me personally, as one of my best mates is a lifelong Reading fan. And from our paths first crossing back in a year seven form class, banter and bragging rights as to whose club was only slightly less woeful than the others has been a massive part of our friendship.


The Satellite Town derby I believe it was once dubbed during a schoolboy football debate, eluding of course to the tongue-in-cheek reference to Reading being a satellite town for London, and Middlesbrough for Ingleby Barwick.


And on Saturday, I believe it will be Middlesbrough sending a strong signal to the rest of the Championship promotion contenders that they are the real deal, whereas signals of a sacking may be the message that is transmitted following this weekend’s fixture down in Berkshire.


Prediction: Middlesbrough 3-1 Reading


Be sure to tune in to the latest Boro Breakdown podcast for all your matchday chatter in a pod, which you can find here.

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