Well against all odds we’ve still got something to play for in this game. After a couple of remarkable wins against Stoke and Millwall, Latics still have a small chance of survival against all odds although it’s heavily reliant on results elsewhere going in our favour. Someone on twitter calculated the odds at well over 100/1 but where there’s a will there’s a way.
Last weekend we picked up a hugely impressive victory against play-off chasers Millwall, a game that we dominated large parts of and thoroughly deserved the three points from. What it showed me was, A) we’re still alive and full of belief and, B) we can compete at this level when we’re on it. Regardless of what happens this season it made me confident ahead of next season.
It’s not just us that desperately need a win tomorrow afternoon though. Reading are also stuck in the bottom three and could move out of the drop zone with a win at the Select Car Leasing Stadium, whilst a defeat would all but relegate them. Having sacked Paul Ince earlier this month they’re without a win since February 25th, and we can’t be the team to break that duck.
Latics Team News
It feels like a rare occasion that Latics name an unchanged side but that’s exactly what we did last weekend against Millwall. The team that started the game against Stoke also took the field from the off at the DW and started much brighter than they did at the Bet 365 Stadium. The goal was deserved and it could’ve been more by the time the Lions equalised half an hour in.
Jamie Jones had his blushes spared in the second half when a throw out went astray, but he did well to save the subsequent shot with his feet. Ben Amos remained out of the squad with a rib injury, although the conspiracy theorist inside me still feels it could have something to do with avoiding an automatic contract extension clause in his contract.
Omar Rekik, Jack Whatmough and Ryan Nyambe were the back three but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes tomorrow afternoon. Reading’s front line is very tall and very physical so we may favour Charlie Hughes over Nyambe, who’s more useful against pacey forwards. Whilst Hughes is still improving physically he’s more suited to combatting their attack than Nyambe is.
Out wide I do continue to be impressed by the evergreen James McClean and Tendayi Darikwa. We can accept at this point that neither are in their prime but the effort, endeavour and experience they bring to the side is always important. The wide areas will be key against Reading so we need them on it in what could genuinely be their penultimate at the club.
Speaking of penultimate games it’ll almost certainly be Christ Tiehi’s. His arrival in January is arguably the reason we’re still alive in this relegation battle and I’m sure he’ll get a move in the summer. If we can get him back that’d be wonderful as I think he’s brilliant in this system Shaun Maloney’s playing, but it might not be possible financially.
His partner in centre midfield for most of his spell here has been Max Power, and he’s reinvented himself under Shaun Maloney. At times this season it looked like he was miles off the pace but I’ve been really impressed with him recently and fully expect him to stay around next season. His set pieces will be hugely important tomorrow.
I’d suggest that Saturday was Callum Lang’s best performance of the season as he showed us the Langy we’ve come to love over the past couple of seasons. Passion at the forefront but at last he showed us really impressive technical skills and decision making which are things he’s been missing at times this season. It’s games like this that show we’ve got a real star on our hands if he can hit a run of form.
An unsung hero from the Millwall game is Ashley Fletcher who picked up a nasty arm injury but played on regardless. I assume he’ll be out of this game because of it but that sets the tone for everyone else in terms of putting their bodies on the line. Josh Magennis is someone that always does that to be fair and he’ll surely lead the line as he did last week. He’s another I’ve been pleasantly surprised by recently too.
An Opposition View
1) It’s been a difficult time on and off the pitch for Reading this season and you currently find yourselves in the relegation zone, albeit thanks to a points deduction. Considering you moved top of the division with victory over Latics in the reverse fixture that’s been some change, can you just sum up the past few months for us?
“One thing for Reading fans this year is that safety was always paramount, no matter what the results, even when we were somehow winning enough earlier on. The mood has just been on a downward trajectory ever since then. When Noel Hunt took over there was a semblance of hope at least. But not many feel confident in the predicament we’re in at the moment.” [@TomLunn]
2) Paul Ince was sacked after a torrid run of form and club hero Noel Hunt has taken temporary charge. He’s had some tough games first up, what’ve you made of the impact he’s had?
“When Hunt took over it was like a weight had been lifted, albeit his first game in charge was against Burnley, where no one would have given us a chance to get anything. The atmosphere was incredible and although there’s been disappointment since, he still has the faith and admiration from the fans for the run-in, no matter the results from here.” [@TomLunn]
3) In high pressure moments it tends to be the side that handles the occasion the best that comes out on top. What can we expect from this Reading side stylistically?
“We have some experienced players that could feature for this important game. The pressure will be unreal and something many of the rest of the side won’t have faced before, but Reading have managed to fight it out in relegation scraps recently so it won’t be totally out of their wheelhouse. But many of the youngsters are really driven and I think with Hunt’s style, he can utilise their passion for the club to help see this game out if the quality is there on the day. Crucially this game comes at home before the final match of the season, where our record is just a complete opposite to our away form. Under Paul Ince we may have sat back and invited pressure, but there’s been a much more attacking mindset now, so I’d expect Reading to come out and give the fans something to cheer about early on.” [@TomLunn]
4) Which Reading player(s) are you hoping will swing the game in your favour and announce themselves are key men in the squad?
“There have been crucial injuries to the squad all season and none more so than Tom Ince who is out for the rest of the season since his injury a few weeks back. But one that might return to make an immediate impact is Junior Hoilett, who was often used as a Right Wing-Back. If he’s available even as a sub his experience might give Reading some much-needed stability in what will be a tense game. He’s not one for scoring a tonne for us but if he’s able to play a more attacking role, I wouldn’t rule him out in being involved.
Tom McIntyre could be back in the starting XI, and has scored twice this season and he even netted crucial goals last season in our fight for survival. He’s a Reading fan through and through too and that will be key, as we have seldom seen this season with players visibly giving their all.” [@TomLunn]
We didn’t see anything particularly different from a tactical perspective against Millwall, it was more just a timely culmination of plans. We’ve seen glimpses of playing patterns and positional rotations but this was the most complete performance I can think of under Shaun Maloney. Considering we were up against a play-off chaser it was really impressive.
The 3-4-2-1 system is one I like. I know a lot of people are of the opinion that only playing three attackers is negative but when done correctly with the right personnel in place I think it can as attacking as it is defensive. We played 3-4-2-1 for the full 90 minutes and had more shots than any of our games under Kolo and all but one of the games under Leam (which we also played 5 at the back in)!
The work of Lang alongside Thelo Aasgaard when he came on is what won us the game. Firstly we saw Thelo introduced as an 8 rather than a 10 which is where we’ve seen him more often than not previously. It allowed him to create from deep, left 3 attackers on the pitch and gave us a ball carrying option that helped us get up the pitch and win set pieces.
It’s probably fair to say starting him as an 8, especially in a double pivot, is risky. For all his wonderful flair attributes Maloney would be forgiven for not trusting the defensive side of his game compared to Christ Tiehi and Max Power. The question therefore is whether or not he should be pushed further forward.
Will Keane has two goals in two games and seems to be hitting form at the perfect time. Josh Magennis provides the ideal focal point at the top end of the pitch and provides height in both boxes which will be vital against a Reading side that pride themselves on set pieces. And as I mentioned earlier, Callum Lang had his best game of the season. There doesn’t seem to be a spot for him in that three.
For the next two games at least he’s probably best off the bench. Firstly he’ll provide something completely different off the bench and will change the dynamic of the game with his introduction. It’s also worth saying that without wishing this situation on us, he’s a game changer when we’re chasing a comeback. He has those ‘moments’ in him like nobody else in the squad.
On the topic of our attacking play I’ve been really interested in Maloney’s comments about getting the best out of Will Keane. The general theme seems to be wanting us to be ‘aggressive with our positioning’ which seems to mean getting more bodies in and around him in attacking areas. He’s very good at finding space but that’s harder to do when he’s the only man near the goal, so getting other players around him to occupy defenders is key.
Reading will likely line up 4-4-2 and are pretty old school in their approach. It’s imperative that we deal with their attacking threat well and limit crosses into the box towards their towering forwards. We like to defend narrowly usually but I’m pretty sure we’ve got to engage them in wide areas quicker than usual. We’ve got to match the effort and rely on our players being clinical at both ends of the pitch.
It’s hard to know whether the pressure is on us or not at this point. Survival is still so unlikely but these two games are winnable and it’ll feel like what might’ve been if we don’t take 6 points from them. However, it’s no longer in our hands and all we can do is turn up, win our games and pray things go elsewhere.
Perhaps controversially if we do end up going down I just hope it’s by a considerable margin. If we end up going down by three or less points after that deduction last month it’d be brutal considering the events of 2020 too. Let’s just stay up actually thinking about it!