High flying Reading were held to a 0-0 draw by Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium to end the Royals’ perfect start to their league campaign. The teams shared the points with Paddy McNair playing well in the Boro defensive line as they contained an impressive Reading from three that was led by former Liverpool winger Ovie Ejaria.
You can find a full detailed match report on the club’s official website here.
1 – McNAIR FORM CONTINUES
As well as Northern Ireland international McNair had played in his career at the Boro before, he has undoubtedly reached a new level of performance since being moved into central defense by Neil Warnock.
McNair was a strong presence as Middlesbrough blanked a Reading front line that had Ejaria working in tandem with Portugal international Lucas Joao and Ivory Coast international Yakou Meite.
A capable central midfielder in the division for so long, McNair now brings that quality on the ball into the defensive line and helped Boro build well out of the back during this game. He has also managed to push forward himself and his delivery into the box from both corners (at QPR) and open play (v Bournemouth) has seen him register assists already this season.
2 – DEFENSIVE FOUNDATION TAKING SHAPE
The conversion of McNair into a center back is not the only defensive upgrade for Middlesbrough this season. The signing of goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli from Fulham on a season-long loan deal has provided stability in goal, while Anfernee Dijksteel has broken into the first team and produced a series of top end performances in tandem with McNair.
In the middle of the back three for Boro, new signing Grant Hall had displaced Dael Fry before picking up an injury during the 1-1 draw at QPR. Former U20 World Cup winner Fry has since returned to the lineup with some strong displays and will give Warnock a selection headache when Hall returns to full health.
This was Boro’s first clean sheet of the season and the Teessiders have now conceded only four goals in their opening five games. This shutout was a good sign of defensive strength, coming against a Reading team that had won all four of their league games so far, having had six different players find the net in the process.
3 – HALFTIME TACTICAL ADJUSTMENT TO GRIND OUT RESULT
Plan A for Middlesbrough this season has been a 3-5-2 formation based on the strong performance of their defensive trio and hard working wingbacks. In this game, Reading dominated the run of play during the first half and had 64% of possession going into the interval.
At halftime, Warnock subbed on Marvin Johnson in place of striker Britt Assombalonga and adjusted the shape to more of a 4-1-4-1 shape with Marc Bola and Dijksteel serving as fullbacks either side of Fry and McNair. Johnson and Tavernier played on the left and right side of mifield respectively, while Chuba Akpom played as the lone striker.
In the second half, Boro managed to stifle Reading, dropping their xG rating from 0.35 in the first half, to a much less threatening 0.12 after the break with goalkeeper Bettinelli not having to register a save during the second half.
While Boro were not particularly threatening in front of goal themselves in the second half, their increased hold on the game after Warnock’s adjustment speaks well to the ability they should have to pick up points as the season progresses.
1 – ASSOMBALONGA DROUGHT
Striker Assombalonga played well after Warnock took the reins last season, netting five goals in seven games to end the Championship campaign and steer Boro clear of relegation danger. Warnock showed faith in the DR Congo international by handing him the captains armband and Assombalonga has had some good games so far but failed to get off the mark in terms of scoring.
Subbed off at halftime here for wingback Johnson, the forward has now gone six games without a goal including the EFL Cup win over League One Shrewsbury Town. Warnock will be hoping his captain can add some goals to the work rate and ability to make penetrating runs he has consistently shown so far this season.
2 – CREATIVITY VOID?
As outlined above Boro defended remarkably well in the second half of this game, producing a rigid display that reduced Reading’s xG rating to a measly 0.12 in the second half. When Reading got the ball in central areas they were under pressure and could not create space for dangerous forward passes. That did come at a cost on the offensive end, as Boro themselves only put up an xG rating of 0.15 and forced Reading goalkeeper Rafael to make only two saves over the course of the entire game.
Boro’s central midfield engine room of Jonny Howson, Sam Morsy and George Saville is very strong in terms of ball winning ability and cutting off passing lanes to forward players. With that said, they do possess less threat than other teams within the division in terms of attacking creativity.
On the other hand, Reading attacking central midfield player Michael Olise worked hard in search of space between the lines, looked to turn to face goal on his first touch and showed flashes of creativity in tight spaces. Olise also came close to grabbing a goal forcing a good save from Bettinelli in the 27th minute. While very organized, Middlesbrough have a little less flair and guile in this aspect of the game, and a player like Olise would undoubtedly make Boro more threatening at the attacking end of the field.
Warnock attempted to bring in an impact attacking player before the transfer window closed, but missed out on Everton winger Yanick Bolasie at the last minute. Manchester City playmaker Patrick Roberts rejoined the club on loan this week and was on the bench for this game. The mercurial Roberts netted a key game winning goal at Reading late last season, but finished the season on the bench as Boro won 2-1 at Sheffield Wednesday. Roberts will likely play an important role as the season progresses in terms of building a bridge between Boro’s strong defensive unit and the strikers.
3 – DEPTH AND OPTIONS
The attempt to sign Bolasie could have significantly upgraded Boro in terms of improving their attacking quality and depth. The successful signing of Akpom was leveled out by star man Ashley Fletcher being sidelined for months with an injury. For Boro to keep pace over the course of the season, it will likely need one of Roberts or Marcus Browne to produce consistently and provide quality to the attack.
THE OPPOSITION – READING
1 – STRONG FOUNDATION BETWEEN THE POSTS
While Reading have no lack of attacking quality, their team is built on the foundation of a quality goalkeeper with experience at the very highest level. Shot stopper Rafael has won 3 caps with the Brazil national team, including 90 minutes in a 2012 game against Lionel Messi and Argentina. The goalkeeper also made 45 appearances for Napoli and started Serie A and UEFA Champions League games during his spell in Italy.
Rafael now adds presence and stability on the defensive end for a Reading team that is showing early signs of a promotion push and potential return to the Premier League.
2 – THREATENING FRONT THREE
Reading have a range of options to score goals, as showcased by six different players finding the net so far in these early stages of the season. Center forward Joao has two caps for Portugal and has registered game winning goals against Cardiff City and Derby County so far this term.
On the left wing Ejaria has Premier League experience with Liverpool, while right winger Meite is a Paris Saint-Germain youth academy product with two caps for Ivory Coast. Talented teenager Olise pulls the strings behind and all four players have scored a goal already this season. Reading have the quality to stretch any defense in the league and that will likely fire them to a top six finish come season’s end if they maintain this level of performance.
3 – PROMOTION PUSH
This result leaves Reading in the promotion spots after five games and tied at the top of the league with Boro’s next opponents Bristol City. Manager Veljko Paunavic has galvanized his team and defied the preseason odds of 45/1 with some bookmakers to win the league, making an early statement and announcing his team as a serious contender to return to the top flight.
MAN OF THE MATCH
#16 CM Jonny Howson (Middlesbrough) – Tough tackling Howson is playing well of late and was all over the field here, winning ball and connecting passes. Howson also played a key defensive role as Boro subdued the lively Olise who was looking to find space between the Boro lines and cause damage all game. Howson also went close twice to scoring a game winner, having a strike disallowed before Liam Moore cleared his shot off the goal line in the 77th minute.
3: CM Jonny Howson – Man of the Match.
2: CD Paddy McNair – Solid as a rock in defense and also put in a quality performance connecting passes out of the back to break up spells of Reading pressure.
1: LM Marc Bola – All action performance from the wingback, keeping a tight watch on Meite while also pushing on to support the attack when Boro went forward.
3: LM Ovie Ejaria – Dynamic attacker who showed the ability to drive to the byline in penetration, and also cut inside to link with striker Joao to create chances for the Royals.
2: RM Yakou Meite – Full of confidence and purpose going forward, went back and forth in a heavyweight individual battle against McNair all game.
1: GK Rafael – A fantastic performance from Rafael displaying the kind of top level presence and distribution befitting a goalkeeper with UEFA Champions League and Serie A experience.
MID: Bettinelli, McNair, Fry, Dijksteel, Bola, Howson, Saville, Morsy, Tavernier (Spence), Akpom, Assombalonga (Johnson).
REA: Rafael, Richards, Moore, Morrison, Holmes, Rinomhota, Laurent, Olise (Aluko), Ejaria, Meite (Puscas), Joao (Semedo).
You can view game highlights on the club’s official website here.