Did you hear that Reading had six points deducted by the EFL? What about the catastrophic injury crisis they're currently in the midst of - did you hear about that? Or how about the refereeing decisions that have frequently gone against Reading this year?

Of course, you did. You've heard all of this. You’ve lived through the past three months as these storylines have and continue to dominate Reading’s disappointing first half of the 2021/22 campaign.

This is the reality of where Reading Football Club finds itself right now.

But here’s the greater reality: Reading are two points clear of the relegation zone.

The time for excuses is over. Reading are in a very real relegation battle and focusing on everything that’s gone wrong is not helping. This is the situation. There’s no escaping or avoiding the injuries, they exist and they aren’t going anywhere. 

Reading Chronicle: The Reading players dejectedly trudge off the pitch after defeat to West Brom. Image by: JasonPIXThe Reading players dejectedly trudge off the pitch after defeat to West Brom. Image by: JasonPIX

Perhaps, it’s a bit harsh to call all these issues, excuses. Because in truth, they’re more than that. They’re reasons. Reasons for Reading’s slide down the table and the rut they find themselves in.

But these are also just facts of life around Berkshire in December 2021. Reading do have a serious injury crisis. They did have six points deducted by the EFL. But in some ways, it almost feels like there has been an attempt to freeze time. Reading’s entire season is stuck in limbo as they seemingly await the squad’s return to health before they can start to properly compete again. 

But quite simply, they do not have time. The most important reality for Reading Football Club is that they’re in a relegation battle. The time to harp on those excuses - or reasons if you prefer to think of it that way - is over. Reading have to find ways to move past it all and figure out how to get concrete tangible rewards on the pitch.

Surrender at The Hawthorns

Not to suggest that that is an easy demand. By the time Reading arrived at The Hawthorns on Saturday, their injury crisis had deepened with Andy Yiadom, Danny Drinkwater, John Swift, and Femi Azeez all missing out. All four are sizable losses but the Drinkwater and Swift blows felt particularly gut-punching as there had been no concern for them as late as Thursday.

But when the teams were released an hour before kick-off the two influential midfielders were nowhere to be found with 17-year old Tyrell Ashcroft called in to make an emergency start. Veljko Paunovic’s depleted team put up something of a fight, only losing to third-placed West Brom by a solitary goal. But that scoreline doesn’t tell the story of the Baggies’ total dominance. 

Reading Chronicle: The final moments of relative parity on Saturday before West Brom took control. Image by: JasonPIXThe final moments of relative parity on Saturday before West Brom took control. Image by: JasonPIX

In the first ten minutes alone, West Brom had four shots, going on to finish the half with 14 and the game with 25. Reading meanwhile had four shots in total, none on target.

Some impressively wayward finishing from the hosts helped keep the score down while multiple terrific saves from Luke Southwood gave Reading a chance.

But despite the goalkeeper’s heroics, there was an inevitability to the result from the opening seconds as West Brom controlled almost every facet of the clash.

There was, however, one moment in which the game could have shifted. With a minute to play in the first half, Alen Halilovic delicately turned his marker before looking for Tom Dele-Bashiru sprinting free on the left wing. The pass found him in his stride and the Watford loanee drove into the box before slicing his eventual effort wide.

Football is a momentum sport and each game can hinge and change with one moment - one opportunity taken or missed. This was Reading’s potential moment. But it would have been beyond harsh on the home side who must have been shocked at how easy they had it considering the dire situation of their own - missing nearly half their squad due to a Covid outbreak. 

Reading Chronicle: West Brom celebrate Robinson's winning goal. Image by: JasonPIXWest Brom celebrate Robinson's winning goal. Image by: JasonPIX

Second best...again and again

This is far from the first time Reading have made things simple for their opposition. Saturday’s defeat marked the ninth time this season that Reading have had two or fewer shots on target and the second occasion of having none after doing the same at Millwall in early November. It was also the 12th time in 2021/22 that their opponents have fired 15 or more shots at Reading’s goal, a total Paunovic’s side have only reached once. 

Meanwhile, In 15 of 22 games this season (68%), Reading have had fewer shots than their foes, recording a total of 214 shots themselves (9.7 per game) while conceding 349 (15.9 per game). 

Many of Reading’s games have been fairly close, only getting truly thumped at Huddersfield and losing eight times by one goal. But they’ve also rarely been the better team.

The defeat to West Brom was a perfect example of this. Callum Robinson’s goal just past the hour mark was the sole difference on a rainy afternoon in the Midlands but you’d have to be a phenomenal actor to seriously suggest that the game was close.

Victory at Swansea and an unlucky draw against Hull where Reading deserved to win provided promise that something of a corner was being turned after losing five of their previous seven. But against West Brom, Reading were back to toiling, looking lost and on a wildly different level to their promotion-chasing hosts. 

Reading Chronicle: Reading boss Veljko Paunovic has major problems to solve. Image by: JasonPIXReading boss Veljko Paunovic has major problems to solve. Image by: JasonPIX

It won’t be a shock to anyone who forced themselves to sit through the misery of Saturday, but almost every statistic backs up what we’re seeing on the pitch: Reading have not been good enough for quite some time now.

On only four occasions this season have Reading beaten their opponents in terms of expected goals (xG) - a statistic used to measure the quality of chances a team creates and concedes. Not once have Reading finished with an xG higher than 1.8 (meaning their chances created should lead to nearly two goals) while they’ve conceded more than that number nine times.

There are reasons for it - or excuses - but more than unlucky, Reading simply haven’t been good enough. In fact, the data tells us that Reading are fortunate to be clear of the relegation zone at all. A table determined solely by xG would have Reading sitting with just 13 points, a full eight less than they’ve actually claimed and the same number that second-bottom Barnsley currently find themselves on.

The chart below displays Reading's rolling xG numbers this season. The blue line is Reading and the orange their opponents each week. It makes for problematic viewing, the orange line spiked notably and nearly constantly higher than the blue.

Expected goals isn’t everything and Reading have enjoyed impressive performances in which they’ve ended up losing on xG, the September victory at Fulham instantly coming to mind. But when all the numbers over the course of 22 games back up what everyone can see with their eyes, it really is time to worry.

The Day of Reckoning

All of this relative darkness brings us to a hopeful beacon at the end of the week: the visit of Luton Town. Important would be an understatement, this game could be the defining moment of Reading’s still young season. 

The Select Car Leasing Stadium is expected to be packed out as the Royals celebrate their 150th anniversary and in the context of both the season and the club’s modern history, it’s a big day. Defeat, especially in the meek manner we all saw at West Brom, would deepen the slide and the negative swing of momentum. Victory on what promises to be a memorable afternoon regardless of the result could be the catalyst to reignite this stuttering campaign.

Reading Chronicle: The travelling Reading fans at West Brom on Saturday. Image by: JasonPIXThe travelling Reading fans at West Brom on Saturday. Image by: JasonPIX

There is very real pressure on Reading - the club, the players, and its manager. Speaking after the defeat to West Brom, Paunovic explained that he saw it as motivation rather than pressure but whatever you want to call it, there is a major weight on the shoulders of his team. Action is needed, beginning with Saturday.

Dreams of the playoffs have quickly turned to survival hopes and if Reading aren’t careful, this season could still end with relegation to League One, a truly disastrous outcome that is painful to even contemplate.

But contemplate they must. ‘Waiting’ for Reading’s squad to return to health is just not a viable thought process at this point. With injuries continuing to mount and numerous impactful players such as Yakou Meite and Lucas Joao still set for extended periods on the sidelines, no one has any idea when (or if) full health will actually be a reality.

And by the time it arrives, it could well be too late. Reading need to find solutions, not bank on their excuses offering them a way out. 

xG data source: Infogol