City host relegation threatened Reading with a job to get completed. While City fans expect win number 9 on the bounce, the Royals should provide a stern test. Jon Punt spoke to The Tilehurst End's Simeon Pickup to find out what's in store.
Jon: I really thought it was your time to drop into League 1 this season. From the limited amount of games I'd seen up until Christmas, Reading looked all over the shop at times. Yet your recent resurgence has taken you away from your fellow strugglers and it now appears you'll have enough. How much of that is down to the much fabled new manager bounce, has Jose Gomes changed much?
Simeon - Our recent resurgence has indeed mostly been down to the manager. The squad was seriously devoid of optimism and fight under Paul Clement, who didn't seem capable of firing up his own players or inspiring the fans. Jose Gomes' impact in his first few months has been huge - restoring the players' passion and uniting a previously divided and pretty bitter fanbase.
That said, our improved form has also been down in large part to our January loan signings: Emi Martinez, Matt Miazga, Ovie Ejaria, Lewis Baker and Nelson Oliveira. The first two in particular, both defensive players, have shored us up at the back and helped the team play out as part of our possession system. Baker and Ejaria have added much-needed technical ability in the midfield, while Oliveira has not only popped up with some crucial goals, but also brushed off the Tyrone Mings' stamp to cement his status as a fan favourite. We wouldn't have managed the turnaround without those five.
Nonetheless, although our points return has been better since Gomes came in, it's not been so good that we've pulled away from the bottom three. Rotherham United's frustrating ability to pick up random wins means we're still only one point ahead of them. It's squeaky bum time.
Yeah I don't think Rotherham are going away anytime soon, they are difficult to beat, although might pick up too many draws rather than wins to actually scrape survival now. QPR could well get dragged into the mix too, they were woeful on Saturday.
Interesting to note the style has changed to possession based under Gomes. Does that become frustrating for the fanbase when things aren't going so well? We saw our fair share of that last year, as Farke tried to implement his vision with players that weren't quite up to it.
There's been an interesting history for possession football at Reading, actually. Brendan Rodgers tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce it a decade ago, which was followed by a (successful) several-year period of a more pragmatic approach under Brian McDermott. We eventually returned to the system under Jaap Stam but, despite doing very well with it in terms of results on our way to the playoff final, in terms of entertainment it was extremely bland. The Dutchman's failure the following season only made possession football even less popular in the fanbase.
However, Jose Gomes' take on the system is easier on the eye. That, coupled with the affection he's already won from the supporters, means we're all very much buying into what's become known as 'Gomes-ball'. Interestingly though, recent weeks have seen Reading become more pragmatic tactically - we still play out from the back and don't like to surrender the ball too easily, but we often opt for a quick counter-attack rather than solely trying to dominate possession.
You're copying us, we call it Farke-ball. And it's beautiful, so you can't have it.
Interested to hear how Nelson Oliveira fits into a possession based system, he was very much all about himself in his time at Norwich, has he curbed the selfishness?
Not really, no.
We play him up top on his own in a 4-2-3-1, and he gives us a great all-round presence in being able to hold the ball up, run at defenders and get in-behind sometimes too. As you say though, he's often too selfish, trying to do too much with the ball in midfield rather than bringing a teammate into the game. He's very much at his best around the box in the final third. But, that being said, for a team that's so often lacked a striker with confidence, it's great to finally have a forward that will have a go. See his wonder-strike against Blackburn Rovers (a crucial late winner at that) as a good example.
He started like a steam train for us, then just seemed to down tools when Farke arrived. There's definitely a top flight player in there on his day, but he was so enigmatic in his time here. If Gomes can get him focused in the right direction you'll have a gem. That said, he seems to start pretty well wherever he goes (there have been so many clubs) then drifts off. I'd predict, unfortunately for you guys, he might tail off if and when the deal is made permanent in the summer.
That said, he can't play on Wednesday, so who are we likely to see in his place and what kind of attacking threat should we be wary of?
Our alternative to Nelson Oliveira up top has usually been Yakou Meite, who can be a handful with his direct running and strength. However, he lacks Oliveira's technical ability and quality in the final third, so isn't an ideal replacement.
Jose Gomes tried something against Preston North End and could go back to it in an attempt to outfox Daniel Farke - playing Modou Barrow as a last-man-on-the-shoulder type of striker. The Gambian's got pace to burn and should cause you problems by getting in behind. He nabbed three goals in March - he'd only scored once before that all season, so seems to have finally worked out where the net is.
Otherwise, we badly missed John Swift's creativity on Saturday and will do again on Wednesday - he'll likely miss out through injury. Lewis Baker has hit form recently in the middle of the park where he dictates play nicely, and even scored in eye-catching style from outside the box at the KCOM. On the whole though, our attacking threat is very much focussed on pace. Meite and Barrow will likely be our two biggest threats, so if you can neutralise them you'll probably have an easy time at the back.
Interesting - the pace of Aarons and Lewis should be enough to cover, but our attacking width primarily comes through them. If they get caught high up the pitch you might get at us. However, the partnership of Godfrey and Zimmermann has looked much less leaky of late, they seem to be snuffing out dangerous situations before they materialise, rather than having to do the last ditch stuff.
What have you guys made of Norwich's transformation this season? Guessing we didn't hit many people's radar until the last two or three months when we've really kicked on? This isn't meant to sound arrogant, but if we do go up as champions (or just go up full stop) I'm guessing we'll be seen as the new fashionable template for what can be achieved on a finite budget.
I actually had a sneaky suspicion before the season started that you would do well. Stability, long-term thinking and having faith in your manager tends to pay off at this level.
I certainly would have you down as a model club for other Championship sides, particularly Reading. Like you, we want to play out from the back and control possession, but can't afford to throw money at recruitment in order to make that system happen.
Splashing the cash is no guarantee of success in this league - just ask Stoke City - so clubs would be wise to have an approach as astute as yours.
Too true. So specific prediction time then. Both now and for the season. I'll plump for City as Champions with 95 points, you stay up on the last day despite losing 2-0 to Brum.
As for the march itself, 3-1 City, Pukki levels things up before half time after you open the scoring early, he then completes his first Norwich hat trick with strikes in the 72nd and 81st minutes. You?
I'm honoured you think we'll score at all. Norwich will get the first goal of the evening within the first quarter of an hour, dominate the rest of the game and run out 4-0 winners. Pukki to net at least twice to rub in the fact that we were linked with him in the summer.
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10 minutes of drama that encapsulated the life of a football fan. Agony, relief, ecstasy, frustration and ultimately pride. So close to being perfect, but ultimately one more step towards the most joyful of promotions. Andrew Lawn and Jon Punt on the words.