So, it’s finally over! The not so eagerly anticipated international break has come to a close and it’s been a relatively quiet one for North End with only Sean Maguire away with Ireland and Lukas Nmecha had his first involvement with Germany U21s after switching to the country of his birth.

Sean Maguire was one worry for some sections of the North End faithful with his recent injury record but he managed to return to Lancashire unscathed which was helped by the fact that Mick McCarthy and the Republic of Ireland staff respected the way that North End handle Maguire and were quite happy to do the same thing in order to keep him in the best possible shape.

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Lukas Nmecha on the other hand, came off the bench for Germany U21s with 30 minutes left of the game. He made the international switch from England after coming off the bench for England U20s in the last international break in November to score and grab an assist in a 2-0 win over Germany U20.

For the rest of the North End squad, plenty of rest and downtime. Enough for them to relax their bodies and minds and get ready for the final 8 games of the season which start this Saturday down in Berkshire at the Madjeski Stadium against Reading.

Recent Form

Saturday will see Alex Neil’s men come up against a Reading side who are on a bit of a resurgent run of late having picked up 11 points in their last 7 games compared to just 7 in the 7 games before that.

In contrast, as most North End fans will be aware, we are currently on a run of 6 away wins on the spin and after Seani Maguire’s 94th-minute winner against Birmingham before the international break, we are now 12 games unbeaten. We have also picked up the most points on the road, 18 to be exact, in 2019 of any team in the top 4 tiers.

In terms of the game ahead, I suspect we will see Reading set up in a 4-2-3-1 or they will interchange with a 4-1-4-1 and plenty of rotation in midfield and the final 3rd, similar to Brentford. Both of the full backs, Yiadom and Blackett are very athletic and mobile and will probably push high up the pitch and if they play in the 4-2-3-1, Lewis Baker will play in the 2 alongside either Swift or Ejaria. They sometimes also play 4-1-4-1 with Baker behind the 2 mentioned. These are technical players with academy upbringings (Chelsea and Liverpool), very mobile and can pass the ball well.

Wide will likely be McCleary, Harriott, Barrow and Meite – all very quick, mobile, can get in behind and are dangerous in a 1v1, all pretty similar players. Up front is either Oliveira or Meite. With Oliveira recently injured, I suspect Meite will play on this occasion. He’s mobile and got good movement so we know how they’ll set up. Typical continental style, emphasis on ball retention, mobility, fluidity in the final 3rd.

Opposition View

This week, we’ve got Matthew Batten, an occasional contributor to the Reading fan site thetilehurstend.sbnation.com. He’ll be giving us his thoughts on Reading’s season to date. You can follow him on twitter at @maffff.

As with many other pieces of content I’ve seen this year, it’s been a mixed season for Reading.

It all started off with a real sense of apathy and general malaise, from the staff through the players and emanating out to the fans. Personally, I hold the former manager, Paul Clement, and ex-CEO Ron Gourlay largely accountable for us not building upon the playoff final season, which led to the rot that seems to have set in.

For much of the season we’ve looked disorganised at the back, toothless up top and weak in the middle – frankly, not a great combination. Small purple patches for strikers Yakou Meite and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson have helped loosely plaster over some of those cracks, but the reason we weren’t cut adrift by December when Clement departed, is solely down to how bad the other teams are down at the foot of the table.

Poor recruitment through Stam’s second year led to a tense end to last season, with the slight ‘dead-cat bounce’ upon Clement’s joining being debatably what kept us up. By the end of Clement’s first window, Reading had a heavily bloated squad weighted towards ‘experience’, but most worryingly, with no distinct style or a plan. To put it bluntly, after three draws and three losses in pre-season the tone was set going into our opening game against Derby – we looked like prime candidates for relegation.

The season opened with a false dawn, a tough to take last minute defeat at the Madejski to Frank Lampard’s Derby County™ followed by three more defeats and two draws in our opening six. Rooting us to the foot of the table.

Our hapless CEO, Ron Gourlay departed in December with our returning CEO Nigel Howe giving Clement the boot the day after he was confirmed. With just 4 wins after 20 games (thanks for the 3 points at yours!) it was the right thing.

After this the club has appeared much more settled, fans were broadly happy with moves behind the scenes. On 22 December we confirmed our new manager, José Gomes from Rio Ave in Portugal.  While he joined in a poor run of form, we’ve slowly started to mould ourselves into a team. It’s not perfect. We have had games where we’ve absolutely capitulated at the beginning (Swansea, Sheffield United).

The key turning point for us has been the January window. After using 3 keepers in the first half of the season due to injuries and form of others (Vito Mannone, now on loan in the US, Anssi Jaakkola and Sam Walker) we loaned in Emi Martinez from Arsenal.  Martinez is a class above what we had, reasonable on the ball and a reassuring figure which has helped defence look considerably more settled.

We also brought in Matt Miazga and Lewis Baker from Chelsea, Ovie Ejaria from Liverpool and Nelson Oliveira from Norwich – all on loan.  Five loanees is always a risky strategy, but each have shown commitment, determination and in Oliveira’s case, blood, for the cause.

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Miazga has shown he’s capable of playing an expansive passing game, getting stuck in and doesn’t lose much in the air.  Baker has recently shown a level of nous we’ve missed for a long time, Ejaria has been adopted out on the wing and in central midfield, doing a decent job in both, and Oliveira managed 3 goals in 6 appearances always looking a constant threat.

In addition to the loanees, Gomes isn’t afraid to use youth. We’ve had two players make their league debuts from the academy so far this month, bringing us to six in the league this year. While only one so far appears to have made the shirt his own, Andy Rinomhota, this does bode well for the future and fans have engaged with it well.

Following the managerial change in December, we have seen our form improve, although we’ve not necessarily looked convincing in many games, and injuries are continuing to curtail us.  At least 7 players who would arguably have a place in the matchday squad are likely still out: Jaakkola, Obita, Ezatolahi, Rinomhota, Ejaria, Bodvarsson, Baldock and Oliveira. Rinomhota and Oliveira are especially huge losses for midfield and attack respectively.

But all in all, it feels like an upward trajectory. Our last minute winner, in a game mostly we looked less than convincing in, at home against Wigan has built a lot more positivity. As has bringing more teams down into the relegation battle, we have plenty to play for.

Looking at the players we have at our disposal you would expect us to be ok, but we are reliant on a few key things which will be where the game against Preston is won or lost:

  • The first few minutes and our mentality. We’re still fragile. It’s been a tough couple of years. If we don’t settle into the game quickly or concede an early goal, there’s a chance it will turn into a rout.
  • Winning the midfield battle. We haven’t had a balanced midfield for a while due to injuries, when we don’t have control of the midfield games tend to get away from us.
  • The form of John Swift. He may blow hot and cold, and should definitely be playing in the more advanced role, but he’s our main creative outlet in the centre. If he has a good game, he creates opportunities for our strikers to miss.
  • Goals. We don’t get many of these (see above point). Danny Loader is yet to score after 17 games, Garath McCleary hasn’t scored in over 40 games and purple patch aside Meite is extremely profligate. Without Oliveira it’s hard to see where we’ll get the goals to keep us up – but odd ones to keep coming.

As for a starting XI, our back 5 is pretty set and it’ll likely Meite or Loader up top. Midfield and wings have alternated a bit recently and Gomes could always throw another youngster in we aren’t expecting. I’ll go for:

(4-2-3-1) Martinez; Yiadom, Miazga, Moore, Blackett; Baker, Swift; McCleary, Olise, Barrow; Meite.

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For a prediction, I don’t think you’ll fancy giving us another three points. Given our uptick in form and more time over the break for Gomes to implement his philosophy I can see us continuing our reasonable form and not rolling over entirely. I’ll go for 1-1 – with a late equaliser for Reading.

As a final point. I look at Preston, the recruitment, development of players and how you play with a large amount of jealousy. The way the foundations of the team have been set together reminds me of how we built towards the 106 point season. Good luck for the run in. Just not Saturday, please. We desperately need the points.

Predictions

On paper, I think this is a game that could pan out similar to the Norwich game at home and with Pearson and DJ in the middle, Gallagher off to the left slightly and I suspect, if fit, Potts will play in the number 10 role in Alan Browne’s absence, we will have plenty of legs in the middle of the park. It will by no means be an easy game and Reading will prove to be another tough opponent and I suspect this could be when our run comes to an end but I am going to predict a 2-1 North End victory. Hopefully things don’t turn out like they did in the game earlier in the season at Deepdale!

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As far as our starting XI, I think the back 5 pretty much picks itself at the moment so that leaves me with one realy decision – who goes up top? I’m going to go with the following for the starting XI: Rudd; Fisher, Storey, Davies, Earl; Pearson, DJ; Nmecha, Potts, Gallagher; Maguire.

How do you think we will get on at the weekend? Will we make it 13 unbeaten adn 7 away wins on the spin? Let’s hope so with around 1,700 North Enders travelling down to the Madjeski. If you’re not already following us on our social media channels, you can find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Let us know how you think we’ll get on this weekend and say hi, too!