Talking about midfielders and forwards in the Reading side is a bit trickier than usual this year. Under previous managers it has been very cut and dry over who did what in a very rigid 4-4-2 formation. With the arrival of Nigel Adkins the whole forward line has become more fluid so rather than focus just on 'midfielders' and 'strikers', instead I'll be looking at all those players who will be expected to contribute in the final third.
To that end I'll be making two big assumptions. Firstly that the squad doesn't change between now and September (a big assumption if recent reports about Pavel Pogrebnyak are anything to go by) and that Adkins sticks to the 4-2-3-1 formation that he implemented last season.
The obvious place to start when looking at forwards: who is there to score the goals to fire the team up the league?
Chances are that Reading’s team will be based around one central striker this year and competition for that place is pretty fierce. Purely looking at the stats from last season, it should be a foregone conclusion that Adam Le Fondre as top scorer, is the man in the driving seat. Certainly in my mind he is the one player that can be relied upon to put the ball in the back of the net.
There is one big problem with Le Fondre though and that’s when he isn’t scoring. Unlike all the other options up top, Alfie doesn’t really offer anything else to the side apart from his goals. That’s the main reason he was used as an impact sub rather than from the start last season. With Adkins' preferred style to be dependent on off the ball awareness and movement, Le Fondre will have to adapt his game if he wants to start regularly but my gut feeling is that he will be given the opportunity to do just that.
The main competition that Alfie has is the big Russian, Pavel Pogrebnyak. Most Reading fans have strong opinions on last summer's major signing but nobody can disagree that he suffered a bit last term. The debate as to why and whose fault has been discussed on here already but regardless of that, he is a player that opposition defenders will fear. The reputation he brings and his sheer physical size will be an asset for the side and with more support around him there's every reason to believe that he could have a good year. The question remains over whether he'll even be here come deadline day but there's no denying that at Championship level he has the ability to score a lot of goals.
Also in the mix is Reading's forgotten man. The man who gave the side the impetus to win the league and who I believe is probably best suited to play the striker role in this side: Jason Roberts. There's not a cat in hell's chance that the Grenadian international will be fit for the start of the season, let alone the whole lot but his know-how and experience are second to none in this squad. He has a canniness that must make him a real handful to play against and if the club is to do well this year, I think he'll be needed to make an impact.
There will also be the option of Nick Blackman or Hal Robson-Kanu being used through the middle, a youngster like Dominic Samuel or Gozie Ugwu coming from the academy or someone new coming in (Cardiff City’s Slovenian international Etien Velikonja being the most recent link) but I can only see them being used in cases of emergency or as a direct replacement for Le Fondre or Pogrebnyak.
I say ‘wingers’ because in a 4-2-3-1 you don’t really get the old fashioned wide players that we all know and love. There may be times when they beat the man on the outside and whip in crosses but that’s not their main purpose in the side anymore (the full backs will be doing that) and instead they will be needed more as wide forwards.
Even the term ‘wide forward’ is probably a bit of a misnomer as well because if Southampton are anything to go by, there will probably be an element of switching between all three of the players behind the front man.
Whichever trio Nigel Adkins opts for, there is plenty of choice and all of them bring strong cases for why it should be them.
Head of the line is the most surprising free transfer to join the Championship since Vicente arrived in Brighton: Royston Drenthe. The anticipation of what the Dutch international is going to be able to produce is palpable and how Adkins plans to deploy him will be very interesting. In the friendly against Swansea he started behind Le Fondre and this is the position where he can probably exert the most influence. Drenthe has the potential to set the league alight and I’m certain he will win games on his own but there will remain a question over whether he has the inclination to play consistently at that level and doubts have already been raised about his willingness to muck in with the defensive work.
Should the Dutchman falter then Jobi McAnuff will be a very able deputy in his role. The Reading captain came in for a lot of stick last season but he's looked like a player reborn under Nigel Adkins. Given a lot more freedom to roam and to play more instinctively, the Jamaican looks much more comfortable and will probably have more than a few points to prove to some of his doubters. He will probably start out on the flanks but is adept at swapping positions, expect a big season from him.
Drenthe and McAnuff look nailed on starters and with doubts lingering over the fitness of the enigmatic Jimmy Kebe, the last position in the triumvirate is most definitely up for grabs. It looks like it could well be a straight shoot out between Hal Robson-Kanu and Garath McCleary. Robson-Kanu was one of the few to come out of last season with his reputation enhanced and will be seeing this year as a golden opportunity to really cement his place in the side. McCleary on the other hand had a similar season to McAnuff, his best only really being glimpsed towards the end of the season.
Every year I’ve written for The Tilehurst End I seemed to have typed the phrase “maybe this will be Jordan Obita’s year” and I’m doing the same again. Given the competition for places it’s a bit of a struggle to see exactly how he’ll get his chance. The same goes for Nick Blackman who doesn’t seem to be in the same class as the others he’s competing with and it’s hard to see how either of these two will fit into the side.
The Middle Men
In many ways the most important players in this whole set up, it will be the midfield pairing’s job to win the ball, retain possession and launch attacks. No small ask.
Danny Guthrie will be the man who carries the biggest load in this regard. Having been made vice-captain, it’s pretty clear that he is being given the responsibility that he craves. He is very comfortable on the ball and Adkins will be looking to him to set the pace of the game.
Who Guthrie’s partner will be is more of a conundrum. After a fantastic season in winning the league, Jem Karacan’s lack of awareness cost him in the top flight and more will be expected of him this time around. Whether he has the discipline to be Guthrie’s foil remains to be seen. New boy Danny Williams will be pushing Karacan hard for his place but it will be discipline of a different sort that could cost the American. Williams came through the German academy system so will have to do less adapting than others but he carries a reputation as someone who is no stranger to a yellow card. He may find English football more to his liking and if he settles quickly, could offer real steel to the side.
Still a bit of an unknown quantity is Hope Akpan. After impressing in his first few games for the club he looked out of his depth as the season progressed. Seen as more of one for the future he is in the tricky position of not really being a first team player yet but too close to the squad to go out on loan. He will need to improve his game if he’s not to fall by the wayside.
The backup players are a bit of a mixed bag in this department. Mikele Leigertwood is massively out of favour to such an extent that Nigel Adkins didn't even mention his name as an option at the recent fans' forum and it’ll require a few injuries before he features whilst Lawson D’Ath and Jake Taylor seem to have been around a very long time without really cutting it. In all likelihood it’s probably more likely that Jobi McAnuff would drop into the middle long before any of these guys make the starting XI.
On paper the options in the middle and final thirds look very healthy. There’s a good mix of experience, quality and youth with the addition of players with points to prove. There may be changes between now and deadline day but it’s unlikely it’ll be anything too drastic and how close the side get to the 100 goal target will be about how well they adapt to the new systems. In theory, the players available should be able to make sure Reading are in contention for an immediate return to the top flight.