clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Best Defence in the League?

It may come as a surprise, but Boxing Day's 3-0 victory over Brighton marked the first time the Royals had kept three consecutive clean sheets since the 27th April 2009, when a Shane Long brace sealed a 2-0 win over Norwich, in a game which Marcus Hahnemann, Liam Rosenior, Andre Bikey, Michael Duberry and Dan Harding kept the Canaries at bay.

The fact that it's been such a long period between those defensive achievements is a testament to the strength of this current Royal's defence. Led by the imperious figure of centre-back Kaspars Gorkss, the back four have found a mix of experience and exciting youth. Gorkss partnered by a player in Alex Pearce that, having only just turned 23, is seven years his junior, but from the balance that the left-footed/right-footed partnership has bought in recent months looks almost equal to the Latvian international in terms of experience and ability.

Gorkss was signed for an undisclosed fee at the back end of August, but whatever the price was back in the summer it already looks a bargain. Having been ever-present since joining the club, Kaspars has a goals conceded rate of less than one a game and chipped in with his first goal for the club in the 3-2 win over Ipswich.
No stranger to dominating Championship attackers, the Latvia captain helped keep 25 clean sheets for his QPR side last season as they ran away with the Championship title. To think that the 300+ minutes currently without a goal being conceded seems impressive, at one stage last year Kaspars had a run of 638 minutes goal-free for club and country.
His prowess in the air and his calmness on the ball have quickly made him a fans favourite, and with two more seasons to come on his current contract, his time at the Madejski has only really just begun.

The signing of Kaspars has not only benefited the team greatly, but also helped the individual he partners. After being the first of a so-called 'golden generation' to break through into the first-team back in 2007, Alex Pearce never really lived up to the hype that caused him to be dubbed 'the next John Terry' by former manager Brendan Rodgers. He made a promising start to last season but injury saw him spend the rest of the campaign behind Matt Mills and Zurab Khizanishvilli during the attempted charge to the Premier League.
Seeing both those two players leave meant that Alex would certainly be first-choice going into this campaign, and while it begun in poor fashion along with now forgotten-man Bongani Khumalo, whose Reading career could be over as soon as next week, being ever-present in the league so far has turned this into a coming-of-age season for the former Scotland Under-21 international. His physical presence is now matched with an experienced head on his shoulders which has come with the games and a consistent partnership with a certain Latvian, and turned him into a Championship-quality centre-back.
In previous years his lack of on-the-ball confidence was clear to see, but as shown during the Brighton game, he's willing to come forward when stood-off and pick a pass rather than resort to the 'hoofing' seen in the past.
Another weakness, his pace, still is a small problem, but not so much anymore. His positional sense helps him stay out of having to enter sprint-competitions against the nimble attackers offered by the opposition, and if he's beaten, at least there's likely to be a full-back still in the race.

You could say our wide-defenders can be placed in two categories: Slow but experienced, and fast but inexperienced. While you'd be right in saying Andy Griffin and Ian Harte, who have over 700 games between them aren't the quickest over the pitch, it's the fact that young Shaun Cummings and Joseph Mills, especially Shaun, have looked beyond their years when defending the flanks.

Both endured difficult starts to their Reading careers. Cummings was thrown straight into the side aged just 20 under Brendan Rodgers, and after a disastrous period, was chucked back out after just 8 games.
But Shaun has shown that a bit of hard work can get you places. The differences were shown in two games against West Brom, over a year between them. At the Hawthorns he was ripped apart by two-goal Jerome Thomas in a 3-1 defeat in 2009. In 2011 he faced Thomas again in an FA Cup match. Shaun kept the winger at bay for 90 minutes, helped the Royals keep a clean sheet, and picked up the man of the match award. Quite a turnaround.
Now first-choice at right-back, the former Chelsea man is a key member of not only the defence, but the entire Reading team. He may still not look entirely confident going forward to support his winger, but rarely looks troubled at the back and his place in the starting XI looks safe for a long time.

While Joseph is currently an onlooker from the stands, it was evident that Mills the younger was starting to prove that he could be another shrewd signing from McDermott. Despite initially looking like a bit of a panic buy following the drop in form of Ian Harte, the left-back did provide a breath of fresh air with his speed and attacking threat that had been absent since the departure of Ryan Bertrand. Over time and a run of games in the team Mills soon grew into his role, and in his penultimate game before injury was named man of the match. Having started to make his mark on the Reading team, it was a shame that he was ruled out for well over a month.

But when you talk of a great defence, you can't just have 4 top players. It's in strength in depth that makes the Reading backline stand out. Following Mills' unfortunate injury, Ian Harte made a return to the team and bagged two assists in the 3-2 win over Ipswich, then helped shutout West Ham two weeks later.
When the Irishman was ruled out of the Leeds game the next weekend, it meant the Royals had both left-backs at the club ruled out through injury. But the depth was proved yet again as Andy Griffin appeared for the first time in many months, fitting in seamlessly at left-back to keep the Leeds attackers at bay for 90 minutes, before following it up with another competent performance against Brighton. While it could be the last season at the club for one or both of these two, there are no worries when the experienced professional's they are are called upon to do their jobs.

So the best in the League? Maybe. Reading currently have the third best goals against record in the Championship behind Middlesborough and West Ham with just 22 goals conceded this season. One statistic that does stand out is that the Royals are the only club in the entire division not to have conceded more than two goals in a single game this campaign. Defensive leaders Middlesbrough suffered a 3-0 defeat to top of the pile Southampton back in October, while the Saints themselves went down 3-2 to Leicester during August. As for West Ham, well, we all know what happened at the Madejski.
So the backline clearly is penetrable once or twice a game, like nearly all opposition back-fours out there, but so far this year the Royals defence is yet to be really blown away by a single team, which, providing the attack and midfield are in good form at the other end, gives Reading are serious chance of taking victory in every game they play. If you don't concede, you can't lose.
Perhaps the one game the defence was seriously overrun was the now forgotten Carling Cup debacle against Charlton back in August. The League One side dominated a pairing of Bongani Khumalo and Sean Morrison and scored twice past Alex McCarthy in one disastrous evening. Those three players have not pulled on a Reading shirt since.

To be fair to Morrison (who bagged a goal that night and probably still holds the best goals-to-minute ratio in the clubs history), it was unlikely he was to feature much so far this season anyway. One of many young, promising defensive talents on the books at the moment, he burst into the Swindon side as a regular at the tender age of 18. Already with 50 games under his belt and still only 20 years old, it's clear there's some talent with the January signing. While he'll be disappointed to have featured just once in 2011 after being a regular at his old club, something which may just have slowed down his progress slightly, his appearance on the Elland Road bench recently suggests he isn't far from the team, and if injury or suspension strikes the Pearce-Gorkss partnership, he'll be the first man in.
Other youngsters around the club include giant centre-back Michael Hector, a regular for his loan club Barnet, where he recently extended his stay until the end of the season, Nicholas Arnold, a full-back who was in the squad for the Charlton Carling Cup game, only to see the game postponed and injury strike, ruling him out of the last couple of months and youth internationals Jack Mills, Angus McDonald and Carl McHugh. Plenty of talent lurking beneath the surface of that Reading defence.

This exciting future cannot be extended across the whole squad however. Time looks up for two members of the Royals. Marcus Williams has pretty much sealed a permanent move to Sheffield United according to reports, and his departure is unlikely to make too much of a noise back in Berkshire. While loanee Khumalo, initially an exciting capture from Spurs for the whole season, should depart in the coming weeks. A clause in his loan that allows him to be recalled during January should be activated by his parent club due to his lack of match-time at Reading, the whole purpose of the loan, although this is no certainty.

But back to the positives, and in conclusion it's clear that the Reading defence is a real force to be reckoned with in it's current state. A solid centre-back partnership that is growing stronger with every game, and a mix of full-backs with different strengths between them, whether it be overlapping speed, defensive intelligence, or set-piece prowess, has created a backline that has removed doubts and fears which has plagued Royals fans for a number of years.
The goalkeeping issues (though far from negative) rage on, and the Federici/McCarthy debate was looked at recently by one of our writers. You can also read my piece on the other man with gloves round his hands, Mikkel Andersen, written at the beginning of this season.
But there's no doubting that Federici has done a fine job in between whenever needed, and he completes a backline that's beginning to prove very difficult for opposition teams to break down.