When you consider all the signings made by Brian McDermott in the summer, why do the regular starting line-ups of both this and last season seem not so different? Was all that transfer activity really worth it?
Five months ago most Reading fans seemed happy with the squad Brian was electing to take into the Premier League. The core squad had won more than half of the seasons league games on their way to being crowned winners of the 2011/12 Championship. With that in mind it seemed quite a drastic summer signing spree, when you realise McDermott brought in nearly half a new match day squad. Seven potential first team players walked in through the Madejski Stadium doors and reportedly five million pounds (Frugal in Premier League terms) was spent in transfer fees getting them here.
Seeing as so few have become starting "regulars," maybe it's worth remembering who they were? In line-up order: Stuart Taylor, Chris Gunter, Adrian Mariappa, Nicky Shorey, Garath McCleary, Danny Guthrie and Pavel Pogrebnyak. In true RFC style we also said "Hello" to a "one for the future" type signing in youngster Pierce Sweeney. But for this lad, it's probably safe to say we won't see him for a season or two yet, but let's hope whoever scouted Sean Morrison, saw the same in Pierce!
As is always the case in football, the "Hello's," sadly meant some "Goodbyes" for Loyal Royals. So having looked at who we signed in the summer, who was lost?
- Andy Griffin: McDermott waved off both his first and perhaps most pivotal signing in the former Stoke Captain. Griff helped shore up the weak defence that Brian inherited from Brendan Rodgers when the Royals looked potentially League One-bound. Griff's presence at right back enabled the team to gain the confidence to develop into a side capable of reaching the FA Cup quarterfinals and only miss the play-offs by seven points
- Brian Howard: Staying with the Rodgers era, Howard was Brendan's swap signing on a transfer deadline day which saw him arrive from Sheffield United, with fans favourite James Harper going the other way. Howard only made around 50 league appearances over three seasons for Reading, and spent part of last season loaned out to Millwall, so not a surprise departure. Mostly used in the era where RFC still had Gylfi Sigurdsson, Howard played as an assisting creative midfielder to both him and Shane Long. Once Mikele Leigertwood was signed following Gylfi's departure, so was Howard's uses in McDermott's tactics.
- Mathieu "Beast" Manset: Having only arrived just 18 months previously, the big striker was sold to Swiss club Sion. Although he made less than 30 league appearances, Manset did at times change and prove vital to Reading's attack dynamic. He only scored five goals, but certainly had his moments at looking dangerous (in both senses) whenever on the pitch. But for reported personal issues and a desire to see more action he left the Madejski. Not before spending the latter half of last season on loan partnering his compatriot Nicolas Anelka in the Chinese Super League.
- Michail Antonio: Sold to Championship new-boys Sheffield Wednesday, Antonio had been signed prospectively from non-league during the Steve Coppell era. He'd shown real promise during pre-seasons and really wowed Southampton fans with a starring role in a season where the club just missed the League One Play-offs (due to a points deduction) but won the League Trophy at Wembley. Likewise in a Reading shirt he'd proven a very capable deputy to Jimmy Kebe but once again led the way out on loan in League One, aiding Wednesday's promotion. Many thought Antonio would be given his chance at Reading, but the signing of McCleary from Forest and the presence of a more used Hal Robson-Kanu and Jordan Obita coming through, probably pushed Antonio's eventual sale.
Along with those four main parties denied a chance at top flight football in the Mad Stad. McDermott also decided to not award Matt Connolly, Tomasz Cywka and Reading-born Hayden Mullins longer RFC careers for the small parts they played in the final push towards promotion.
In contrast but further to the new faces McDermott added to his now Premier League RFC squad, he also decided to prolong the stays of Reading veterans Brynjar Gunnarsson and Ian Harte. So put together, did all these signings both new and continuous prove worthwhile against who was lost?
- Andy Griffin v Chris Gunter: During the race for promotion, many Royals fans thought 33 year old Griffin deputy to Shaun Cummings. Preceding this theory had been the 2011 Play-off final that proved when up against pace, Griffin was sadly not up to it. But since being in the Premier League many have found Gunter to have the same failing. Giving players too much time and space and when eventually deciding to tackle, doing it dangerously late or within region of the 18-yard-box. So Reading fans once again called for Cummings to return as starting right back. Albeit maybe not much better, the defence does look at bit more solid for his presence. The jury is still out on whom between Gunter and Cummings is better. But you do wonder if Griffin's advanced experience at this level compared to Gunter's would've played to his advantage? Added too by the current situation at centre back, which has seen last season's regulars in Kaspars Gorkss and Alex Pearce move down the pecking order. With Griffin able to play centre back, could he have helped McDermott out here too?
- Danny Guthrie v Brian Howard: On paper both these players couldn't contrast each other anymore with their respective CV's. But ultimately both Guthrie and Howard appear to have maybe met the same end in joining Reading. Where as Howard was brought in under the Rodgers regime, both came to RFC with the intention of instigating a more expansive, creative and attacking type of football through the central midfield. Each has now seen their chance in such a role curtailed under Brian McDermott, by his desire to have centre midfielders be more tough tackling and hustle the opposition. A style neither Guthrie nor Howard were used to and thus in both cases Jay Tabb was picked ahead of them. Howard would often shoot from midfield, or even burst forward with the strikers, a habit he on occasion pulled off, despite not having obvious licence to do so. Ironically given recent formations, it would appear Guthrie is given that licence. Yet he himself says this is something he is not used to doing. It all sounds rather confusing and so Guthrie decided to vent his frustrations via social media. A move which up until the recent home match with United saw Guthrie excluded from first team involvement since mid-October, according to media speculation. Reading's last trip to Anfield was Guthrie's downfall. The trip before that appeared Howard's making. But each account denotes that maybe McDermott isn't sure how best to deploy these types of midfielders. With Guthrie supposedly unable to do what Howard could, you do wonder why McDermott didn't save himself the bother in some way.
- Mathieu Manset v Pavel Pogrebnyak: Both built like "brick privies" and seeing as most of Reading's recent strikers have been on the small side, both Manset and Pogrebnyak were respectively signed to be the intended muscle in Reading's attack. Given the "goals to games" stats it's hard to prove whom between "Beast" (Manset) and "Pog" (Pogrebnyak) is better? But one thing does stand out and it appears similar to the quandary posed on Guthrie and Howard. Do (or did, in Beast's case) Reading's tactics suite their style of play? When Reading are either being pressed back or doing the pressing themselves (rare these days,) along too with set-pieces, players of these sort are mere targets to get a header on. But with Reading predominantly playing in a style where attacks are based on counter breaking with speed, players like Beast and Pog simply look redundant. Especially that given their size, they're expected to help defend, yet lead the attack too. But when do you ever hear people say how "fast" Peter Crouch is? The point being, that due to his similar size, you don't. Look at the goals Pog has scored for Reading and his "near-chances?" Further to that even examine his goals for Fulham too! Each time an already waiting Pog is delivered the ball into the box, he simply heads it in, or takes it down for a strike. With Fulham having Clint Dempsey and the Premier League's top assist maker in Danny Murphy last season, is it any wonder why Pog looked such a great signing? Along with other good creators like Sidwell, one can imagine Pog was probably spoilt for choice in supply. Expecting players of this build to take the ball from the halfway line and run the rest, asks whether it really was a surprise Beast looked constantly unfit? Or again how lucky Pog's goal at Swansea was? He looked both surprised and knackered after it went in, not to mention that the Swans defence caught up with him!
- Michail Antonio v Garath McCleary: In my opinion McCleary is easily McDermott's most successful attack signing from the summer. He has at times proved just as vital and probing to Reading's characteristically fast wings as Kebe and Jobi McAnuff have in the past. Many would argue that currently he has been more consistent and affective than them both too. With Kebe seemingly struggling with injury this season it really has been a hot topic of debate as to who starts on the right wing? One positive though is that this debate is countered by some notable performances from either McCleary or Robson-Kanu given their chances. However put diplomatically, many have felt McAnuff's performances in particular have left much to be desired, prompting many to say both McCleary and Robson-Kanu should start on either wing. Such performances and the added luxury of having another winger on the bench have prompted McDermott in nearly all games this season, to use the tactical option of a wing substitution. But what of the chance that Reading could be dealt another injury or suspension and that Obita, despite hype is still put out on loan? Would it have been greedy to have still given Antonio his chance as well?
- Stuart Taylor: With previous experience at Arsenal and Villa, Taylor has kept more games in the Premier League than any of Reading's current keepers. Given injury and dips in form to Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy, many may wonder if it's more a case of when, than if Taylor appears between the sticks for the Royals. Going by the misfortune McDermott's goalkeeping team have suffered of late; much hope could be rested on Taylor's shoulders. Both fans and McDermott alike are probably feeling very fortunate to have him amongst the ranks.
- Adrian Mariappa: Where as Taylor remains just an option, Mariappa's usage within the starting line-up at the Madejski has been forced out of necessity. Mentioned previously, the central defence partnership from last season of Gorkss and Pearce now looks a rare site. Pearce was reportedly dropped following the Royals trip to West Brom in September due to ongoing contract disputes. He wouldn't appear again until the recent trip to Southampton. Even then that was because McDermott had been forced to use another centre back in Sean Morrison, due to the reported dropping or injury (whichever you believe?) of Gorkss. Combinations of Gorkss with either Mariappa or Morrison have been used ever since Pearce's removal. From the resulting performances it looked as though Mariappa's pace to get back and defend added some solidity to Reading's defence, but still they leaked goals. Only in the last three games and again due to reported fan pressure has Mariappa and Morrison become the new RFC centre back partnership. They've so far overseen two 1-0 defeats and the seven goal thriller against United. Much like Cummings and Gunter, the jury is still to reach its verdict on Adrian. But thank goodness we have an extra centre back given our predicament.
- Nicky Shorey: Although Shorey had been away from the Madejski for four seasons until now, it still seems odd to consider him a new signing. But then you recollect that each of those four seasons since have seen Reading attempt to give at least one player their chance to make starting left back their own, this perhaps signifies just how important Shorey was to the Alan Pardew and Coppell sides of the past. Especially when you consider that against the long established players in the current squad, Shorey has still made at least 125 more appearances for Reading than the next most featured player in Jimmy Kebe. With all that said, Shorey once again is looking like one of Reading's most valuable assets. His experience and set-piece delivery are again a staple to a Reading side. McDermott's decision to play him over Ian Harte since Spurs' visit to the Madejski at the beginning of September, is perhaps the only managerial decision unquestioned. However like his predecessor and unlike four seasons ago, Shorey is now in his thirties and at times gets caught for pace. Given performances many will perhaps say he'll do for now and that it's great to have him back.
- Ian Harte: Like his former full-back colleague Andy Griffin, Harte too was made to look his age at Wembley in the 2011 Play-off final. Many wondered whether Harte's time was up and so at the beginning of last season it looked as though Joe Mills would be bled through as starting left back for Reading. As Mills showed slow improvement, Harte was reinstated to the starting line-up and similar to the effect Shorey had in previous seasons, helped the Royals look a contender for promotion again. Many teams did try and pick out Harte as a potential weak spot, but for Reading's defensive resilience last season, this tactic rarely bore fruit. But the fact it was a tactic often used by opposition surely said something? Griffin was denied another chance at the top-flight, despite joining Reading from there just three seasons previously. So it seems odd that the 35 year-old Harte, whom many had initially written off when Reading took him from League Two and not played regular top flight football for eight seasons, was signed-on instead. The fact that days after turning 35 and only three games into the Premier League, Harte's replacement by Shorey was barely met with protest from fans says it all. It pains to say, that maybe sentiment isn't everything in football. Especially when Mills is now on-loan and under-used at Burnley and Matt Connolly now features regularly for Championship topping Cardiff. Each an opportunity lost I feel.
- Brynjar Gunnarsson: This is now the 37 year old's eighth season as a Royal! But in the last two seasons, Bryn has been limited to only a handful of cameo appearances. Less than 20 to be precise. Although his experience is vital, his ability to perform a full 90 minutes at this level is surely in doubt given the lack of first team use? In just the three appearances given to him last season it was obvious he looked off pace. This has prompted many to ask, why was Bryn kept? Especially when last season McDermott opted to bring in both Cywka and Mullins, both of whom are now regularly playing in the Championship. Word is that McDermott wanted Bryn to join his coaching staff in some form, as well as help bleed in the youngsters via reserve duties. Given that Reading are down to the bare bones in central midfield and Bryn thus far has only been given what look token subs bench spots at Villa and Sunderland, this decision is surely one of McDermott's worst? Again it looks like sentiment has overruled the likelihood of the player coping at the current level. With Bryn's apparent duties limited to just reserve games, surely keeping hold of either Cywka or Mullins or even throwing the much hyped Lawson D'Ath or Jake Taylor in at the deep end seems a more worthwhile option?
In conclusion, out of the nine deals McDermott made in the summer, three can only be deemed worthwhile.
McCleary is debatably the only real success as the crowd is often heard wanting to see him on the pitch. Plus despite some results, he does stand out on occasion and Reading seem to score goals. Of course the re-signing of Shorey is a success, but ultimately Reading have only ever been trying to find his replacement until his return this season. Re-signing a once successful player is hardly the biggest gamble in football. Mariappa is in my view the third worthy signing. Similar to Shorey, Mariappa's place in the squad has been unchallenged. But in contrast Mariappa's use has simply been a necessity from the circumstances regarding Reading's other central defenders.
Without having seen him play, it's hard to judge the signing of Taylor other than that it's good to have another experienced goalkeeper within the ranks.
But with no disrespect, re-signing both Gunnarsson and Harte seems barely worth the paper issued to them. Both look unlikely to play, and when you consider that there were potentially more worthwhile players let go from the club last season, it makes the deals look worse.
As for the podium signings of Guthrie and Pog, it appears to me that McDermott or rather his tactics, don't have the gumption to suite each other. In my opinion, for these signings to work Reading have to bring in other players that will allow that to happen in transition.
But following revelations made by McDermott on Radio Berks after the defeat to Sunderland, it looks as though what bridges Guthrie has at RFC are being burnt quicker than the logs on the Christmas fire.
In short, Reading either begin to try out new styles or sign the players that can perform within them. Considering the summer signings and that the starting eleven is still made up with the majority of players here from last season, surely asks us whether Reading were ever properly equipped for the Premier League?