As mentioned above, you certainly can make the case that in terms of squad depth, this is one of the best Reading has ever had.
Alex McCarthy may be the darling of every Royals fan at the moment, but it certainly wasn't crisis time when our England hopeful had to miss a few games with a leg injury, as Adam Federici came in between the sticks. In the centre of the park, you could make some sort of argument for starting most of our natural central midfielders in any given week. Perhaps Danny Guthrie is the only one who would be in the majority of starting lineups, but that leaves Jem Karacan, Chris Baird, Mikele Leigertwood, Hope Akpan and Danny Williams all fighting it out for the remaining one or two places (with Jake Taylor another option used this season from the subs bench).
Out wide, take your pick from Hal Robson-Kanu, Garath McCleary, Jobi McAnuff, Jordan Obita and Royston Drenthe - again, there would be a good mix of responses to this one. And up top, you've got five strikers - Pogrebnyak, Le Fondre, Sharp, Roberts and Blackman - all aiming for just one or two spots depending on how we line up.
One area of the field is conspicuous by its lack of depth. The defence has one natural left-back in Wayne Bridge, just three centre-back in Sean Morrison, Alex Pearce and Kaspars Gorkss, and also three right-backs in Stephen Kelly, Chris Gunter and Shaun Cummings. Bridge is out for the rest of the year after an operation on his knee, whilst skipper Morrison will be on the sidelines for a few weeks with his own knee problem. That leaves just five recognised defenders in training at the moment - at Blackburn on Saturday, Nigel Adkins named no defenders on his bench.
|McCarthy, Federici, Taylor
|Gunter, Kelly, Cummings
|Pearce, Gorkss, Morrison
|Guthrie, Baird, Karacan, Leigertwood, Akpan, Williams, Taylor
|Drenthe, Robson-Kanu, McAnuff, McCleary, Obita
|Pogrebnyak, Le Fondre, Sharp, Blackman, Roberts
Three keepers, twelve midfielders, five strikers, but just seven defenders. Put it another way, to allow for our changing formations - seventeen players to cover the front six positions; seven to cover the back four. Reading have already been ruthlessly exposed at the back, most notably at Sheffield Wednesday. Alex McCarthy has consistently put in top performances this year which haven't gone unnoticed by Royals fans, but the other side of the argument is that he's had to make those saves.
Of course, it's not all bad at the back. Chris Gunter has shown good form in the last month or two, and looks a far better player than the one signed in the futile attempt to survive in the Premier League. Sean Morrison, another player who really shot into the Reading team in the top flight, has looked more comfortable than his counterpart at centre-back, whoever that may be. And Wayne Bridge, as we predicted he would be, was the perennial 7/10 player, never looking fazed and always consistent at the back. Two of those are gone for the next few weeks though, leaving us with the bare bones. Alex Pearce and Kaspars Gorkss guided Reading to the Premier League in 2011/12 with the best defence in the Championship - but that was two years ago.
We can't forget that in the modern game, players aren't nailed to one position. Hal Robson-Kanu has been tried as a makeshift striker in recent weeks to win those headers and long balls forward. Nick Blackman has gone on the wing in a few games this season and last. But we're now talking about emergency shuffles at the back, with Chris Baird and Chris Gunter able to slot into the middle of the defence. Players may be able to do that, but if this team is chasing promotion, it shouldn't be square pegs into round holes. The defence is all about balance, and even having a right-footed player at left-back upsets that balance. Bridge may have composure and calmness, but he also has a natural left foot, perhaps the most important facet of his game in the context of Reading's defence.
Did our problems start over the summer? Probably. We had two left-backs at the club last season, Nicky Shorey and Ian Harte. Shorey was by no means the messiah last year in his second coming at Reading, but he certainly wasn't the worst player in that dismal season. Harte shared starts with Shorey last term and whilst his pace was exposed at that level, back in this league he could certainly do a job. Shorey's now starting regularly in League One for Bristol City, so perhaps at this stage of his career he simply wanted first-team football rather than settling for a back-up role here. Harte is at Bournemouth in the Championship, starting about 1 in 3 matches for the Cherries. Again, would he have taken another year at the Royals to cover for Bridge? Perhaps not, but with those two having left and just one player coming in, we've been exposed.
The centre-back conundrum is perhaps more frustrating, as we've seen three players leave the club before the transfer window slammed shut. Michael Hector is performing well in the SPL with Aberdeen, and you'd imagine that he will return to the Royals as soon as his loan spell ends in January. Daniel Carrico made no bones of his desire to leave, and whilst his exact position is up for debate (various sources list him as playing in either central defence or central midfield), he's on loan at Sevilla for the rest of the season. And Adrian Mariappa, arguably our best defender last year (and my Player Of The Season last term), was barely seen in the side before departing for Crystal Palace on deadline day. We're not privy to the reasons for his departure, and whether he was frozen out because he had to leave, but it was another move which left us bereft of cover at the back.
The loan window shuts on Thursday, and Nigel Adkins has said he's looking at options for the squad in terms of defensive cover. So here are some names I'll throw into the mix (Nigel, and Reading fans, thank me later). Craig Dawson hasn't made a start yet this season for West Bromwich Albion, and spent the second half of last season on loan at Bolton Wanderers. George McCartney is another Premier League player yet to start for his side (West Ham United) this term, and he could provide another option at left-back. And Michael Keane, who plays for Manchester United, spent last season at Leicester City - another season gaining experience at this level would do the 20-year-old no harm at all.
Ultimately, that's all pie in the sky, and the real issue is that Reading weren't active enough in the summer when most Royals fans recognised the lack of depth at the back. We can debate the options up-front and in midfield for days, but the fact is that the back four picks itself at the moment - not because of form, or class, but simply because of the lack of options. Whether the lack of investment in the back line costs us more in the long run, remains to be seen.