For any team, the defence is a crucial part of winning games. Not only does it do the rather obvious task of preventing the opposition from scoring, but it also sets up attacks, and sometimes even scores itself. For Nigel Adkins, the process of adapting the Royals' defence into one that can not only defend properly, but also be comfortable enough on the ball to allow the team to maintain possession is a crucial one if we are ever to return to the Premiership and then stay there. However, I would argue that the Royals have a lot of improvements to make in this department.
To get one of the more talked about criticisms out of the way first, we simply do not have enough defenders - injury has hit the Reading back line hard, particularly at the turn of the New Year, with Reading fielding three right backs and one centre back at home to Nottingham Forest. Although you can hardly blame players for being injured, it's been extremely damaging to our promotion hopes this season that we haven't been able to put out a regular back four, and not had sufficient options when members of the defence have been out of form.
In terms of the players themselves, although they are all decent defenders at Championship level in their own right, some simply aren't good enough to win promotion with, let alone play in the Premier League. Although some have had to have been played out of position, some games this season have seriously raised doubts in fans' minds about the quality we have at the back. Moreover, the current defence is simply not comfortable enough on the ball. Although some have said that the reduced emphasis on ball retention from the defence has paid dividends over the last couple of games, I'd argue that it's something that needs to be seriously worked on if we're to get into the Premiership and then stay there. Currently, the Reading defender with the highest pass success rate is, after only one substitute appearance, Michael Hector at 75%. Alex Pearce and Sean Morrison follow with 74%, whilst Chris Gunter, despite his good form this season, only manages a 67% pass success rate (all stats courtesy of WhoScored.com).
Despite this, we have some great defenders at the club. During the time that he was in the side before injury, Wayne Bridge gave steady, confident performances, really showing the quality and experience that he has amassed during this career. Moreover, Chris Gunter has made the right back slot his own this season, playing 24 times so far - joint second with Alex McCarthy. Despite the well-publicised summer contract dispute, academy graduate Alex Pearce takes top spot for appearances so far this season. Although some bad points stick in the memory (the defending for Wigan's second at the Madejski being one), I would argue that, all in all, Alex Pearce remains one of the better defenders that the club has - a passionate centre half with the occasional crucial goal from a set piece. However, one of the best defenders of recent games is not a defender by trade at all - Jordan Obita. Originally considered a creative midfielder or winger, the academy graduate has shown real quality to make the change to full back over the last two games, giving assured performances against Watford and Bolton. But he can't be expected to play at full back forever - he has too much creative talent for that to be a long term solution.
Statistically speaking however, the overall view of the defence is less positive. In the first 28 games of our (more recent) Championship winning season, in all competitions 29 goals were conceded, and 10 clean sheets amassed. In comparison to that, this season has seen the Royals' defence concede 37 goals, and winning only 8 clean sheets, which is even more worrying when you consider that the first of those seasons included a seven match losing streak at the start. In fact, the Royals now concede an average of 16 shots on goal each game (again, thanks to WhoScored.com for the stat).
The benefits of a good defence are great - the Royals have only lost twice this season in the league by more than one goal - Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough, both away - there are points to be had if the defence shuts out the opposition. However, for me, the defence still needs a major renovation done on it before it can be good enough to win promotion, let alone play in the Premiership. There are certainly positive signs there, especially from younger players like Hector and Gunter, but the stats show that the defence can't pass well enough, concedes too many shots and too many goals.