One key area that seems to bring all these points together is the success of pairing Adam Le Fondre and Pavel Pogrebnyak up front together. Individually they started the season on very different levels, Alfie hit early form and Pogrebnyak took on early suspensions as low morale rendered him useless until late-Autumn. Furthermore, as The Pog got his house in order and became an integral part of the team in late 2013, Le Fondre was going backwards: upset over no contract offer, rarely starting games, and suffering a real drop in form. Needless to say this represented a fair few of the problems with the club at the time, which an upturn on the pitch has gone some way to curing.
I'll focus on 3 of the last 5 games- wins over Bolton, Blackpool and Millwall- although nothing was specifically wrong with their play at Ipswich, and Sheff. Wed forced them into a very difficult scenario.
The stats speak for themselves: 6 goals for Le Fondre and 3 for Pogrebnyak, 1 assist for Le Fondre (to Pogrebnyak) and 3 for the Russian. But past the stats there seems to be a real chemistry as the work rate of Pog has helped Alfie bring more to his game than clinical finishing, something he struggled with in his first 2 years at the Mad Stad, while Pogrebnyak has continued his good form and finally found a partner to warrant his industrial play.
So why has this come about? Firstly I look to the start of last season, Alfie the top scorer of the Championship winning side and Pogrebnyak the first big-name signing of the newly-promoted Reading. Brian McDermott’s team had benefited from the Noel Hunt-Jason Roberts partnership massively, with Alfie a strong impact sub option. But, eager to press on with a more ‘Premiership’ duo- amongst other reasons- he played the Pog-Alfie combination in multiple pre-season friendlies. One I saw it in was the Bournemouth away draw, and the partnership was in its real infancy. After starting the opening day draw with Stoke, it was dropped for good by Brian.
I bring this up because at the time I thought he was onto something, and fast forward to February 2014 we see it bearing fruits. My first note is that somewhat ironically it has taken a switch to more traditional Reading McDermott-esque tactics to create this upturn in the pair’s form. The passing style Adkins had struggled to implement rendered Le Fondre a passenger in many games, a label even Adkins-favourite Billy Sharp couldn’t break from in his short loan spell. Meanwhile Pavel was often the single shining light in poor performances, not at fault for beatings such as those away at Sheffield Wednesday or Burnley. He was occasionally getting on the scoresheet, but lacked an outlet to justify his work rate. Arguably Adkins did this too late, but his employment of the pair with high tempo, wing-based play has seen both do incredibly well over a short space of time
What other reasons are there for their sudden profligacy? Clearly Championship defences offer more to a striker than top Premiership teams, although for long periods Reading still struggled to find openings when adopting a slower style. Confidence has a huge part to play, too, Alfie had none in December as he seemed to sulk about his lack of form. Pogrebnyak was exactly the same in August, eager to leave, but just like the Le Fondre case Nigel Adkins seemed to play it very well as the transfer window shut and Pog was persuaded to try his best where he was. With Le Fondre, Adkins challenged Alfie to prove himself and show his quality- an approach also successful with Hope Akpan. Good man management is often hard to notice in managers, and Adkins has often dealt with situations in an interesting manner, but with these two it seems to have been played right.
The final question is what do we call them? The Reading FC social media team asked many fans, with PogFondnyak, Le Pogdre and all sorts of weird amalgamations arising. Personally, LePog is simple and effective, but looking at all the mock-up movie posters the strikers have inspired I think the decision is out of my hands…
With Sharp gone for good and Hal Robson-Kanu joining Nick Blackman in a bout of position indecisiveness, it seems these two are the natural partnership, the little-and-large, that a 4-4-2 seems built for. Long may it continue.