Looking back at the 2011-12 title winning season this concept could easily be married to Reading, who scored as many goals as 15th placed Ipswich Town but conceded the least in the league. There is no doubt the title is again the ambition this year, but is this squad up to scratch to attain the 21 clean sheets Nigel Adkins so desires?
There are fewer more important places to start than at the back than with our goalkeeper position, occupied by Alex McCarthy, Adam Federici and Stuart Taylor across our Premier League season. All of them, so far, have been retained and promise good competition and cover for injuries. The main question with Alex McCarthy is will we keep him in the final month of the transfer window? But assuming we keep the academy product he will arguably be the best goalie in the league, with a developing consistency putting the young keeper between the sticks for many royals fans. However he remains inexperienced and that development will cause rough edges, but for him first team football is key and we should give him just that.
To the detriment of Adam Federici, one must think. We considered the Aussie to be on the verge of world class as we won the league last year and rewarded him with a bumper contract. This was before he re-found his form with casual errors; suddenly we couldn’t drop him quickly enough. Perhaps it proved fickle as he returned to form in the winter, but injury took him out and McCarthy more than took his chance to be number 1. Will Feds provide ample competition, fade away, or moan and leave? What we do know is that an on form Federici is enough to win this league, he’s done it before.
Stuart Taylor is experienced, especially as a back-up, but unspectacular. He didn’t impress too much in his few call-ups last year, but having a competent 3rd choice keeper is a benefit. His effect on the young players, such as U21 keeper Jon Henly, is also a plus Taylor could offer.
The first question here is: are we playing wing backs, or full backs? Ball playing defenders are a given under Nigel Adkins, but will they bomb forward in support of the wide midfielders? Chris Gunter certainly will, the Welsh international offers a lively option in attack but a precarious performer at the back. Nevertheless, developing under Adkins he should be comfortable in the Championship, a league which has much less ferocious wingers than the Premiership. While Stephen Kelly is not quite so quick he remains as assured as you can get, and should adapt very easily in his first 2nd tier season since 2008.
New signing Wayne Bridge is arguably a player who has already adapted, being a vital cog for Brighton last season. He is expected to be first choice from day one at left back, but the back-ups in this position could be any of the other 2 right backs swapping to an unnatural wing.
Perhaps Shaun Cummings, seemingly 3rd choice right back at the moment, could be readily trained to swap over as he did in the Bristol Rovers friendly. Cummings was reliable under McDermott and overwhelmed in the top division, so a drop down again should reassure Reading fans that our back-ups are competent at the very least.
I can’t think that too many of us expected these to be our 4 centre backs towards the end of last season. Alex Pearce’s selection was a talking point only marginalised by his contract dispute. The 2011-12 fans player of the season seemed to be on his way, yet perhaps our relegation led to a drying up of decent offers for Alex, and after several offers from Reading he eventually chose to stay put. Surely in the Championship he can again lead the back four with adept organisation and aerial skills.
Another player many foresaw leaving was Kaspars Gorkss, who suffered 2 relegations in 2 leagues and therefore probably hindered his ability to be sold, so Adkins has decided to make him 4th choice centre back. This may be prove to be a shrewd move with an experienced head, but his lack of mobility and drop in form could cost us big should he be called upon.
Both of these players have historically struggled technically, so perhaps Adkins will employ the other 2 options as starters. Adrian Mariappa is in many ways the oxymoron to Pearce and Gorkss less athletic more physical approach, and his speed and mental strengths mark him out as a very good option in the Championship.
Under Nigel Adkins, Sean Morrison has played more than any other centre back; with the ex-Swindon youngster developing an improved passing game that Adkins will enjoy moulding. Morro could become a top-class defender with game time over this season, and having to choose between him and 2 defenders tipped for captaincy who won the 2011-12 fans players of the year at their respective clubs is a pretty happy scenario for any Championship club. Consistency may be the key in our centre-back pairing, which could upset one of the 3 expectant starters so perhaps Adkins will be tempted to rotate across the 46+ league and cup games.
If any youth options are to break through, Ireland U-19 captain Pierce Sweeney would probably be first in, with academy product Michael Hector on loan in Aberdeen until January.
Defensive personnel should really be a serious asset for Reading F.C this season. Individually there is much to laud but a defence is nothing more than the sum of its parts, the true test remains for Adkins; whether or not he can organise a defence. This is something he somewhat struggled with at Southampton- achieving such while teaching defenders to attain the ball will be a tough test. Yet Adkins has done it before and, with this set of players, the defence should be a strong point over the coming season.