Debate always rages over what any team's best starting XI and system is, but Reading haven't been able to think about such a luxury for an age thanks to a relentless set of injuries that has descended on Hogwood like a Biblical plague.
However, with key players nearing fitness, the end might finally be in sight. With that in mind we, the Tilehurst End's editorial team, have all come up with what we think to be Reading's best match-day squad when everyone is fit. The rules are simple: all players currently in the squad are eligible to be picked, but no new signings are allowed.
Subs: Andersen, Kelly, Hector, Guthrie, Robson-Kanu, Blackman, Mackie.
The goalie and most of the back four picks itself in current circumstances but if Anton can get back to fitness (as this piece presumes!) then I'd give him a chance to bring some experience into that backline. Midfield wise and I think the energy of Karacan works well with the guile of Norwood and Danny Williams can be a threat either going forward or effective defensively if he operates behind the front man. Cox can be out on the left and drift inside when needed while McCleary gives you that genuine pace and a proven partnership with Gunter on the right which should hopefully feed Murray what he needs.
Subs: Andersen, Hector, Guthrie, Akpan, Mackie, Cox, Pogrebnyak.
I found it toughest to leave out Simon Cox but for me, we need solidity in the middle of the park as we are simply too weak in midfield at the moment. Williams and Karacan are both high energy and, with Norwood sitting in front of the back four, would have the licence to shuttle forward and back in equal measure, supporting attacks as well as protecting the exposed back four. The left side isn't ideal defensively - I still think our biggest priority is a left-back, allowing us to push Obita forward as he's more of a natural winger than Blackman. But Murray has the physique and attributes to operate as a lone striker, whilst McCleary and Blackman have enough goal threat about them to support in wide positions. Anton Ferdinand's selection obviously depends on his fitness and whether he's as good a player as he was in his earlier years, but I think he and Pearce could be an able partnership at this level.
Subs: Andersen, Hector, Williams, Blackman, Guthrie, Robson-Kanu, Kuhl.
I know, I know, controversial. Ferdinand has got to play, he's so experienced it would be silly not to play him, especially considering we currently lack that experience at the back. Karacan and Norwood add bite and slick passing to that deeper midfield area, with Karacan given licence to move further up and provide a runner. McCleary is the first name on the team sheet, whilst Cox and Murray pick themselves-but that left wing spot should be Obita's. He's not a left back, and I'm convinced if he played on the wing we'd have on our hands one of the most exciting English youngsters on our hands. Shuffle him up, Nigel. Balance the side. Blackman & Robson-Kanu's versatility is useful off the bench, whereas Guthrie and Williams are nice alternatives to Norwood and Karacan.
Subs: Andersen, Hector, Akpan, Guthrie, Taylor, Mackie, Blackman.
Setting up a team around 2 of the hardest working midfielders in the league is our biggest advantage. With Jem and Danny hustling and harrying, Norwood is free to dictate the play. The front 3 will play very narrow to allow wing backs to overlap, with Cox and GMac given full license to roam. Protecting a lead? Bring Akpan on. Chasing the game? Mackie, Blackman and co. have us covered. Flawless.
Subs: Andersen, Cummings, Hector, Norwood, Akpan, Mackie, Blackman.
With regards to the system, I think we're at our best in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Getting the right two central midfielders in that system is crucial, and I think a combination of Karacan and Williams does just that. They're both energetic, skillful players, and Norwood is a great option to have on the bench. McCleary playing down the right is a no-brainer, and the link-up play between Murray and Cox has been one of our most encouraging signs this season. I'm going out on a bit of a limb with my pick of Robson-Kanu considering his poor form since the Premiership, but I think he's on the way up and could have a strong season. On the bench, Mackie, Blackman and Norwood are all potential game-changers, whereas Akpan has shown his defensive credentials in recent weeks. Guthrie and Pogrebnyak have both been poor this season, and are left out for younger, hungrier players.
Subs: Andersen, Blackman, Robson-Kanu, Guthrie, Pearce, Mackie, Taylor.
Like the other editors I found finding a role for Cox hard. In the end I decided to move him to left wing because I think you have to find a way to fit him in and he's more reliable than Blackman or Robson-Kanu. All season our left wingers have cut inside whilst Cox has often ended up man marked when he tried to drop deep. Moving him left allows Reading to have three central midfielders: Karacan offers protection for the defence, Williams has the energy to be an effective box-to-box midfielder and Norwood offers creativity, which we need to get further forward. I chose Ferdinand in the hope that he was the experienced central defender Adkins wanted and not signed by Samrit.
Some general thoughts...
- Federici,Gunter, Obita, Karacan, McCleary and Murray appear in everyone's starting XI.
- Despite not playing a single minute of football for Reading so far, Anton Ferdinand also gets a starting place in everyone's XI, almost entirely at the expense of Michael Hector. Clearly, we're all desperate for some experience in the defence.
- We're also all agreed on some basic tactical principles - we all have teams with width and numbers in the middle. The days of 4-4-2 are long gone.
- It's been a drastic drop in fortunes for the Pog; last season's regular starter only appears on one bench.
- Danny Guthrie has been forced out of contention by the rise of Oliver Norwood - the ex-Terrier gets five starts and one substitute appearance; the ex-Magpie is forced onto the bench on five occasions.
- He may have been a regular starter so far this season, but Jake Taylor isn't fancied by us, he has to make do with a place on two benches.
What do you think our best XI is when the full squad is available? Leave a comment below or tweet us @TheTilehurstEnd.