Aside from how much a manager is getting out of his players, an obvious point to consider in a team's is, well, how good those players are. The ownership problems of the last year or so are well-documented and go a long way towards explaining what must be one of Nigel Adkins' biggest regrets as Reading manager - not being able to bring in his own players. At a time when his future is being hotly debated by the supporters, I think the subject of player recruitment hasn't quite been exposed in the depth it should be. To that end, I've come up with a few line-ups that demonstrate the scale of the problem, and why Adkins deserves to be cut some more slack.
Reading vs Aston Villa, March 2013
Subs: Henly, Shorey, Morrison, Karacan, Guthrie, McCleary, Blackman.
This was the last team that Brian McDermott put out as Reading manager, and it's immediately clear how different this team is to the team that Nigel Adkins can field now. Despite the retention of four of those players who lost 1-2 at home to Aston Villa, other key cogs have been taken out of the machine. One of that season's best players was Adrian Mariappa (how we'd love him back now!), but he was sold to Crystal Palace in the summer transfer window of that year. Similarly, Championship title winners Ian Harte, Mikele Leigertwood, Jobi McAnuff and Noel Hunt have all been released.
Left Under Adkins XI
Subs: Taylor, Carrico, Harte, Shorey, Tabb, Sharp, Hunt.
My team accumulated from players that have left whilst Nigel Adkins has been at the club has the two key things the current side lacks: experience and defenders who can actually defend. When you cast your eye down the list of players that have departed the club during that period, the vast number of defenders stands out... Harte, Shorey, Bridge, Morrison, Gorkss, Mariappa and Baird have all left whilst Adkins has been in charge. I won't go into too much detail on the defending this season because it's been discussed elsewhere, but it's fair to say that it's been pretty abysmal. That said, when you look at the quality that has seeped out of the club, it's understandable as to why we're in the situation that we are. Combined, those players boast 4 Championship titles, a Premier League title, two Playoff wins, an FA Cup win, a League Cup win, and a runners up place in the Europa League.
Looking further up the pitch, the quality is just as evident. Jason Roberts was a key catalyst in the 2011/12 title charge, with McAnuff, Leigertwood, Tabb, Kebe, Hunt and Le Fondre also making major contributions not only in that season, but in previous and later ones too.
In short, the calibre and number of players that have left the club over the last year and a half is remarkable. I'd argue that not only is the above team comfortably better than the one we have now, but is good enough to mount a realistic promotion campaign. So, in contrast to that, what exactly has Nigel been able to bring in to replace those players?
Adkins Signings XI
Subs: Lincoln, Cooper, Long, Kuhl, Tshibola, Stacey, Novakovich.
The key thing about this side is that I had to cheat to make it. Simply put, without drafting in players who have graduated from the academy whilst Adkins has been in charge, I wouldn't have enough manpower to populate a team - if this was a competitive game, Reading wouldn't be allowed on the pitch. Over the last year and a half, the Royals have only been able to recruit six players - that's when you rule out academy graduates and those who have initially been signed only to since leave (Wayne Bridge, Chris Baird and Billy Sharp).
Either way you look at it, quality or quantity, player recruitment during Nigel Adkins' tenure has been desperately disappointing, and it's had a massive effect on this season. Comparing the players that Nigel has with those that lined up under Brian McDermott puts it into context even better - the current squad is ridiculously short on numbers and ability, even when compared to a side that limped through its season in the Premiership.
What is perhaps best referred to as the 'Anton Era' has seen a marked fall since those top-flight days. The playing staff has been methodically eroded by the financial storm that has descended over the Madejski, and I'd argue that, although the clouds may appear to be dissipating, the ground is still flooded and it'll take time to drain.
With that in mind, is it really fair to say that the lack of progress this term is Nigel Adkins' fault? Or is it Anton's? For me, this links back to something I've been trying to get across for a while, but fellow Tilehurst End writer William Owain summed it up well in the first of his Five Things from the recent game with Charlton.
Of course, in reality a season of inconsistent mid-table football isn't that exciting, so maybe Reading fans are now realising that they don't actually fancy a year of consolidation. So what are our expectations for this season? If it remains less than a play-off challenge then maybe we should start accepting the realities of what that will entail.
With what is, beyond doubt, a weaker squad than we've had in recent years, what exactly are our expectations this season? Surely a mid-table finish is reasonable, with that being what most fans anticipated in the summer? Considering that we find ourselves in 14th, with the season so far being blighted by injuries to some of our best players in an already impoverished squad, are things really that bad? I'd say not.
The player that Nigel has been able to recruit and keep have a good record. During their time at the club, the likes of Danny Williams, Oliver Norwood, Simon Cox, Jamie Mackie and Glenn Murray have been key players. A January transfer window with funding from the new Thai consortium should solve most of the problems the team has suffered from this season. If it doesn't, then that's the time to start thinking about new management, but until then...