Wingers have been an integral part of Reading's success in recent years. The likes of Little, Convey, Hunt, Kebe, and McAnuff have produced some of our finest attacking play, and width has always been key in any system Reading managers have employed.
Last season was no exception, with the speedy Jamaican pair of McCleary and McAnuff as Nigel Adkins' choices for the right and left wing slots respectively. With Garath McCleary now injured for the foreseeable future, the likes of Jamie Mackie and Nick Blackman have helped fill the gap on the right of midfield, putting in some encouraging performances. With Simon Cox so far nailing down the central role in the three attacking players of Nigel Adkins' favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, the key question is now how to replace former Royals captain Jobi McAnuff who was released this summer.
So far this season, it's mostly been Jake Taylor to line up on the left side of midfield as part of the attacking trio deployed behind the striker. However, he's largely failed to impress, not being able to kick on from an encouraging pre-season. Indeed, the world-renowned Tilehurst End stats machine so far gives the young Welshman an average match rating of just 5.2 - that's the lowest of any regular starter in this side by a decent margin, and second only to Craig Tanner when every player capped this season is taken into account.
It's far from a bleak picture for Taylor though — two goals this season (against Ipswich and Scunthorpe) make him the Royals' joint top scorer in all competitions. Moreover, having started all of Reading's league games so far, he's definitely in Nigel Adkins' plans, despite the obligatory nod to the injury crisis which has dampened competition for places across the first team. The general consensus seems to be that Taylor is more effective in a central role, which I have to agree with. So, what other options does the manager have exactly?
The obvious candidate—and indeed my theoretical favourite for the role—is Taylor's fellow Welshman, Hal Robson-Kanu. However, there are two major problems that need to be addressed. Firstly, since his break-out season in the Premier League, Robson-Kanu has very much struggled to kick on, and showed barely any consistency last season; although some impressive strikes against Barnsley, Bolton and Bournemouth are well worth a watch on YouTube.
The other problem, even once Robson-Kanu rediscovers form, is that he doesn't even seem to want to be a winger at all, saying at various points in his career that he sees his future as a striker. If he can find the performances to stake a claim to a place up front, I for one wouldn't begrudge him playing there, and him taking Adam Le Fondre's No.9 jersey would suggest that Nigel Adkins is willing to give him the chance.
Another player used to the left wing berth earlier in his career is fellow academy product Jordan Obita, who scored his first senior goal for the Royals when playing on the left against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground last season. However, as a Player of the Season Award-winning set of performances will confirm, Obita has been very impressive at left back since taking Wayne Bridge's place in the side after the now-retired Englishman picked up an injury that would wreck the rest of his last season at the club. With that in mind, it's very hard to see Obita being moved up the pitch, at least until another left-footed left back is brought in; although it was reported that Reading failed in a deadline-day move for QPR defender Yun-Suk Young.
Apart from the likes of Robson-Kanu and Obita, no other names really stand out as potential left-wingers. The likes of Cox and Mackie have been some of Reading's most impressive attacking players this season, with the former putting away some very tidy finishes against Huddersfield and Middlesbrough. With both of them performing strongly in the centre and on the right respectively, Reading's summer signings will likely be largely retaining those spots for the rest of the season.
With all of those players ruled out of the running for the left-wing position, there remains only one real candidate for me: Nick Blackman. Having struggled to make an impression on the team in his first two seasons at the club, a strong start to the 2013/14 season has made the former Sheffield United striker seem like a fresh player altogether. A screamer against Swansea in pre-season, followed by well-taken finishes against Newport County and Fulham, have demonstrated the confidence that now seems to be flowing through him.
Although he's mostly played for the Royals on the right side of midfield so far this season, he has form as a left-winger. He gave a Man of the Match award-winning performance at home to Nottingham Forest last season lining up on the left, before being (in my opinion) unfairly dropped for club captain Jobi McAnuff, and the fact that he is actually naturally left-footed will always be a bonus. Moreover, in contrast to Hal Robson-Kanu, his recent career has seen him move away from a striking position and towards playing out wide, so that certainly indicates that he's happy playing in this position.
Going back to the Tilehurst End's average match ratings, the trio of Mackie, Cox and Blackman are the standout attacking players at 6.7, 6.2 and 6.2 respectively, with a combined five goals in all competitions so far this season. With Glenn Murray arriving on loan from Crystal Palace initially until January and promptly nabbing a brace against Fulham on his debut, that's a potent attacking force for Reading to be putting out — such a force only becomes more impressive when you add the likes of Hal Robson-Kanu and Garath McCleary into the mix.