With an endless injury list that has just recently reclaimed Jamie Mackie and Anton Ferdinand, reinforcements were always going to be a must this January. Worries over the club's financial position, caused by concerns over Financial Fair Play, doesn't completely prevent signings in the short term, but does limit Steve Clarke's flexibility in the transfer window.
So, as I'm sure many of you were, I was surprised to see the purse strings loosened for the arrival of Nathaniel Chalobah on loan from Chelsea until the end of the season. In isolation, it's not at all a bad signing, in fact far from it. Chalobah is probably one of Chelsea's most promising young prospects, something that's been recognised with a rumoured £35,000 a week contract that expires in 2018. The 20 year-old particularly stood out on loan at Watford a few seasons ago, when the Hornets nearly buzzed into the Premier League in 2012/13. For a taste of his technique, admire the following strike...
The confusion comes when you try to fit Chalobah into the pre-existing Reading side. He has a level of ability that shouldn't be scoffed at, but do we need him? Here, I run through the most obvious options of how he might be used.
NB: This ignores the perfectly feasible possibility that this signing is meant to cover for something we're in the dark about. I.e, Chalobah could be a short-term replacement for another player that's on the verge of leaving.
Reading aren't exactly blessed with a host of options at centre back at the moment. Although Alex Pearce's form has taken a sharp upturn in recent weeks, his partner Michael Hector still doesn't convince on a regular basis. Looking beyond those two, the department looks pretty threadbare. Jake Cooper did well late last year, capped with a brace at Norwich (their fans really shouldn't watch that happen at home to a team like Reading), but dropped off form after that. The only other senior option is Anton Ferdinand who, at the time of writing, is still lost in the treatment room.
The idea that Chalobah has been brought in as cover here isn't impossible. With his Chelsea contacts, Steve Clarke could very well see the England u21 player as a viable addition to his back line. But there's little to suggest that Chalobah is a defender - and with that in mind, surely you'd rather sign a specialist if you wanted to shore up the back?
The most obvious position for Chalobah happens to be the most overcrowded one in the Reading squad. At the start of the season, this deal would have made sense, with injury ruling out Jem Karacan, Danny Williams and Danny Guthrie all on long-term bases. However, recent weeks have seen those three all return to first-team action alongside Oliver Norwood, one of Reading's better players this season.
You could argue though that Chalobah is unlike anyone else in the midfield. Tall and strong, he typically anchors the midfield whilst sitting in a deep position. On the other hand, Guthrie and Norwood are more lightweight technicians, whereas Karacan and Williams fill the 'box to box' role. With Clarke keen on tightening up at the back, a solid presence in front of Hector and Pearce certainly makes sense.
For me, this is the most convincing explanation for why he's been signed, but it leaves a nagging feeling that the midfield is overcrowded. We now have: Danny Williams, Jem Karacan, Oliver Norwood, Danny Guthrie, Hope Akpan, Aaron Kuhl and Nathaniel Chalobah as specialist options. That of course excludes Aaron Tshibola, on loan at Hartlepool, and Jake Taylor, who typically plays in a more advanced role.
This option would suggest a more elaborate tweaking of the current lineup. Although Chalobah has played further up the field before, I doubt Steve Clarke would want him for the role. Instead, the signing of Chalobah could push the likes of Oliver Norwood or Danny Guthrie into the hole behind Pavel Pogrebnyak. That would leave Chalobah partnering Williams further back, with Norwood or Guthrie between two widemen in a 4-2-3-1.
Clarke did tend to use the 4-2-3-1 formation when he was in charge of West Brom, so he could be looking to replicate that with the signing of Chalobah. Although there are indeed plenty of midfielders at the club, with none of them specialising in a defensive role, playing Chalobah would make sense.
He doesn't fit in at all
That all being said, this is still an odd signing. The finances of the club at the moment would suggest that Reading would be trying to save every penny possible, so another central midfielder seems an extravagant choice. However, it's hard to know what deal Steve Clarke has been able to get out of his former employers, so this might not be an expensive addition to the side.
It's also hard to see what long term benefits this brings to the club, with no guarantees that the Sierra Leone born midfielder will be at the club next season. This isn't a position we desperately needed to cover, but Chalobah's presence reduces game time for others who need it more. Jem Karacan and Danny Guthrie are both out of contract in the summer, and Hope Akpan is still working his way back from injury. Indeed, the signing of Chalobah could be a massive blow for Akpan, who might have to pray for another injury plague to get any minutes on the pitch.
It's still very early in the Clarke era, and I'm sure that he'll be keen to mould this squad into a more effective unit. With that in mind, he deserves the benefit of the doubt; Chalobah of course being a player he's known about for quite a while.
So those are my initial thoughts on the signing of Nathaniel Chalobah, but what do you think? Was he worth bringing in? Tell us in the comments section below.