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Striking A Balance: The Art of Squad Development

Times are looking good at the Madejski Stadium now, with cash available to Steve Clarke and players happy to sign. But should Reading be careful how they tread? And who of the current squad could stand surprise us next season?

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

There's a unique art to building a successful football team. Effective tactics and formations are obviously important, as are various other points - the balance of youth and experience, and of leaders and followers, to mention but a few. By looking at things from a different point of view however, we can all agree that you can't just buy a successful team from scratch.

Leicester City are a perfect example of that - having been taken over in 2010 by, as it happens, a Thai consortium, the Foxes tried just that. In the following seasons, free spending brought in the likes of Diomansy Kamara, Yakubu, and a host of other highly capable players at Championship level. And yet, Leicester could only finish 9th in 2011/12, and were famously denied at the death by Watford in the 2012/13 Playoffs. In fact, City's promotion winning 2013/14 campaign saw relatively few signings - the arrivals of veterans Dean Hammond and Kevin Phillips being the most notable.

But what does this have to do with Reading? For me, it's a perfect case study in how a club - more specifically a club's recruitment policy - should react to suddenly having much more spending power. With the team recently being described as "in decay", major renovation work has been long expected by Reading fans. And, with that in mind, the departures of Adam Federici, Alex Pearce and Jem Karacan were unsurprising.

So, where does that leave us? Here are a couple of handy lineup graphics to help illustrate things.

Reading vs Watford, December 2014


Derby County vs Reading, May 2015

Above are how Steve Clarke chose to line up his players in his first competitive Reading game (at home to Watford), and his most recent competitive one (a trip to Derby County). Although they're taken from very different contexts, these sides both illustrate my point - that we won't see many of these players in the 2014/15 campaign. Examining both XIs, I'd say that maybe four or five could be seen as regulars next season, depending on how Clarke regards the likes of Oliver Norwood and Simon Cox (more on them later).

Therefore, we can safely conclude that the starting XI for the trip up the M40 to Birmingham (shout-out to my mum who provided me with that useful travel information) will be very different to the one that made the slightly longer trek to Derby back in May. Obviously, a big part of that process of change is bringing in new players - and the acquisitions of Stephen Quinn, Paul McShane and others is certainly encouraging. But, as I noted with the Leicester City example, simply filling up the rest of the squad with signings is a risky approach to take - the current squad has to be utilised to maximum effect.

Sharpening up the rough diamonds

That was, for me, one of the main strengths of Brian McDermott as Reading boss. Despite a canny transfer strategy that brought in the likes of Kaspars Gorkšs, Ian Harte and Mikele Leigertwood, the use of others was just as important. Alex Pearce and Jem Karacan had broken into the side under McDermott's predecessor Brendan Rodgers, and the Northern Irishman was also responsible for signing Jobi McAnuff and Shaun Cummings. How ironic that players earmarked for a Swansea-esque brand of passing football would end up with a very different legacy at the Madejski.

But, in all seriousness, that's a lesson that can be applied today - just substitute Brendan Rodgers for Nigel Adkins, both keen advocates of a playing-style revolution in Berkshire. Similarly, although he may have failed to turn things round on the pitch as Rodgers did, we may end up taking Nigel Adkins' legacy (both the intended and unintended bits) on the Steve Clarke years for granted.

Like that of Brian McDermott, Steve Clarke's footballing style is better described as direct than technical, although that may be an unfair simplification. As such, Clarke's use of the players left to him by Nigel Adkins will have to be astute if he's to get the best out of them. Above all, the signing of Oliver Norwood shows Adkins' attempts to rebuild Reading along the lines of possession-based football. The ex-Terrier's strengths come from his use and retention of the ball - as my fellow Tilehurst End assistant editor @WilliamOwain put it, Norwood is better suited to slow build up play, whereas Danny Williams and Nathaniel Chalobah (regular starters under Steve Clarke last season) are more of the energetic, box-to-box type our manager seems to prefer,

From that, we'd expect Norwood to be one of the losers in a Clarke-esque style of play, but I don't think things'll be as simple as that. With the departure of Jem Karacan on a free transfer to Galatasaray, Norwood finds himself as one of the more senior options available to Steve Clarke in central midfield. Although many of us hope to see Nathaniel Chalobah don the hoops once more, I don't think it's likely. Therefore, Norwood is probably third in the pecking order behind Danny Williams and Stephen Quinn. As I noted above, Reading can't afford to simply buy a whole new squad, which gives Norwood a big opportunity to claim a place in a new-look Reading side.

Similarly, there are others that spring to mind when you think of the transition between styles of football. Michael Hector, Aaron Kuhl and other players emerging from the academy are all comfortable with the ball at their feet - Nigel Adkins' reforms went deep down into the club's youth ranks after all. With that in mind, it'll be interesting to see how their development is affected by being coached by Steve Clarke as manager.

I highly doubt that Steve Clarke would have chosen to join the club in the first place if he hadn't seen a good deal of potential in the squad. That's naturally easier to argue when you talk about fan favourites like Garath McCleary and Danny Williams, maybe even the recently departed trio of Federici, Pearce and Karacan. But his plans for the rest of the squad are what could truly affect his success (or lack thereof) in Berkshire as manager. Changing fortunes for squad players is hardly as glamorous as bringing in new signings, but it's just as important.