How With the visit of Preston North End tomorrow comes Jaap Stam's first competitive game in charge of Reading. Having had a number of games in pre-season to trial his ideas, he now has to make a decision on who to play. Obviously, we won't know the team until just after 2pm tomorrow, but ahead of that here are my thoughts on how I think the Royals should line up.
Subs: Jaakkola, Watson, Jules, Evans, Barrett, Beerens, Rakels.
I'd be very surprised if Reading don't line up in a 4-3-3 against Preston. Jaap Stam has consistently used it in pre-season, so won't be keen on changing the shape for the season opener.
Goalkeeper and defence
Reading's transfer business defensively has been pretty underwhelming so far, meaning that we're left with the same back five that lost the last league game at the Madejski - also against Preston North End. Despite the arrival of Anssi Jaakkola, I still fancy Ali Al-Habsi to keep the number one spot, perhaps foreshadowed by his being picked to play against Bournemouth a week ago.
In front of him, the Gunter-McShane-Cooper-Obita unit hardly fills me with confidence, but the alternatives aren't any more appealing. The likes of Watson, Dickie, Jules and others are probably still too inexperienced for first team football, Danzell Gravenberch is unfit, and Joey Van den Berg looked uncomfortable when playing at centre half.
I'm much happier with the way the midfield is shaping up, despite the loss of Aaron Tshibola and Oliver Norwood. Joey Van den Berg is an ideal tough-tackling midfielder to protect the back four, leaving room for two more attacking options ahead of him. For me, those would be Danny Williams and Liam Kelly, each of whom had impressive pre-seasons.
Crucially, they each add something different, whilst still being suitable for Jaap Stam's high-pressing brand of football. Danny Williams adds strength and drives forward in direct support of the centre forward, whilst Kelly can unpick defences with an intricate range of passing. Plus, his set pieces are that bit more dangerous than what we've been used to recently.
For me, the big weakness in the Reading team that faced Bournemouth was the lack of a target man. In the absence of Joseph Mendes and Yann Kermorgant, Deniss Rakels had to do a pretty makeshift job in holding the ball up for the midfield and wide forwards. Fortunately, the return of Kermorgant from injury solves that problem. Sure, the Frenchman hasn't shown terrific form since arriving from Bournemouth, but his experience up top is something that Reading lack.
I'm unsure about deploying John Swift on the left of the front three - personally, I think he's far better suited in a much deeper role. That said, you can't look past his impressive form in pre-season. Sure, he doesn't offer the pace of a winger or the clinical finishing of an out-and-out forward, but his creative spark in the final third is something that Reading have seriously missed in recent years.
On the other side, it was a tough choice between Garath McCleary and Roy Beerens - either way, you get a direct winger adding pace to the attack. But for me, bearing in mind how motivated he'll be to rediscover his form at the start of a new season, the Jamaican should get the nod. On the other hand, although Roy Beerens showed flashes against Bournemouth, on the whole he looked like he'll need time to adjust to English football.