If an outsider were to look at the goals against column in the Championship they'd probably come to the conclusion that Reading's defence isn't all that good. After all, only Barnsley (37) have conceded more goals than the Royals (33) in the top ten, while 23rd placed Wigan have conceded two fewer than us.
However, I don't think it's bias or hyperbolic to say that in skipper Paul McShane and Liam Moore, Reading have one of the best centre-back pairings in the second tier. Then again, what else would you expect in a team managed by a former World Class centre back in Jaap Stam.
The duo are hugely popular with the Madejski Stadium faithful, and their importance to this team can't be underestimated. The stats themselves back up those thoughts, as of those who've appeared regularly, only Garath McCleary (6.2) can rival the averages of McShane (6.1) and Moore (6.2) in our player ratings this season. When one is not in the team, their absence is incredibly notable, with the defence looking unorganised and uncoordinated. The deeper we dig into such an idea, the more the stats only seem to back it up.
Of Reading's 25 league games this season, the partnership has been present in 17. In those matches, we've won 13, drawn two and lost two, giving us a win percentage of 76.5%. 16 goals have been conceded (0.94 per game), whilst the pairing has contributed to seven clean sheets. So pretty impressive.
What's incredibly worrying is how Reading perform when only one of Moore or McShane is in the team. That's happened in eight games this season, and we've only won once, drawing twice and losing five. That lone win came way back on the opening day against Preston when Moore hadn't even signed for the club. That works out to a win percentage of just 12.5%. Furthermore, Reading have kept just one clean sheet those eight games and conceded 17 goals (2.13 per game).
The message here is equally clear and concerning. Five of Reading's seven league defeats have come when Moore or McShane are absent and when the pair don't play together, Stam's side have conceded at more than twice the rate compared to when they'll in the team together.
*alarm bells start ringing*
So scary reading, especially coming off last week's news that McShane would be sidelined through injury for at least the next two games, one of which comes against the league's third highest scorers in Fulham. Yes, that same Fulham who put five past us when Liam Moore was suspended in December. If you wanted any further reason to worry, Reading's win percentage without their captain in the team this season is an all-mighty 0%.
Part of the problem is the lack of cover for McShane and Moore, which goes some way to explaining why the Royals concede so many goals when one of the two is absent. Joey van den Berg has been the man to fill in at the back on the eight occasions this season, and the Dutchman has proven countless times that he is most certainly not a centre-back. Simply put, he's a liability.
Tyler Blackett has done the job as part of a central trio but doesn't seem to be trusted, nor has he shown the form to suggest he'll work out in a two.
Behind that pair, there's Jake Cooper who's recently returned from injury, but Jaap Stam doesn't seem to be the academy graduate's biggest fan. I would certainly rather Cooper in defence than van den Berg, but we may well see the 21 year old go out on loan this month. Rob Dickie was recalled from his loan spell at Cheltenham last week, which suggests that he could get an opportunity in the first team. George Evans has also played in defence in the past, but that would take away one of Stam's midfield options.
All in all, you can certainly see why the addition of Tiago Ilori appears so crucial. The Portuguese defender will not only provide cover for McShane and Moore, but also give Stam the more favourable option of a three at the back system when all are fit. I really hope he signs before the weekend's trip to Derby because I don't think I can bare any more games having to worry about van den Berg in the backline!