There are a few factors which really don’t look good for Jaap Stam. Most pertinently, in this day and age, unless there is something more untoward happening off the pitch, players do not carry the can. Managers do, and this does not seem to be an anomalous situation.
Additionally, the timing of this bad spell is not ideal for the big Dutchman, based on the logic that a club will only provide a manager with funds in a transfer window if they believe he is the man for the job going forward. If you were on the board and you’d lost your faith in Stam, now is not the time of year you’d consider giving him a generous leash, as you’d rather get someone in place quickly for that transfer window.
He needs to turn things around pretty much immediately. Fans are leaving games early and that does not look good, or they’re not turning up at all, and that implies change is needed. Finally, of course, we must remember he is the victim of his own success, and that this is all taking place with a play-off final penalty shootout tailgating us in the rear view mirror, casting a darker light on this season.
The shadow of last season
This is the first main area that is a big negative for Mr Stam. I do think the majority of fans were of the mind that bettering last season’s accomplishments was unlikely, even matching them, but expecting us to be somewhere close appeared reasonable, with the mitigating factor that many teams had spent big, so our position in the table would probably reflect this.
Comparing current periods to previous seasons is always tricky, especially as the teams in the competition change and evolve. However, despite losing Danny Williams and Ali Al-Habsi, this is a squad that has largely been strengthened, with significant financial investment, so while taking it with a pinch of salt, the comparison still seems a reasonable benchmark for a successful campaign this season.
So, with half the season gone, how do we compare to last season? Well, there was plenty of Christmas cheer on Boxing Day 2016, as a Jonny Howson red card changed the game in the Royals’ favour and we went on to win 3-1 against Norwich City at the Mad Stad. This left us third in the table behind Newcastle and Brighton on 43 points… so yes… above Leeds.
We had a positive goal difference of three, and we’d seen a goal from the man who was going to propel us to new heights this season, Nelson Oliveira. Ahem. We then replicated this form almost exactly over the second half of the season, amassing a further 42 points and a positive goal difference of one and finishing in third.
Incidentally, the top six stayed exactly the same… apart from Leeds dropping out. If this season’s first half is replicated minus one point, we’d have enough to have stayed up by two points last term. Now of course, the classic Reading second-half run might be in the offing, but do any of us think it likely?
The goals have dried up
So where has it all gone wrong? Basically, it’s goals - the scoring or creation thereof. Stam’s style has always been divisive, but what has taken the edge off the boredom (for some) in the past has been either goals or wins.
We are, worryingly, currently on pace to score at least ten fewer goals this season. Modou Barrow has tucked away a tidy seven goals so far, but no one else has got over three. Liam Moore is joint second in the goal charts!
Last year, Kermorgant, McCleary and Swift scored 35 between them last season. This time around, despite all clocking over five hundred minutes, they’ve combined for just two, both from Swift.
Creativity isn’t going well either - only four players have recorded more than one assist so far this year, and only one of those has more than two - Sone Aluko has added three assists to his two goals. Currently, that’s somewhere in the region of £1.5m per score/contribution, which doesn’t reflect well on Stam either. It’s difficult to see where the goals are going to come from.
There are mitigating injuries, but no one has kicked on under Stam’s tutelage this season, and we’ve arguably seen slight regression from the likes of Liam Kelly, Swift, McCleary, Roy Beerens and George Evans, while some signings have failed to live up to expectation such as Tiago Ilori and Aluko.
Others appear to have not been utilised properly or enough such as Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Adrian Popa. Combine this with the odd weird substitution, and two wins from the last nine, both against teams below us in the table and flirting with relegation at best, and it looks bleak.
The resilience of last season has dissipated, and confidence appears to be at rock bottom. The last time the Royals got anything out of a game after going behind was over a month ago, at Bolton, another team in the bottom three. Before that? You’d have to go back to the end of September and a late leveller from Böðvarsson to get us a 1-1 draw against Hull. A couple of weeks earlier Liam Kelly nabbed us a point at Brentford.
A win from behind? Nope. That’s three whole points recovered in the league from going a goal down. If the opposition score first it’s basically all over. In contrast, nine points were rescued from losing positions last season, including two victories. About a year ago we found ourselves 2-0 down at Ashton Gate… and won. I’d be surprised if anyone had given us much of a chance of doing something similar on Boxing Day this time around. It is this atmosphere of resignation around performances that is really affecting fans’ attitudes, compounding the views of those who find his style boring.
That, I’m afraid, in a nutshell, is why Stam might well be on his way. There is no fight in this team. They appear to either lack the belief or knowhow, or both, to get themselves out of a hole, and while you can point the finger at poor form and injuries, the cultivation of that attitude, which was there last season… well, that responsibility falls squarely at the feet of the manager and his staff.
This also appears to highlight a failure in the transfer market. While some have been successes, there has been no good replacement for Kermorgant - someone whose goals could mask other deficiencies in a team, a la Dave Kitson. None of the other signings have also stepped in to fill Danny Williams’ role as enforcer, with Reading’s sports scientists as yet unable to surgically combine JVDB, Bacuna, Dave Edwards and George Evans into one superplayer.
The urgency appears to have gone and the fighting spirit seems to have evaporated. Stam’s time is quickly drying up.
Stats courtesy of Soccerway and WhoScored.