We always knew there was going to be some personnel changes as we trudged back down Wembley Way following play-off final heartbreak at the end of May, but Ali Al-Habsi was nowhere near the list of expected departures.
The goalkeeper had recently been named Reading's official player of the season for the second consecutive campaign, signed a new two year deal in January and at 35 years old was expected to finish his career at the Madejski Stadium. But last week, rumours began to emerge that the Omani was attracting a fair amount of interest from Saudi Arabia, with Al-Hilal the club popping up most in reports. Since then, the rumours seem to have progressed to suggestions that the deal is all but done, with confirmation expected any time.
Replacing his number one 'keeper probably wasn't an issue that Jaap Stam expected to have this summer, but unfortunately it now appears almost inevitable that we won't be seeing Ali between the sticks in Berkshire again. Waiting in the wings, Anssi Jaakkola and academy products George Legg, Lewis Ward and Luke Southwood may all fancy their chances of becoming the Royals' new number one, whilst if reports are to believed, Karl Darlow could make a £5 million switch from Newcastle to fill the position.
Stam has had his say on the situation, and even jokingly threw Manuel Neuer into the list of possible replacements:
"Anssi has been the second choice all season but by Ali leaving, he [Anssi] needs to push and show he is a first team goalkeeper.
"We've got a list of eight possible goalkeepers and there is Karl Darlow but it's not easy to bring someone in with the same quality as what Ali has or even better."
But how pivotal is it that Reading effectively replace Al-Habsi? Should they run the risk of trying to let a young keeper like Legg, Ward or Southwood develop? Is Jaakkola a ready made replacement? He was signed by Stam last summer with the possibility of becoming the club's first choice 'keeper after all. Or does money need to be spent to ensure we fight for promotion once again?
Personally, I'm leaning towards the third solution. Sure, Jaakkola has some pedigree - having been nominated for the South African league’s keeper of the season award in two of his three years at Ajax Cape Town - but the Championship would arguably be the highest level he has played at in his career. The goalkeeper is an important role for any team, but I would hesitate to say that for Reading currently it is the most important for two key reasons...
One of the main reasons why Al-Habsi stood out so much last year and was named the club's player of the season was that he was forced into action perhaps a lot more than he should have been. He kept Reading in a number of games, most significantly in the trip to Sheffield Wednesday when he made several impressive saves as the Royals ran out 2-0 winners.
The statistics back up this over reliance on the Omani. On average, Reading conceded 15.1 shots per game in the regular Championship season - only Rotherham (16.7) and Barnsley (15.3) conceded more. This led to Al-Habsi making a total of 166 saves across the regular campaign, which only The Tykes' Adam Davies (167) could better. Combining these two statistics, Ali made a save every 4.2 shots he faced. Just three teams bettered this ratio - Brentford, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham.
Despite these admirable figures, the goals against column still didn't make for great reading in 2016/17. Only Norwich and Brentford conceded more in the top half than Reading who let in 64, whilst only bottom of the table Rotherham (64) conceded more goals away from home than Reading (48). These numbers would undoubtedly have been more embarrassing for the Royals had it not been for Al-Habsi.
As analysed by Will last summer, Stam's style of play does leave the defence a little vulnerable and this proved true throughout last season. If this continues to be the case into the new campaign, Reading are once again going to need a reliable, top class shot stopper to bail them out and keep them in games. Is that man Anssi Jaakkola? Not for me.
Stam's style of play also means that the goalkeeper is much more involved in the game and is used a lot more by the defenders. In 2016/17, Al-Habsi made 1750 passes in the regular Championship season (average of 38 per game), the most of any goalkeeper. Huddersfield's Danny Ward was second on 1485.
This is where replacing Al-Habsi with someone already at the club might make more sense. The majority of young goalkeepers in the modern era are being brought up to be comfortable with the ball at their feet, Legg and Southwood included so they should be competent in the system despite spending very little time with the first team. Equally, Jaakkola has spent a year learning Stam's style of play so would have no problems with fitting into the system.
Whoever is the number one next season, it's clear they will need to be confident ball-players, as the ball will indeed come to them a lot. If this criteria isn't meant, we could end up with a few of these incidents on our hands...
So, who should replace Al-Habsi?
If the club are to look inwards, then Jaakkola is the best option. He's not as good as Al-Habsi, but he has experience of Stam's style of play and has shown glimpses in cup competitions that he is a fairly decent shot stopper. Furthermore, at 30 years old he would be by far the most experienced option between the sticks and therefore be better at controlling the defence with authority. But as mentioned, I would rather the club spent some money on a better replacement.
It shouldn't need to blow the budget though. If the new owners are to break the bank on a striker, I hardly think they can afford to spend a minimum of £5 million on Karl Darlow. In terms of other options, it is difficult to speculate without knowing Reading's budget, how much certain players will cost and if they would be willing to move.
Would a loan goalkeeper fit the bill? Danny Ward and Emiliano Martinez could be available from Liverpool and Arsenal respectively but then you're left with the conundrum of teaching a keeper to play the Stam system before waving goodbye after just a season.
Looking around the Championship, Daniel Bentley at Brentford is a good shot-stopper and ranked third behind Al-Habsi and Ward in terms of total passes last season. Preston's Chris Maxwell could be a wildcard choice and also places highly in the statistics. Fulham play a very similar style of play to Reading and have two goalkeepers - David Button and Marcus Bettinelli - competing for the number one shirt ahead of the new season. Could one of them make the switch to Berkshire?
Finally, if Stam wanted a goalkeeper who he knows and who would slot right into his style of play, could he look to Ajax once again? With little prior knowledge of these players at all, Norbert Alblas (22) or Indy Groothuizen (20) may be tempted to follow Pelle Clement to the Madejski Stadium, but their youth may mean their ability to command their area is lacking.
Who would you like to see replace Al-Habsi? Let us know in the comments below and vote in the poll.
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All statistics attained from WhoScored.