How were Reading able to win the Championship title in 2011/2012, sneaking into pole position during the final sixteen matches of the season after sitting in 7th at the beginning of February?
Amongst the usual factors of success in football (in-form players, out-of-form opposition and a healthy dosage of good luck), there was a prime reason to why the team were able to mount such a successful challenge and maintain momentum right up until the end of the season. Of all the analogies used to explain football to the masses, perhaps the one about anatomy is most relevant; the strength of a team is defined by the 'spine' that runs through it. In goal, central defence, central midfield and forward; key players in these areas, spread out across the team rather than concentrated in one position, can go a long way to all but guaranteeing success for a football team.
Brian McDermott's side at the beginning of the season already contained the likes of Adam Federici, Alex Pearce and Mikele Leigertwood, among others who contributed equally as much. The final piece of the puzzle came in January, as veteran striker Jason Roberts joined the team and scored six goals in seventeen games (along with assisting fellow forward Adam Le Fondre) to ensure the side would celebrate glory at the end of the campaign.
There is a case to be made that Jaap Stam had an equally strong team last season, with Ali Al-Habsi, Liam Moore, Danny Williams and Yann Kermorgant key ingredients to a campaign which ended with a trip to Wembley. But a whole is only as strong as the sum of its parts. And, with two parts of the equation now gone, we take a look at what Reading will be missing in 2017/2018.
The final whistle at Wembley in May didn't just confirm that Reading would be confined to the second tier for another season at least; it also put the final nail in the coffin for Danny Williams' career at Reading. Much like the weeping Shane Long after defeat in the 2011 playoff final to Swansea City, there was no doubt that Williams (by far the best player on the pitch at Wembley) would be finding a new club this summer. It will sting a bit that that new club is play-off victors Huddersfield Town, but at least he is realising his Premier League dream before he reaches his thirties.
Williams has blown hot and cold during his Reading career, not quite enough to be considered inconsistent, but far from a week-in-week-out star performer. But his key attribute that he brought to the side was his industrious attitude, an 110% mentality which pushed him through each and every game. Below is a touch map for Danny Williams during the playoff final in May, a MOTM performance which provided a perfect swansong to his departure. The term ‘box-to-box midfielder’ has never been more accurate than this, nicely spread out with equal amounts of defending and attacking.
And he hasn't just contributed in the centre of the park. In Brian McDermott's second period in charge of the Royals, Danny could be found filling in on the right hand side of midfield. Not as natural a winger as someone like Garath McCleary, but it was clear that his stamina and fitness made him an extremely viable candidate to substitute in this position when needed.
Will Reading miss Danny Williams?
Without a doubt. While the first team has a good selection of midfielders, they can be easily split into two camps: the defensive-minded ones like Joey van den Berg and George Evans, and the attacking nature of John Swift. Williams was a box-to-box player, and they are harder to replace.
While Williams was an expected departure, Ali Al-Habsi was almost certain to stay. He would have had his suitors, no doubt, but he had already expressed his happiness in Berkshire and had just been awarded Player of the Season for the second year running at the club. In fact, the only reason to leave would be personal, something you couldn't begrudge given he is close to 5,000 miles away from his family.
Personal it was, as a move to Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia (neighbouring Oman in the Middle East) signified, but it doesn’t make the damage any easier. The fundamental way of measuring a goalkeeper’s success is through one stat: clean sheets. Going back to the spine analogy, during the 2011/2012 campaign, Adam Federici kept 20 clean sheets on the way to the title. Last year, Ali Al Habsi came second-highest in the division with sixteen, but managed it over more games (48) than those equal and above him.
|David Stockdale (Brighton & Hove Albion)||41||18|
|Scott Carson (Derby County)||44||16|
|Kieran Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday)||44||16|
|Ali Al Habsi (Reading)||48||16|
But, statistics aside, there have also been some memorable moments. Take the win against Bristol City in November, the triumph over Sheffield Wednesday in March or the second leg of the playoff semi-final versus Fulham; these are just three examples (and there are many more) over the past season where Ali Al-Habsi has been arguably the most important player on the pitch for The Royals.
Not without his faults (as no goalkeeper is), but Al Habsi has such a strong character between the sticks that it felt, at times, that he was able to encourage the team in front of him to play better. He never had the chance to hold the captaincy during his brief spell in Berkshire, but no fan would have argued if the honour had gone his way - he surely would have deserved the title.
Will Reading miss Ali Al Habsi?
Again, the answer is a resounding yes. Like Williams, there are replacements. Vito Mannone has signed from Sunderland, Anssi Jaakkola was a worthy substitute 'keeper last season and will surely be pushing for more starts this season, and George Legg appears to be the next young talent to come through the ranks. But it is unlikely that they will have the immediate impact that Al Habsi did.
And The Rest?
It's unlikely there will be any more high profile moves out of Reading this summer, so the rest of the spine will be intact for now. But, as anyone who has slept on a cheap mattress will attest, if the backbone is compromised even slightly, it can cause pain everywhere.
Do you agree with Ben? How will Reading cope in 2017/18 without half of last season’s spine? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.