The Championship starting all over again in less than a week, we thought now would be a good time to look at each position in the Reading FC squad and give it a once-over to see how we’re doing and how we expect things to go in the coming season, as Stam looks to get the club promoted.
The series will be split into Goalkeepers, Central Defenders, Full Backs, Central Midfielders, Wingers, and Forwards.
We start today, with Goalkeepers.
Players available in this position
There's a number of goalkeepers at the club now, the real test is whether any of them are good enough. New £2million man Vito Mannone is likely to start the season as the Royals' number one, having made the switch from relegated Sunderland.
His main competition will come from Finn Anssi Jaakkola, who, despite limited appearances last season, has shown that he is easily capable of filling in. George Legg is the next young talent to move up, and will be looking for some first team minutes this season.
Then there's Jonathan Bond - remember him? No one is quite sure what's happened there... Other than Watford appear to got away with one. He is heading to Peterborough United on loan. It's the last year of his contract here and at the moment he'll be away until January.
In terms of youngsters, George Legg is unlikely to see game time this season but remains an option should it come to it. Likewise Luke Southwood and Lewis Ward.
Performance last season
Outstanding. Very few errors which had peppered the previous campaign. Some season-defining results came off the back of goalkeeping displays, particularly that away win at Sheffield Wednesday. A great ambassador for the football club, Ali Al-Habsi remained approachable and positive, while inspiring those in front of him to some wonderful feats. Deservedly he became one of only a handful of people in Reading’s history to collect consecutive player of the season awards. After initial doubts, this was now seen as a position of strength.
Just one problem. He’s gone. This was not part of the plan. Anyway, thank you, Ali, and all the best. As an ambassador for our club, you have been fantastic.
The rest of the goalkeeping group never really challenged Al-Habsi who has been in the form of his life, and certainly has left an unexpected hole. However, Jaakkola, despite being an unknown plucked from the South African league, has fitted in very quickly, and by all accounts has been an excellent squad member. In his few cup appearances, he also looked confident and capable, especially when taking on a leadership role with the young team in the whatever they call the Johnstone Paint Trophy now.
We didn’t see any of George Legg but he was deemed worthy of a couple of inclusions in the first team squad, most notably for the game against Leeds United. The biggest indication of his potential was the fact that Mikkel Andersen was allowed to move on.
In contrast, Vito Mannone endured a tough season, with injury, being stuck behind Jordan Pickford and relegation. He has faded a little in the last couple of years, having contributed greatly to Sunderland’s escape from relegation the season before, including, you’ll be pleased to hear, some penalty heroics against Manchester United which took Sunderland to their first major final in a long time. Injury has not aided, but generally he appears to have lost confidence and thus a level of performance over the past eighteen months. Still, he has cup final, Champions League, and a lot of Premier League experience.
Bond appeared to just do alright at Gillingham last season, and The Posh liked him enough to ask him to join them, so he must have done something right.
What needs improvement
Well, we need some reassurance. Despite Mannone’s experience, he doesn’t seem to be an upgrade, or based on what we’ve seen recently, an on par substitute for Al-Habsi. Mainly though, it appears that his consistency is his biggest problem, particularly in regards to slumps in confidence and maintaining a calm approach. He is prone to the odd howler, but then we’re used to that. In terms of specifically playing with Reading though, his most notable technical weakness appears to be his distribution. Now, of course, we love playing out from the back these days, but finding your man higher up the pitch is still of utmost importance, as we definitely don’t want to start every attack from in our box.
For all of the ‘keepers, the biggest improvement is going to have to be trying to fill Al-Habsi’s boots, most pertinently his presence in the team. Despite the occasional mistake, Ali always seemed calm and confident, able to command his area, if not always accurately executing. This provided a cool head under pressure for the defence, particularly when McShane was not there, although Liam Moore is capable of moving into that vocal leadership role in the coming years. All the ‘keepers will have to make an effort to instil as much confidence in the defence as Al-Habsi did.
Expectations ahead of this season
Well, with a mostly unchanged defence, pending any more transfers and more uncertainty over injuries, Mannone can at least come into a relatively settled defence. I am saying he will start purely based on his taking of the number one jersey, but I do expect it to be a battle, and Stam has gone out of his way to include Jaakkola in his statements about the position next season. This defence, with a season under the belts, should hopefully improve on what they did last year. Of course it depends if another centre back comes in, or if Stam opts for some more of the likes of Tiago Ilori or Rob Dickie and less Joey, love him as I do. However, I do think matching Al-Habsi’s 17 clean sheets could take some doing.
A realistic ask for Mannone, or Jaakkola, should the former falter, is to not make us disproportionately nervous any time the ball goes near our box. I think they should be looking to try and get 15 clean sheets, and get at least 10, as well as really try and get involved with playing the ball on the deck. This does not have to entail Manuel Neuer style marauds, but a willingness to get stuck in with Stam’s style. I don’t feel that we need to see fireworks because of the way we play, but some leadership and an overall level of consistency should also be expected.
I also think George Legg will be pushing to get some game time in one of the cups at some point, or at least more matchday squad appearances, just for the experience. The wild card is, of course, Jonathan Bond, and we are now at the point where the club will expect improvement from him. He’s back in January, and if there’s any question marks over the others, he has the potential to be the joker in the pack. Hopefully, after some rest over the summer and another spell of first team football at Peterborough, he will be able to kick on and start to realise some more of his potential. If not, this will probably be his last season at the club.
It will be interesting to see if Stam feels he need to go three at the back more often to offer a bit more protection, though that may come down to who's fit, and not just in defence. Lots of questions then, but considering last season and Stam’s style, I don’t think we should be too worried. Jaakkola looks a more than capable back up. Hopefully Vito hits the ground running.
In Legg and now Luke Southwood, who has just signed a pro contract, it is hopefully a position that is in safe hands (couldn’t resist) for the future.
Also, both Mannone and Jaakkola’s names fit perfectly into Ali’s song.
Ohhhhh Vi-to Ma-nno-ne
Ohhhhh Vi-to Ma-nno-ne
I apologise. Let me know when you’ve managed to get it out of your head.
We’ll continue our look at the Reading squad tomorrow, when we look at central defenders.