We continue our position previews with Central Defenders.
Stam expects a lot from the men at the back, and has seen a lot of transfer activity in the position since he took charge in the summer of 2016, so how does the position look as we head into the 2017/18 season?
Players available in the position
Depending on how you look at it, Reading are either well stocked in the position, or lacking in specialist and proven Championship defenders.
Paul McShane and Liam Moore have proven themselves to be capable and high quality operators at centre back, while Tiago Ilori — signed from Liverpool in January — has looked a shrewd signing in his appearances to date.
Outside of those three, Stam played Tyler Blackett and Joey van den Berg at the back at times last season, while George Evans has been mooted as a potential option should it come down to it.
In terms of youngsters who could see game time, Niall Keown and Jake Cooper have moved on this summer, but Rob Dickie and Axel Andresson are — we think — highly thought of by the coaching team. Alas, man mountain Danzell Gravenberch is out on loan. Sad face.
Performance last season
On the whole, very good. Liam Moore, when eventually signed, slotted straight into the side and quickly became a key player for Stam. Strong, robust, quick and intelligent, Moore is the type of defender who could easily play in a Premier League team.
Paul McShane had his injury problems, but was strong when he featured and exactly what you want to see in a captain — committed and composed.
Apart from those two, it was a real mixed bag for the others that featured at centre back. Tiago Ilori looked good but featured only 8 times because of injury, while Tyler Blackett was streaky, to say the least. He’d be awful one game, fantastic the next, and was generally better when played on the left of a back three.
The same could be said of Joey van den Berg, who looked shoddy when part of a back two, but decent when afforded the protection of an extra defender alongside him.
As for youngsters Dickie and Andresson, there’s not much to say. They’ve not featured for Reading.
What needs improvement
Honestly, some form of consistency. The central defenders were chopped and changed so often last season it was difficult to predict who’d play. That didn’t help with performances in general, where they could look unbeatable one match and flimsy the next. The 7-1 defeat at Norwich, for example, was sandwiched by 3-1 wins for The Royals. Stam needs to find himself a first choice defence and stick with it, rotating only when necessary.
The difficulty with this is the choice Stam has between the three defenders if he opts for a traditional back four. Which duo of McShane, Moore and Ilori does he go for? The robustness of McShane with the reliable Moore? Or the suave Portuguese with the stable Englishman? Who misses out? It’s a conundrum that may mean we struggle to see a consistent partnership this season. You can fit all three in with a back three formation, but that means one fewer attacker on the pitch.
While Reading got to the Play Off Final last season, it wasn’t through consistent impervious defensive displays. They were often found lacking against quick counter attacks and had Ali Al-Habsi to thank for saving their skins regularly during 2016/17 season. So you’d hope that this season coming would see the central defence be more comfortable in the Stam style and would be better at coping with counter attacks by the time the season gets underway.
You could also make the case to bring in one more specialist centre back, to take the strain off van den Berg and Blackett, who aren’t natural central defenders. Though whether that’s on Stam’s agenda is anyone’s guess.
Expectations ahead of this season
I expect we’ll continue to see Stam play a mixture of a traditional four man defence and three at the back next season. So I expect we’ll see a lot of McShane, Moore, and Ilori with a fair share of minutes for Blackett and van den Berg — though that may change if a signing is made.
I doubt Dickie and Andresson are deemed ready for the Championship just yet, though they could get game time in some cup games if the first choice trio need a rest.
Of course, it’s difficult to judge centre backs without looking at the defence as a whole. We’ve already looked at Goalkeepers, and next up we have the Full Back positions.