Continuing our analysis of the entire Reading contingent ahead of the 2017/2018 campaign, now we take a look at the full backs.
Players available in the position
Numbers-wise, Reading appear to be fine on paper. Two players on either side of the defence with no injuries is perfect to go into the new season with. But, look a bit deeper and that is where the cracks begin to appear. Chris Gunter is the first-choice right back/wing back, with youngster Tennai Watson his understudy.
It is a different matter on the other side of the pitch, where academy graduate Jordan Obita and former Manchester United defender Tyler Blackett spent last season unsuccessfully battling out who deserves prominence. With Watson not experienced to Championship level, and Blackett moved between centre back and full back, it wouldn’t have been surprising for either side to see a new addition this summer, but Jaap Stam so far has not made a move for one.
Performance last season
First we turn to Chris Gunter. Fans seem divided upon the Welsh international. While his supreme fitness allowed him to play the entirety of the Championship campaign, as well as three cup appearances, making him one of the more dependable players in the team. But consistency appears to be an issue, with occasional defensive errors allowing opposing teams an easy route into the penalty area. He also appears to wrestle with the dynamic approach Jaap Stam has asked him to take, struggling to know when to move forward or come back, although I will come onto this in the next section in more detail.
On the other side, Tyler Blackett and Jordan Obita both had time on the left side of defence, with the clear difference being Obita’s attacking movement (which saw him score twice and provide four assists in the league last year) and Blackett’s defensive aptitude, something which shows in the fact he can also play in the centre of defence. Neither player had a particularly consistent season when considering purely defensive performance, and there was perhaps a bit of surprise in January when Reading decided against bringing in another natural full back, as Blackett was deputising a lot in the centre at the time. But Obita surely proved the better choice, particularly given the 5-3-2 formation which Stam seemed to prefer towards the end of the season.
What needs improvement?
There were a fair few players at Reading last season who took a while to grasp a full understanding of the style of play Jaap Stam wanted to implement at the club, and the full backs were no exception to this rule. Jordan Obita began life in the academy as a left winger, so perhaps it is natural that he has a proclivity to get forward whenever possible. While he offered quite a bit in a more attacking role, this did impact the defensive side of his game. Chris Gunter could be accused of similar, as he was out of position on the occasions he pushed forward.
As mentioned above, the approach that Jaap Stam takes to the game is quite dynamic, which involves players constantly moving. The full backs on both side will need to work on their concentration, and to be able to understand where they should be at any given time on the pitch, in particular when Reading are in and out of possession. They were far from the only players who struggled with a different system (Ali Al-Habsi would be an obvious example of this) and the question is whether they are able to play this way. If they continue to exhibit similar issues this season, perhaps they will find themselves surplus to requirements sooner or later.
Expectations ahead of this season
It does depend slightly on what formation Stam decides to favour. Should he remain faithful to the 5-3-2 which carried Reading through last season, then all full backs will be required to become confident playing more as wing-backs, capable of supplementing their usual defensive duties with getting forward more, giving width to the middle of the park. Without Danny Williams, whose stamina allowed him to move around for the ball, the full backs will have to become more adept at passing and communication with the midfield, in order to allow attacks to be constructed properly.
On the other hand, if he goes to the 4-3-3 formation which he used at times during the 2016/2017 campaign, or even a 4-4-2, the defending becomes much more basic, and potentially a lot less complex as there is little chance of someone like Chris Gunter being caught out of position. However, it would curtail the talents of someone like Jordan Obita, who can be extremely effective when allowed to break through on the left flank. His defensive abilities are not as impressive, and, with Tyler Blackett not able to be relied upon consistently, Stam would have to consider a replacement, either from the transfer market or youth team.
And we should touch upon Tennai Watson. The youngster has now been a part of the first team set-up for two seasons, even if he hasn’t got his chance to appear much during that time. The fact that Stam has kept him in (at a time when the manager has cast off a lot of youth team players) perhaps shows that he has a future at the club, but it is surely time for him to start getting more match time. While Chris Gunter will undoubtedly keep him out of the team for the majority of the games, it would be nice to see Watson challenge for an occasional first team place. I feel he must qualify himself for his place in the first team.
We’ve looked at Goalkeepers, Central Defenders, and Full Backs. Tomorrow, we look at Central Midfielders.