Moving up the field in our positional previews for the new campaign, we look at how the midfield is lining up following the big loss of Danny Williams.
Players available in the position
Much like the rest of the squad, the central midfield area is one which has stayed largely the same over the off-season - but with one big exception. Danny Williams was perhaps the unsung hero of the 2016/17 campaign, making 47 appearances in all competitions, with only Chris Gunter and Yann Kermorgant turning out more as outfield players. His departure on a free transfer had been expected, and a move to Huddersfield was confirmed early on in July.
Luckily for the Royals, there still exists a core trio of young, highly talented players: George Evans, Liam Kelly and John Swift. Evans took some time to find his feet at Championship level after a series of loan spells in League One, but looked to finally be coming of age towards the end of last season. Kelly's route to the first team was rather more sudden of course - from a loan spell at National League South outfit Bath City, straight into the Championship cauldron. Swift was the only member of the trio with second tier experience before last season, and showed it to good effect in the early part of the campaign before fading after suffering an injury around Christmas. With all three players under the age of 23, this remains an exciting trio to build a squad around - as highlighted by new contracts for Kelly and Swift this summer.
Experience comes in the perceived backups, although their reliability has to come into question. Joey van den Berg's weaknesses became obvious last campaign when too much burden was placed on his shoulders, far preferring to play in a three-man back line than a two-man midfield or centre-back partnership. Stephen Quinn has struggled with injury for much of the last year, only making seven appearances in 2016/17. Sandro Wieser, meanwhile, was certainly fit for most of the season...and didn't even get one Championship cameo off the bench. Unless Jaap Stam is happy to rely on youth this year, you'd imagine this will be a priority position to add least add depth.
Performance last season
No guessing who the breakout star was. As mentioned, Kelly's emergence from potential forgotten man in the lower leagues to Championship maestro was the feel-good story of the season, as he continued his ascent throughout the campaign to become almost the undroppable man in the centre of the park. For Swift, almost the opposite was true - an electric start, but form tailed off a tad towards the end of the season (perhaps due to injury). Evans, much like Kelly, improved as he got game time although naturally in a less-heralded duty and with a less emotionally satisfying back story, took less of the plaudits. Van den Berg was fine as a backup, but also suffered with injuries and certainly didn't fill with confidence when having to cover more than a few games in a row.
What needs improvement
If you were to try and compare Reading's four "main" central midfielders' attributes, I'd wager that Williams would be the man with the least correlation with the others. Stamina and tackling were his game, and an uncanny dribbling ability which would often see him sweep defence into attack, where others might try to ping a long ball forward. Kelly, Evans and Swift are by no means the "same" player but none add the sheer dynamism in the midfield zone that Williams had. Certainly there are no worries about that trio facing off against an inferior side at the Madejski Stadium, but I have my doubts about their ability to cope away at a promotion rival.
If that new combative, high-energy first-teamer were to be recruited, then potentially the Royals will have enough to sustain a challenge at the top. But a little more depth certainly wouldn't go amiss either, whether an experienced head used to the hustle and bustle of the Championship, or an up-and-comer willing to bide their time, learn from Stam and slowly work their way into the first team. Certainly in the latter's case, there will be few better places to do it - Stam has already shown both a willingness to give youth a chance, and an ability to bring the best out of them.
Expectations for this season
More of the same will do just fine - Swift, Evans and Kelly all proved themselves to be more than capable at this level, and an upward curve can still be expected from this trio. With their best years ahead of them, and with all three secured to long-term contracts (as well as Liam Moore and Tiago Ilori in defence), it's clear that Stam and the hierarchy see these five players as a central nucleus to build around in the years ahead.
What they need to prove, though, is that they can effectively work in the same side - especially against the top tier teams. Without the incessant Williams pressuring the opposition, these three won't have as much time to do what they do best - which arguably unlike the American, comes with the ball, not without it.
Also on TTE, catch our positional previews for the defence and between the sticks, with the attack to come later in the week.