In the lead up to the play-off final in May, I described the 2016/17 season on social media as “a bit of blur” due to the fact that I rarely registered the enormity of what was happening as we finished third in the table despite having been an ever-present in the top six since November.
At the time, I put this down to the fact that I had just been completely and utterly stunned by the incredible transformation that Jaap Stam had carried out in Berkshire. I was just enjoying the ride and trying to comprehend that we had a real chance of getting back in the Premier League following two truly awful league campaigns in 14/15 and 15/16.
But sitting here now, with Reading having made a less than impressive start to the new campaign, I almost think that last season was like a “blur” because there were very few moments in 2016/17 that felt like I was watching a top six side. Sure, we were getting vital results to cement our place in the play-off positions - such as wins over rivals Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday - but other than the euphoric moments after the goals had gone in and the full-time whistles blew, there wasn’t much to get excited about and tell us that we were a decent side. Nearly every single opposition fan would go away from the Madejski with a comment along the lines of “they’re really not very good, how are they in the top six?”. At the time we batted it away as bitter, but now I’m thinking that they may have had a point. Sure, you can’t say we were undeserved of third place after 46 games, but we miles away from the swashbuckling top two of Newcastle and Brighton.
Now, the lack of entertaining football under Stam is well documented. In a poll we created at the end of last season, 56% of fans voted to say that they hadn’t found the campaign exciting, despite being just two penalty kicks away from the top flight. Games were slow, pragmatic and on many occasions boring to watch, but this was, understandably, excused because the team were getting results and sitting higher in the table than anyone anticipated.
But in 2017/18, expectations are a lot higher. Not only due to last season but also after a summer in which the club’s transfer record was broken and more money was spent than in any other previous transfer window. Yet after playing seven games (which granted is one less than most of the rest of the Championship), the Royals have two wins and are 18th in table. Some fans are beginning to ask questions about Stam’s tactics and style of play, with frustrations growing.
In reality, Reading aren’t playing any worse than they were in 2016/17. Games are just as slow, just as pragmatic and still on many occasions boring to watch. The one difference is that the results aren’t coming. There’s two reasons for this.
Firstly, most other clubs know how to deal with how the Royals play. When Stam first arrived in England, his possession based system was rarely seen in the second tier and as such many teams came unstuck by our unorthodox approach. A year on and managers are wiser, meaning Reading find themselves in trouble with no apparent plan B.
Where are the goals coming from?
The second reason as to why we aren’t picking up as many points as last season is simply that the team is struggling for goals. Only Norwich (7.7) had a better shots per goal ratio than the Royals (8.1) in 2016/17, and being able to take chances and therefore win games often hid the overall performance that was often shoddy.
This campaign, our shots per goal ratio has shot up to 14.3 - only the teams currently in the bottom three (Brentford, Birmingham City and Bolton) have a less effective attack so far. Obviously the key cause of this is the absence of Yann Kermorgant, who hit a career-high tally of 18 league goals last season. With surgery still ruling him for the next few weeks at least (and who knows how it will have impacted how he plays), the nearly 36-year-old appears unlikely to even hit double figures in what is set to be his last year in the game.
What is equally worrying is that the remainder of our top five goalscorers from last season are also looking unlikely to reproduce the goods. Garath McCleary (nine league goals) and Roy Beerens (six league goals) have made injury hit starts to the campaign and don’t look quite up to scratch, John Swift (eight league goals) has continued his poor form from the back end of 16/17, whilst Danny Williams (four league goals) has of course moved to Huddersfield.
Even the summer signings don’t appear to possess much of a threat. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson has never reached double figures in a league campaign, Mo Barrow has just two goals in 70 league appearances in England, whilst Sone Aluko’s best Championship tally is eight. It’s crazy to think midfielder David Edwards’ 10 goals last season represents the highest goal count in this country out of any of our new boys.
It makes missing out on a top striker in the transfer window even more frustrating. Whilst record signing Aluko is creative and does make the squad better, would we not have been better off putting his transfer fee towards a central frontman that was reportedly out of our price range after the arrival of the Nigerian?
Admittedly, we are still very early on in the season and everything could change within the next couple of weeks. After all, Reading’s Championship winning side of 2011/12 made a worse start to the campaign than the current crop. Additionally, the superb job that Stam did last season affords him a bit of breathing space and not at risk of an early season sacking like his compatriot Frank de Boer.
However, if fortunes don’t improve, the goals don’t come and Reading find themselves well adrift of the top six, then Jaap may suffer the same fate as three of the last five Royals managers - a mid-December sacking. Whilst I’m not on the #StamOut bandwagon yet, it must be said that there has been little to cheer about on the pitch so far this season, and with expectations high this needs to change.