Besides the depressing inevitability of Reading’s second half collapse against West Brom at the Hawthorns, something else struck me that I’ve been thinking about since. Who, out of all the players in that starting XI - or those in the rest of the squad for that matter - could we have relied on to stop the implosion?
It’s a natural part of football that momentum shifts within games. However well a match is going, a key moment in the opposition’s favour can cause your game plan to unravel in an instant. Such was the case on Saturday when, despite a fantastic first half display, Dwight Gayle’s close-range finish, capitalising on a defensive mix-up, swung the game into the home side’s favour.
Moments like do happen, even to the best of teams. Even Reading’s famous 3-1 win at Southampton in 2012 saw them pegged back by a Rickie Lambert equaliser at the start of the second half. The manner in which Brian McDermott’s Royals responded to that goal summed up the character of that group.
Adaptability is key.
If you look back at the starting XI that night you’ll see a pattern - that team was full of veterans who had been there, done it and got the proverbial t-shirt. In particular Kaspars Gorkss, Ian Harte, Jobi McAnuff and Jason Roberts (excluding the injured Mikele Leigertwood) knew what it took to stare defeat in the face and tell it to jog on. The rest of the XI was built up of reliable, hard-working pros: Adam Federici, Shaun Cummings, Alex Pearce, Jimmy Kebe, Hayden Mullins, Jay Tabb and Noel Hunt.
Compare that XI to the one that blew a lead at the Hawthorns: Sam Walker; Tiago Ilori, Liam Moore, Tyler Blackett; Chris Gunter, Leandro Bacuna, Saeid Ezatolahi, John Swift, Andy Yiadom; Marc McNulty and Yakou Meite. On the whole it’s a far less experienced side, with the average age dropping from almost almost 29 (in the team that faced Southampton) to just over 25 last weekend. Also, having had four 30+ players in the Southampton team, there were none in the XI that faced West Brom - although 30 year-old Vito Mannone was on the bench.
What’s also striking is the lack of long-term servants in the current team - players who have been in the side for years, built up a fondness and loyalty for the club, and learned what it takes for Reading Football Club to win games. The absence of such players by definition cannot be remedied quickly but, when it is, the resilience and character of a team improves markedly.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. The players who started at St Mary’s had been at the Mad Stad for an average of just over 3 seasons, a decent enough number. In particular Adam Federici (7) and Alex Pearce (6) were the stand-outs, with Kaspars Gorkss (1), Hayden Mullins (0.5) and Jason Roberts (0.5) the only newbies*.
However, Saturday’s average comes in at just 1.75. Besides Chris Gunter who has been at the club since 2012 (more on him later), you’re generally looking at players who have either signed under Jaap Stam (x6) or Paul Clement (x4). When you’ve got a side mostly made up of players who have arrived in two of the most turbulent years of the club’s recent history, with only a few left over from the play-off campaign, is it much surprise that leaders on the pitch are hard to find?
To be clear, this is very much a long-term failing on the part of the club as a whole and can’t really be blamed on any individual manager. It’s also worth pointing out that good players tend not to stay at a failing club - see Danny Williams, Aaron Tshibola, Michael Hector, Sean Morrison, Alex McCarthy and plenty more for examples. Nonetheless, the constant change of Reading’s squad hasn’t helped.
Stats can be misleading though so, instead of purely looking at numbers, let’s try something more subjective by looking at players’ characters. Based on our impressions of Reading’s squad, who do we expect to act as the main leaders and example-setters? To be honest there aren’t many obvious candidates but, of those who have started regularly this season I’d suggest two: Chris Gunter and Liam Moore.
As far as long-term servants go, no-one in this current crop fits the bill quite like Gunter, a Reading veteran of almost 300 appearances. However, his form has been on the wane for a few years now and his confidence appears low, not helped by particularly unforgiving sections of the home crowd. On the other hand, Moore had quickly become a fan favourite in his opening two years at Reading, but his summer transfer request perhaps makes it that bit harder for him to lead the rest of the team by example.
Otherwise, alternative candidates include Paul McShane, Garath McCleary (who have well over 300 Reading appearances between them), John O’Shea, David Meyler, Dave Edwards and Sam Baldock, all of whom have an abundance of experience in the English game. However, it doesn’t help that few of these players are likely to feature regularly - with the exception of Baldock.
The 2011/12 team’s veterans weren’t just thrown into the side for the sake of it - their technical and tactical qualities made them key components. There’s no point starting players just because they’re experienced, they have to actually improve the team, as was the case with Ian Harte, Jason Roberts and others.
So what’s the solution?
As mentioned above, there’s no quick fix, even if the January transfer window provides Paul Clement an opportunity to bring in signings that would fit the bill. In the short term, Reading need certain players to step up to the challenge and lead by example, particularly John O’Shea and Sam Baldock.
O’Shea played a key role in the recent 3-0 win over Hull City, and it was little coincidence that his first Championship start for the club brought with it Reading’s only league clean sheet this season. Baldock on the other hand has experience of taking Brighton from the lower end of the Championship to promotion, a feat he can hopefully repeat in Berkshire.
Beyond them, I’ve high hopes for a few others that Reading should aim to keep around for a few years at least, namely Sam Walker, Andy Yiadom, Tiago Ilori and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, not to mention the returning Jordan Obita.
*I worked this by rounding up 2011/12 to an entire season and treating 2018/19 as a quarter of a campaign. For example, Kaspars Gorkss gets 1 season, Jason Roberts 0.5, Marc McNulty 0.25 and so on.