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2018/19 Positional Preview: Centre Backs

Can Paul Clement forge some defensive stability with his centre halves?

Brentford v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Harry Murphy/Getty Images

The following was written before Liam Moore put in a transfer request.

Players available in this position

Paul Clement spoke at the start of Reading’s pre-season training about having a set of four centre-halves in the squad - no more, no fewer - and, after our transfer activity so far, we pretty much have that. Liam Moore is the first-choice option, but then there are three other players who realistically partner him at the heart of the defence,

Tiago Ilori is probably the most likely, having played with Moore under Clement at the tail end of last season. However, Paul McShane offers a more experienced option than Ilori, whilst John O’Shea is even more experienced than McShane. The unknown quantity in the mix is Darren Sidoel, who could realistically feature as a fifth centre-back, a prospect for the future or go somewhere in-between.

Further down the pecking order, and you’re looking at two youngsters that made their debuts last season: 20 year-old Axel Andresson and 18 year-old Tom Holmes. Both could have been hoping to break through this season, but both will find it tough to get past the plethora of other options available to Clement. In addition, there’s an outside chance we may see one of Gabriel Osho or Tom McIntyre.

As for other players that can fill in if needed, you can list George Evans, Tyler Blackett and Chris Gunter, but they’ll likely be used at full-back (Blackett and Gunter) or in midfield/sold (Evans).

Arsenal U23 v Reading U23 - Premier League International Cup
Tom McIntyre charging down a loose ball
Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

How did they perform last season?

For a team that did a great job of not defending very well, it’s a tad surprising that a centre-half was named the club’s official Player Of The Season. Besides an imperious run of form under Clement that earned him the award, Moore was otherwise decent but below his more impressive 2016/17 standard.

Ilori and McShane struggled to impose themselves defensively throughout the season, with both suffering from Jaap Stam’s insistence on the team playing out from the back. However, Ilori - like Moore - picked up noticeably under Clement. The less said about O’Shea’s time at Sunderland by me the better, so I’ll leave it to a quote from the chaps at Roker Report, who said when he joined Reading:

“If I were inclined to be generous I’d state that he is very tall. Considering though that he can’t jump, run, see or tackle, I don’t see the use of him other than a body in the wall.”

As for the younger options, Sidoel played pretty regularly in the Dutch second tier, whilst Andresson and Holmes did well to make their first-team debuts but didn’t manage to earn regular starts.

What needs improvement?

In short, organisation and man-management. On paper at least, Reading have some decent centre-halves - certainly better than their performances last season - but the coaching needs to be a lot better. That’s particularly true for Ilori who, despite having plenty of ability, needs to be trained properly if he’s to become a dependable option. Fortunately, Clement has form for improving defenders after doing the same with Alfie Mawson at Swansea City.

McShane and O’Shea just need to be used properly - as limited but potentially effective defenders when Reading need experience more than anything else. On the other hand, younger prospects Sidoel. Andresson, Holmes, Osho and McIntyre need minutes to get used to men’s football.

What are my expectations ahead of the season?

A lot of improvement, although it’s a low bar after last season’s defensive horror show. Clement will continue his task of making Reading harder to beat, and the following will come to pass (probably):

  • Liam Moore and Tiago Ilori will be Paul Clement’s starting partnership in a back four.
  • They’ll look increasingly comfortable as a pairing as the season goes on, with Moore cementing his status as the club’s best player.
  • Paul McShane to effectively be third choice with John O’Shea at four.
  • Clement will occasionally surprise us by bringing out the back three.
  • Axel Andresson will go out on loan to get the game time that isn’t available at the Madejski Stadium.
  • He’ll be joined by at least one of Holmes, McIntyre or Osho.
  • Sidoel will stay put in the under-23s whilst he’s eased into English football in the vicinity of fellow former-Ajax guys Brian Tevreden and Pelle Clement.

How are Reading looking at centre back? Is there enough quality there for The Royals to push up the table and escape relegation?

Let us know.