The Sone Aluko revival is upon us, and long may it continue. Reading’s (reported) record signing finally burst into life on Saturday with an eye-catching display against Derby County. Although he’d already shown flashes of his ability under Jose Gomes, it was at Pride Park that everything finally came together for him. He even romped home to victory in our man of the match poll, with 72% of you saying he was the best performer on the day.
So what’s prompted this sudden flip in fortunes? It’s surely the arrival of Gomes, whose desire for possession-based positive football seems to suit Aluko down to the ground. The former Rio Ave manager has injected confidence into the squad and fanbase in general, and that’s extended to Aluko, who showed an abundance of confidence against the Rams.
Aluko’s new position played a big part in that too. For the most part in his Reading career he’s lined up on the right wing, usually in a 4-3-3, but Gomes’ decision to bring the Nigerian into the number ten role behind the striker paid dividends. Stripped of the need to protect a full-back, Aluko could pick the ball up wherever he pleased.
Here are his touches against Derby, with Reading shooting from right to left.
The first key point is the sheer number of touches Aluko made. With 60, he would have been on track for 120 had he played the full game - even for a deep-lying playmaker who runs the game, that’s a heck of a lot of touches. For context, Reading’s top man for touches on the day was Andy Rinomhota, who got 94 in 90 minutes.
What’s also important is where those touches came. The last time I wrote about Aluko in detail, it was (ironically) the 2-1 defeat to Derby County on the opening day of the season. Back then, he had 41 touches in 90 minutes, albeit on a day that the Rams dominated possession. Crucially though, barely any were in the final third - only one from open play in fact - criminal for a winger playing on the right of a 4-4-2.
Compare that to the above graphic, and it’s clear that he’s now much more effective at getting into dangerous positions, with half a dozen touches coming in or around the penalty box. Simply put, that’s exactly where you need your creative players to be if you want them to have any impact.
The stats show that Aluko did indeed have an impact on on the game. Even excluding the 66th-minute goal, a cooly taken finish past Kelle Roos, he outperformed his teammates for shots, key passes (passes that lead directly to a goalscoring opportunity), dribbles, and even tackles.
Shots: Aluko (3), Swift and Bacuna (2), Barrow and Yiadom (1).
Key passes: Aluko (2), McCleary, Ejaria, Barrow and Bacuna (1).
Dribbles: Aluko (6), Yiadom, Ejaria and Barrow (4), Swift (2), Bacuna, Rinomhota and Loader (1).
Tackles attempted: Aluko (4), Barrow and Swift (3), Ejaria and Yiadom (2), Bodvarsson, Moore and Rinomhota (1).
Those are the stats of a man for whom everything’s finally starting to click. His new role in the side, combined with some presumably very effective man-management from Jose Gomes, are paying off on the pitch.
The question now is how Reading can continue to get the most out of Aluko. A top performance for 45 minutes in one game is one thing, but translating that into consistent form is another. Most obviously, Gomes could simply play Aluko in the number ten role regularly, but that presents problems of its own.
Should this Reading side be made to fit around Aluko or John Swift? After all, the latter has himself looked increasingly confident under Gomes, not least as a number ten against Nottingham Forest. Short of dropping one of the two, for me there are two main options: play Aluko in the ten role and keep Swift as a deep-lying playmaker, or push Swift up and shunt Aluko out to the right wing.
I’d be intrigued to see Gomes try out the latter. Reading lack pace out wide on the right - I’m not convinced by Ejaria in that role as he lacks the acceleration to beat a defender - and Aluko could provide that. He’d still have plenty of opportunities to cut inside onto his stronger left foot, with Gomes deploying a pretty narrow 4-2-3-1. That leaves plenty of room for Andy Yiadom to get forward and overlap Aluko. With a bit of tweaking, you could even shunt that attacking trio to the left a bit and effectively make Aluko into a second number ten.
At the end of the day though, it all comes down to what Gomes feels comfortable with, and I expect him to go with the first option. Whatever his decision though, I’m looking forward to seeing whether or not Aluko’s form is a flash in the pan, or a sign that he’s finally turned a corner.
All stats are taken from WhoScored.