Mark Bowen will soon have a bit of a team selection headache. Lucas Joao and Lucas Boye have both been sidelined through injury so far, and are yet to play a minute of football under the current gaffer, but are due to return within the next few weeks - Boye sooner than Joao.
They’ll be returning to a team which, on paper, is pretty crowded up front. George Puscas and the rejuvenated Sam Baldock have been the chosen pairing under Bowen recently, while Yakou Meite started and Danny Loader are also in contention.
Despite Reading regularly playing two up top in the favoured 3-5-2, that still means a few of the Royals’ strikers missing out - unless a few are ruled out through injury at any one time. In truth it exposes a flaw of Reading’s summer transfer business. The club were, it seems, far too eager to recruit new forwards without shipping enough out.
Regardless, current manager Bowen is left to work out how to fit in the returning Boye and Joao. Besides simply leaving them on the bench, or constantly rotating, I’ve come up with a few suggestions for how he could use each of them.
Joao as a target man
The most obvious option: simply bring Joao back into the first team up front. It’s the most straightforward option, even if means dropping one of Puscas or Baldock, but it would address what I see as a potential issue for Reading and so warrants some proper discussion: the distinct lack of a proper target man.
The current pairing certainly has its merits, with Puscas more free to get in behind now that Reading are playing more direct football and Baldock a very useful support act with his work rate. Both have good enough movement to get in behind a defence, as shown in particular by Puscas’ recent goal at Queens Park Rangers.
But, despite those qualities, neither are that big or strong - neither are likely to consistently win aerial duels for long balls against imposing Championship centre halves. That’s a problem because having a striker who could win those duels, control long balls from the back and bring teammates into the game would give the team another string to its attacking bow.
Of everyone in the squad, Joao is the best fit here. Although he seems to have a tendency to run at a defence or have a shot when he gets on the ball rather than consistently taking the simpler option by playing in a teammate - as a classic target man would do - he fits the bill with his height and strength. Yakou Meite is similarly physically imposing, but has worse technical ability than Joao.
Despite his potential as a target man, I don’t expect Joao to come straight back into the team and start regularly as soon as he returns from injury - the Puscas/Baldock pairing has potential and should be allowed to develop. But Bowen would do well to also keep Joao, with his different skill set, as an option.
Reading play wingers again
Although Reading have exclusively played 3-5-2 under Mark Bowen so far, he’ll surely be considering how the Royals could set up differently in future. That could be whether other teams decisively work out to how to counter the 3-5-2, or Bowen simply wants a plan B for certain scenarios.
It would make a lot of sense for Reading to at least have the option of playing with wingers high up the pitch in their locker, whether it’s a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or anything else. Lucas Boye would naturally be a big winner if Bowen decided to do that, with the Argentine one of the few players in the squad capable of playing as a proper wideman.
On paper, switching the setup to accommodate wingers would be a useful counter-ploy if the opposition shut down Reading’s width by man-marking the wingbacks out of the game. I’m also sure that both Bowen and Boye would relish the thought of the Argentine being given space out wide to charge at a defence with the ball as much as I do.
However, rearranging the team to suit Boye in such a fashion presents new problems. Which of the back three do you take out (I’d edge towards Morrison but it’s not an easy choice), which of the front two is dropped (assuming Reading go 4-3-3/4-2-3-1), and how does the midfield three adapt?
It’s a lot to consider just for the sake of playing with wingers again, so Bowen should be careful when considering moving away from the 3-5-2. So far, he’s sensibly been reluctant to do so, as I discussed here.
Boye instead of Ejaria
If the worst comes to the worst, Reading might at some point need to find a replacement for Ovie Ejaria. The loanee is one of the team’s most influential attacking players, so working out how to set up without him - in the case of injury or suspension - would certainly be difficult.
Besides playing out wide in a different formation, Boye would also - for me at least - be the most direct replacement for Ejaria in the current system. Although he lacks Ejaria’s quality of close control (although pretty much everyone in the league does too), both are confident dribblers who love to get on the ball and drive up the pitch.
Boye hasn’t yet played in an advanced position in a midfield three as Ejaria does, but the deep-lying forward role he was often given by Jose Gomes - dropping back into the midfield - was pretty similar. He may well adapt nicely to being in a part of the pitch where he can get on the ball more regularly and be more involved - not to mention having two strikers ahead of him to play off.
Defensively, he’s no lightweight either. Boye’s got a great workrate and, for a forward, has great upper-body strength. Of course, those two qualities don’t guarantee him to fit into the midfield well, but they’d stand him in good stead.