Nelson Oliveira’s impact at Reading since signing on loan from Norwich in January has been nothing short of remarkable. His goals against Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers and Ipswich Town have earned the Royals five points, without which they’d be in even greater danger of relegation. His 86th-minute winner against Blackburn in particular was one of the most crucial goals of the season so far.
But we may have to fight the remainder of the relegation battle without the 27-year-old, as it’s been revealed that the hamstring injury that forced him off at Ipswich two weeks ago is more serious than first believed.
Speaking after Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Stoke, Jose Gomes said:
“It was a very bad injury. The doctor talked about 10 weeks [out] at the time of his scan so it means he cannot play [any] more until the end of the season.
“That’s what the doctor said - but he [the doctor] said Oliveira had good genes so maybe he can recover and help us in the last games.
”He did very well for us and I think he will help us because he is working very hard to be ready.
”[With] A lot of treatment, a lot of work - I really believe he will help us.”
Reading of course now face the same problem they had before Oliveira arrived in mid-January: a lack of goals.
Despite only joining two months ago and playing just six games, Oliveira’s goal tally of three is only bettered by Yakou Meite, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Sam Baldock and John Swift for the entirety of the season. That in itself doesn’t make for great reading, but the situation gets worse when you consider that Bodvarsson and Baldock are also currently sidelined through injury.
Since Jose Gomes took over as Reading manager, only three teams have scored fewer goals in the Championship than the Royals’ 13. Take away Oliveira’s three and only one side - Stoke City - have a worse record. It’s little wonder that Saturday’s game finished 0-0.
Part of the problem is inherent in the style of play. No team in the league spends more time in their own third (or less time in the opposition third) than Reading. This has meant that 46% of the Royals’ shots this season have come from outside of the box, with only Derby County having a higher percentage (52%). Of course this isn’t helped by the fact that, without Oliveira, Reading lack a consistent out-and-out striker who provides an outlet up top.
Yakou Meite’s 19 touches against Stoke, comfortably the lowest out of any player on the pitch to complete 90 minutes, epitomises that fact. Sadly the image of the isolated Ivorian international is not uncommon. He provides just 9.1 passes per game, the lowest out of any Championship striker this season with more than 10 starts.
But with Oliveira, Bodvarsson and Baldock all out, Meite has been the go-to centre forward for the past three games and will be again for the foreseeable future. He hit a purple patch under Paul Clement, netting six goals in five games in the autumn, but he’s failed to keep that up, and his winning header against Wigan was his first goal in 14 games. In fairness, it’s not been for the want of trying. Meite averages 3.5 shots per game, which is the highest in the Championship for a striker with more than 10 starts. Unfortunately, 1.4 of those shots per game are off target - only Bristol City’s Famara Diedhou (1.5) has a worse record.
To his credit, Meite does work hard, and being isolated for large periods of games isn’t entirely his fault. His fighting spirit could well be key for us in the coming weeks, and ‘La Brute’ isn’t afraid of a physical battle either. It’s clear Meite fancies himself as the man that Reading can rely on, and now is the biggest opportunity he’ll get to show that he can be that. As any good strikers should, he thrives off scoring goals, so he’ll be desperate to prove himself after struggling recently. While not good for the heart, more 97th minute winners will go down very nicely.
18-year-old Danny Loader provides an alternative to Meite, but it’s fair to say he has found it hard to adjust to the step up from academy football. Fully deserving of his chance, Loader netted eight goals in nine appearances for the Under-23s at the start of the season, but is yet to score in 17 Championship appearances (six starts).
He is continually bright and lively, but ultimately his lack of experience shows and defenders often find it easy to get the better of him. When playing as a striker, Loader is on average dispossessed 3.3 times per game, the second-worst record in the league behind Callum Robinson of Preston.
The teenager’s chances should keep on coming though, with Gomes happy to rely on academy players in areas where his squad is thin. Loader will grow more confident with every appearance, and hopefully when one goal comes, plenty more will follow. His age works both for and against him, as while it means he’s probably not quite ready for this level yet, it also gives him a perfect narrative to be a hero in the club’s hour of need. Born and raised in Reading, it would be some story if Loader netted a goal or two to keep us up.
In terms of other options, Mo Barrow and Garath McCleary were trialled as the central striker against Wigan for short periods of the game, but both were as anonymous and ineffective as the another. Gomes will have put it down as an experiment not to be repeated.
There is the left-field option that Reading bring in a striker that is currently a free agent. Gomes has previously spoken against this possibility, but it’s unlikely he would then have foreseen our current predicament. Equally though, there’s hardly an array of talent out there, and anyone who did come in would probably not be match-fit straightaway.
What we may end up relying on is the recently rejuvenated backline, epitomising the inverted motto of ‘defence is the best form of attack’. The fewer goals Reading concede, the less they’ll have to rely on the forwards scoring down the other end. Fortunately Nelson Oliveira hasn’t been the only effective January arrival, with Emiliano Martinez and Matt Miazga bolstering the defence hugely. We’ve picked up points in the last two months that we otherwise wouldn’t have had it not been for the Argentine’s superb saves or the American’s key interceptions, which have both been as vital as goals. Providing no injuries occur, the back five should remain the same for the rest of the season and that provides Reading with a real stable asset in the run-in.
All stats courtesy of WhoScored.