Reading are in an odd position when it comes to strikers ahead of next season. Any side wanting to do well (or not get relegated) is in need of as much firepower as possible - but, despite our problems in 2018/19, our forward options are shaping up nicely even without a new addition.
Jose Gomes can currently count on at least five senior strikers to be in next season’s squad: Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Sam Baldock, Yakou Meite, Andrija Novakovich and Danny Loader. That is of course excluding loanee Nelson Oliveira (who’s unlikely to return due to financial reasons) and Marc McNulty (who’s likely to depart due to financial reasons). All things considered, it’s a fairly safe bet that most of those five will feature heavily from August onwards.
So which one of them should get the nod and start for Reading? Gomes has already shown his preference to play one central striker, whether in a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 3-5-1-1, so picking the right man for the job this summer will be a tricky task. To help him out, I’ve illustrated the stats (from Wyscout) behind each of those strikers’ styles of play using some excellent graphics by football writer and stat afficionado Ram Srinivas.
First up, a quick note on how to read the graphics - they’re based around ‘percentile rank’ which shows how good a player is in a certain area in relation to everyone else in his position in the league. For example, if Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s aerial duel success rate is 70%, then he’s better at winning headers than 70% of Championship strikers. Plus, these stats are judged per 90 minutes, so they’ve been adjusted according to how often someone has actually been on the pitch.
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson
Bodvarsson missed a significant amount of last season through injury but played enough of it to show us what he can do. That’s particularly true of a red-hot start to the campaign in which Bodvarsson was fighting to be the Championship’s top goalscorer alongside Brentford’s Neal Maupay.
The first thing that stands out about his stats is, naturally, just how proficient he is in front of goal. It’s easy to now forget how effective Bodvarsson was at the start of the season in putting opportunities away, but it’s demonstrated here by how high a percentage of his shots hit the target and are converted into goals. That’s impressive considering that Bodvarsson doesn’t rank particularly high for overall shots - he just makes sure to put them away.
In his all-round play, he also likes to commit fouls and make tackles, showing that he’s more than happy to get stuck in and do the dirty work. Plus, he scores pretty well for aerial duels and aerial duel success rate, so we can count on him to win his headers.
Where Bodvarsson falls down though is in his creativity. Although he beats the median line for pass success rate in the final third, he doesn’t attempt or complete enough passes deeper into the midfield.
That certainly holds him back from being the essential Jose Gomes striker. Of course, Reading need someone who can convert the chances put in front of them, but being able to drop deep, link up the play and knit the team’s attacks together is vital. Perhaps Bodvarsson is best left as a plan B.
The most similar striker to Bodvarsson is Yakou Meite. Like the Icelander, Meite is at his best converting his chances and and challenging for the ball - particularly in the air, but falls down badly in his creativity.
However, Meite has a few extra strings to his bow that Bodvarsson lacks. He scores significantly more headed goals than Bodvarsson, and is indeed one of the very best in the league in this respect. Meite also gets far more shots away (even if his conversion isn’t as clinical as that of Bodvarsson), and completes a lot more dribbles.
It’s in his defensive work where he really comes into his own though. Meite is above the median rate in all aspects of defensive play bar tackle success rate, which is just below the line. On the whole though he’s great at defensive duels, aerial duels and even intercepting the ball.
Unfortunately, these qualities are balanced out by Meite’s main drawback: a lack of creativity. His numbers for passing, getting involved in the play in positions and making chances for others are pretty dire - far worse than those of Bodvarsson.
In most cases, Meite’s other qualities would more than compensate for his inability to link the play up. Put him into a side that has far less need for a striker who can drop deep, and he’d thrive. Unfortunately for Meite though, Jose Gomes needs a far more rounded forward - not just someone who can work hard, get shots away and score goals - it’s a high bar, but one that Meite doesn’t get over.
So how to use him? As I said in January when Nelson Oliveira came in, Meite should have a future as a winger rather than a central forward as there’d be less need for him to link the play in the middle of the park as a Gomes forward should do. Instead, we can make the most of his dribbling and work rate, while still letting him cut inside to get shots away.
If Meite isn’t to play up top, then who should? Reading need a well-rounded striker who can finish his chances, hold the ball up and create for others. In returning young forward Andrija Novakovich, we’ve got someone who’s getting there but still needs a lot of work.
His numbers (from his time with Fortuna Sittard in the Dutch Eredivisie) show that he’s a very different striker to Bodvarsson and Meite. While he doesn’t excel in specific areas in the same way as Bodvarsson and Meite, he’s got a broader skill set overall.
First, the positives. Novakovich is a good dribbler, puts his shots on target and converts them pretty well - the main reason that his scoring rate is quite low (nine goals in 29) is that he doesn’t have as many shots. That’s something which can be improved though.
Add in the fact that he constantly challenges for aerial balls (and succeeds a decent amount), wins his tackles, and has decent rates for passing accuracy and ‘expected assists’, and you get the picture of a striker who has various sides to his game.
The problem though is that none of those sides are good enough to stand out beyond the skillsets of Bodvarsson and Meite. Both of them are significantly better in front of goal and in doing their defensive duties, even if Novakovich has some commendable individual traits.
For me though, those traits show Novakovich to be good enough to at least be in contention next season. Jose Gomes will need a variety of strikers to call on, and the American’s blend of different skills is an asset in itself. However, we still don’t have a striker that’s really creative when dropping back into the midfield, but that changes with the next two chaps on the list.
Like Bodvarsson, Baldock missed a lot of the season through injury but still managed to play a decent amount; certainly enough for us to judge what kind of forward he is. In terms of his age, transfer fee, likely salary and success for Reading so far he’s not seemed to be great value for money, but the stats still show he’s got some uses on the pitch.
The former Brighton man is the best player by far in terms of linking the play. He’s at least near the median line in all aspects of creativity bar expected assists, but stands out overall for his ability to complete passes - especially in deep positions.
Add in his number of tackles, duels and fouls, and it’s clear that he works hard for the cause. He’s also fairly mobile with a decent dribbling rate, and converts a good number of his chances.
That brings us to his two main weaknesses, both of which are strengths for other players in this shortlist. Baldock is much less busy in front of goal than Bodvarsson and Meite, showing poor stats in terms of getting shots away, keeping them on target and converting them.
He also lacks aerial presence - something that’s of little surprise considering how much smaller he is (1.7m) compared to Yakou Meite (1.84m), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (1.9m) and Andrija Novakovich (1.92m). He contests far fewer aerial duels than those three and barely wins any at all, so using him as a lone centre forward to hold the ball up is, of course, not a great idea.
That therefore suggests he’s most effective in a strike pairing (like at Brighton and Hove Albion alongside Glenn Murray), as he needs someone else to hold the ball up and put it in the net. Side note: could a partnership of Bodvarsson and Baldock be a secret weapon for Reading? Either way, Gomes likes having one forward up top, so Baldock doesn’t fit.
Finally, effectively the wildcard in this shortlist: Danny Loader. He’s a wildcard in that I’m sort of cheating by directly comparing him to out-and-out forwards - he played mostly as a number ten for Reading last season so we should really be using a different stats graphic (one that shows different areas of his game). Luckily though, Ram kindly came up with one that imagines Loader as a striker. Cheers Ram!
Because of those things, Loader’s stats come out particularly poorly in some areas - more on that later. However, he’s worth being put into contention due to how Gomes used him in the final three matches of last season: as a false nine. Rather than going up against opposition defenders directly, Loader would drop off into deeper positions to find space, pick up the ball and start attacks.
It’s an intriguing alternative way for Gomes to set up his attack and it works well for Loader himself as it plays to his strengths. In terms of his creativity he’s not quite as rounded as Baldock, but still knocks the ball about accurately - even in the final third - and gets involved in the build-up to goals really well.
He’s also effective at winning his defensive duels and makes a decent number of interceptions, showing that he works hard. Plus, he’s a strong dribbler, meaning we’ve got a mobile forward who can give opposition defences something else to think about.
However, it’s clear that Loader still has a lot to work on. He could be better creatively - such as in deep completions - and seriously needs to sharpen up in front of goal. Although he takes a reasonable number of shots, his accuracy currently isn’t good enough. However, with work over pre-season, that’s something which can be improved upon.
His lack of aerial ability would also be a problem if Loader were lining up as a target man, but playing him as a deeper forward should hopefully make that less of an issue.
Although Loader ended the season as a false nine in a 4-3-3, his versatility means that he’ll still be of use even if Jose Gomes prefers to return to 4-2-3-1 - the setup that the manager typically used at Rio Ave and in the early stages of his time with Reading.
In that formation, Loader can always drop deep into a number ten role behind the striker, which would be of particularly good use away from home or in tough matches when we need a classic target man.
Excluding any arrivals or departures, Jose Gomes has a good mix of forwards that he can call upon next season. Whether it’s more orthodox centre-forwards like Bodvarsson and Meite, someone more rounded like Novakovich or creators such as Baldock and Loader, he doesn’t lack options.
The question now of course is who’ll actually be on the books from August onwards. Bodvarsson and Baldock could be cashed in on for the sake of FFP while Meite and Loader are two of our more lucrative assets. At this stage, Andrija ‘Point to Prove’ Novakovich is the most likely to be in the squad next season, even if he doesn’t end up being our number one choice.
My preference would be to let Baldock go and keep the rest, leaving four options (excluding surprise signings or academy promotions - hi Ben House!). The former Brighton man is probably on the most wages out of our forwards, has the least time left to run in his career, and doesn’t obviously fit anywhere into a Jose Gomes system.
The subsequent four options would include an effective (if technically limited) forward in Bodvarsson, a returning youngster with a point to prove in Novakovich, and another two who have the potential to improve significantly in the long-term and the versatility to be deployed in numerous positions in the short term - in Meite and Loader.
To me, that sounds like a good set.