It’s always difficult to know quite what to take away from pre-season. There’s no no three points on the line, substitutions are aplenty and ‘fitness’ is the number one buzz word. Indeed, last month we found that there is little correlation between pre-season results and final league position.
It means that I’m not overly concerned by the fact that Reading won just twice in six games over in Spain, especially as two of the defeats came against sides who will be playing in La Liga next season: Sevilla and Granada. What does concern me somewhat is the team’s lack of goals in these matches or, more worryingly, their ability to look like scoring at all.
Following the opening 10-0 win against a side who finished sixth in the Gibraltar Premier Division last season - a standard we can safely say is well below the Championship - the Royals scored just two goals in their remaining five games, one of which was a penalty. The other was Andrija Novakovich’s header from a corner against Sevilla. That leaves a big fat question mark over ‘goals from open play’.
I can’t claim to have watched every game from the tour but, from what I have been able to catch, Reading have really struggled in the final third, whether that be the killer final ball or the decisive finishing touch (see Yakou Meite’s horrific miss against Extremadura). Of course, part of the problem there is players getting back up to speed in pre-season, but on the whole there seems to be a general lack of quality in the side.
It’s easy to say that in a couple of the games Gomes fielded what was essentially an academy side, but it’s not quite that simple. Firstly, those ‘academy sides’ featured John Swift (against Malaga B), Andrija Novakovich (against Lincoln City) and Sam Baldock (against both) - all senior players who you would want to rely on for an attacking spark. Secondly, the youngsters that featured are no longer simply academy players; they’re now effectively back up to the first team due to the dearth of other options.
Gabriel Osho, Akin Odimayo, Ryan East, Jordan Holsgrove and Tyler Frost - who have only two first team appearances between them - are now as high as second choice in their respective positions and likely to be needed in the Championship semi-regularly if no new signings arrive.
The idea of having a squad packed with raw, young talent is an exciting one on paper, but in reality Reading desperately need to add quality and experience if they are to avoid a third successive relegation battle. With only two new signings so far, both defensive reinforcements, it needs to be a big couple of weeks in the transfer market.
Should we be worried?
The lack of goals in Spain certainly doesn’t mean the tour was a failure, and the club are definitely in a much better position than 12 months ago when they lost 2-1 to Eastleigh in pre-season.
Spending two weeks away together will have been hugely beneficial for both the coaching team and the players. From the minute he was appointed, Gomes was thrown into the hectic nature of the Championship with barely time to breath as the games came thick and fast. This training camp will have provided him with a perfect opportunity to really make the set-up of the team his own, and the result was some very sexy football:
That wasn’t a one-off either. In all of the games, Reading’s passing and build-up was composed, neat and efficient - the problems only started as they got closer to the opposition goal. There’s definitely strong foundations there, especially with some impressive defensive performances which resulted in three clean sheets in six games.
For the squad, spending so much time together will have helped team morale. From the snippets of inside access that social media provides, there appears to be a really strong togetherness and happy atmosphere in the group. If the younger players are to play a more prominent role this season, there are few better ways to get integrated with the senior players than spending a fortnight with them.
Everything considered, the squad that went to Spain did as well as could be expected. On the one hand, that shows Gomes is getting as much as he can out of the players, who respond well to his methods. But equally if that is the best that this squad can produce then it could be a difficult year.
So what of new signings? Gomes has been as frustrated as anyone with the lack of transfer activity (bringing it up in seemingly every interview he does) but revealed that the club’s ‘soft embargo’ has been lifted. If they can continue to get a few more individuals out of the door, then that gives Reading scope to add some much needed quality to the side. There are still gaps in the centre of midfield, out wide and up front that need filling.
Certainly if the business done in January, and the two new signings so far this summer - a highly rated young goalkeeper and experienced centre-back with leadership qualities - is anything to go by then supporters have reason to feel optimistic.
We shouldn’t expect too much too soon, especially as Reading’s early fixtures are far from easy and integrating a potential wave of new signings could take time, but hopefully the end of the embargo signals the start of a special project being built in Berkshire.