It’s no exaggeration to say that, recently, Reading haven’t been a club blessed with striking talent. Bar Yann Kermorgant’s brief French renaissance, it’s a position we’ve lacked definitive quality in for a number of years - the last Reading striker to break 20 league goals for a season being Shane Long in 2010-2011.
While a few players have performed admirably since, it’s a simple truth that for every Adam Le Fondre there’s been too many Matej Vydras and Lewis Grabbans. Consequently, amid the club’s financial limitations and struggles bringing in fresh talent, the excitement of a potential solution in the form of Andrija Novakovich is understandable.
The American international’s exploits in the Netherlands have been heavily documented, and for good reason. Nine goals and two assists in 29 games for Eredivisie strugglers Fortuna Sittard, preceded by 19 goals in 35 games for second division Telstar, certainly appears impressive. Add to this two goals and an assist this pre-season - by the end of the trip to Spain - and the American is certainly making an impact.
But is he ready to step up and lead this new Reading side into a new era? We don’t just need a goalscorer. We need a focal point to not only put the ball into the net, but spearhead Jose Gomes’ system. Consequently, a striker with a wide skill set is needed; someone able to contribute to possession-based football, while being physical enough to withstanding the demanding Championship, and ultimately being proficient in front of goal.
A striker seemingly suited to this system was Nelson Oliveira. While it’s unclear how much of a say Gomes may have had in the acquisition of the former Norwich City man, it’s a fair assumption this type of forward is what he fancies. Albeit with limited minutes, the Portuguese forward seemed to possess the physical and technical attributes required, and as such I’ll be considering Novakovich’s numbers against Oliveira’s - aswell as seeing where he ranks across the Championship - within the context of what Jose may look for in a striker.
Note: league comparisons are made against the 35 Championship strikers who last season also played 29 games - the number Novakovich managed.
It’s no secret Jose Gomes favours a possession-based, technical style. Gomes’ Rio Ave side averaged around 53.9% possession; his Reading side exceeding this with a 55% average during his current reign. Yet this has wavered, with a more pragmatic approach toward the end of the season seemingly aiding results - see for example the Norwich City 2-2 draw in which Reading produced 26% possession.
This shift was possible due to the height and physicality of both Yakou Meite and Nelson Oliveira. Thus, a physical presence is required, both to support whatever system Gomes uses, aswell as enduring a competitive league.
Standing at around 6”4’, and weighing around 82kg, Novakovich certainly fits the image. Yet his numbers reveal there may be some improvement possible in his game. Playing in a direct Fortuna Sittard side, he managed 4.5 successful aerial duels per game out of an attempted 10.4, yielding a 43% success rate.
This certainly isn’t bad - Oliveira managed 35% last season, and players we think of to be more conventional target men like Danny Graham and Steve Morison got 48% and 46% respectively. Additionally, Novakovich was dispossessed 2.3 times per game - more than any of the 35 strikers we’re comparing him to. In this context, a dispossession means being tackled on the ball without a dribble being involved, perhaps suggesting a lack of an imposing physical presence.
I would be worried by these numbers, especially as the Eredivisie is generally a less physical league compared to the Championship. Yet I doubt Jose Gomes would utilise Novakovich as a pure target man, and as such these numbers may not be so important. Plus, being only 22 years old, you’d expect a natural improvement in this area as he becomes both older and more experienced.
As mentioned, an additional focus on the more technical aspects of Novakovich’s game is necessary due to Gomes’ playing style. Novakovich’s numbers again seem to suggest some general room for improvement in this area; he managed 14.7 attempted passes per game last season, with a somewhat low 63.4% success rate. Comparatively, Oliveira managed a 76% success rate, Oliver McBurnie 74.5% and Tammy Abraham 69.3%.
Similarly, Novakovich may need some work on first touch. He averaged 3.2 unsuccessful touches per game last season - in this context meaning ‘bad first-time ball controls’, which would have ranked him fourth last out of our Championship strikers.
This must be contextualised though. Fortuna Sittard ranked toward the top end of the Eredivisie for long passes, and toward the bottom end for short passes per game, aswell as averaging only 47.5% possession. As such, Novakovich’s numbers may have been affected, and in a less direct team I would imagine he’d be perfectly competent.
Despite this, Novakovich displayed an impressive ability in relation to his direct contributions in the final third, both in creating chances and successful dribbles. Despite Fortuna Sittard’s style, he managed an impressive 0.9 key passes per game - meaning a final pass leading to a shot at goal from a teammate. This is further evidenced by his recording two assists throughout the season.
In the Championship last season, 0.9 key passes per game would have ranked him seventh, level with Jay Rodriguez and Lukas Jutkiewicz, and above strikers such as Billy Sharp, Tammy Abraham and Nelson Oliveira, who managed 0.6.
Another (rather unexpectedly) strong aspect of Novakovich’s game appears to be his technical ability with the ball at his feet. Perhaps it’s prejudicial to expect otherwise, due to the American’s physical build, but Novakovich appears remarkably competent at both dribbling and beating players, as he managed one successful dribble per game last season. While this may sound poor, it’s quite the opposite. When compared to the list of 35 strikers previously mentioned, only one Championship striker managed more - that being David McGoldrick.
His performance against Feyenoord last season perfectly demonstrates this ability. For example, in this first scenario shown below, the American receives the ball on the edge of the box. A somewhat poor first touch seemingly loses the momentum of the attack, and the forward is pushed away from the goal by two pressing defenders. Yet with remarkable calmness, and displaying impressive technical ability, the striker is able to turn away from the defenders, reach the by-line, and deliver a dangerous cutback.
While ultimately coming to nothing, the Americans technical ability is evident. Later in the same game, he displayed a similar capability. When played into a scoring position, the striker had the presence of mind to turn inside his opponent, before laying off a simple finish to his teammate.
In my opinion, Novakovich’s apparent technical ability could be a key feature that sets him apart from the type of strikers we’ve seen in the Reading shirt in recent years. Instead of being more of the conventional forward we’ve grown used to, he appears to be a different breed of player.
He’s less of an out-and-out striker, and potentially more of a deeper-lying forward, capable of dropping between the lines of defence and creating opportunities for those around him, both with his dribbling ability on the ball and apparent aptitude at creating chances. By his own admission in fact, he’s a “bigger guy that likes to do things that a big guy doesn’t like to do.”
By utilising these talents, we could lighten the responsibility on the inconsistent John Swift, as well as getting more end product out of the other competent finishers we have in forward positions such as Modou Barrow, Yakou Meite and Danny Loader. For Jose Gomes, these could be the exact attributes he’s looking for to create a possession-based, technically capable attacking side that doesn’t have to limit its creative play to specific players.
However, as well as all that may be, we need goals. Reading fans are crying out for a goalscorer, and our struggles in pre-season within attacking areas have been evident. Therefore, as promising as other aspects of his game may seem, Novakovich needs to fill that void.
And yet, simple goal numbers can be misleading - strikers can be unusually clinical while goalkeepers can have the game of their life. A better judge of a striker’s proficiency is often his shot numbers - both their frequency and their location. The better these are, the more likely goals will follow.
Novakovich may need to improve the actual quantity of shots he takes. As simplistic as it sounds, the more shots a striker manages, the more goals he should score. In the Championship, an exceptional number appears around 3 shots per game; Teemu Pukki managing 3.5, Neal Maupay 3.3 and Tammy Abraham 2.9 last season respectively, while Oliveira managed an average of 2.5. All those figures are far superior to Novakovich’s 1.6. While this isn’t an awful number, and is level with Blackburn Rovers’ Danny Graham and Derby County’s Jack Marriott, it is certainly improvable.
However, the American seems to excel in producing a high quality of shots. Of his 1.6 taken, 1.3 were from inside the penalty area, with an additional 0.1 from specifically within the six-yard box. To take such a high percentage of his shots from inside the penalty box is impressive and is reflected by the accuracy of the shots taken, with 55% of Novakovich’s shots definitively hitting the target.
This suggests the American is certainly skilled at getting into dangerous striking areas, if not with remarkable frequency. Comparatively, from his 2.5 shots, Oliveira only took 1.2 from the box, 0.1 from within the six-yard box, and only hit the target with 44% of his efforts. Within the league overall, Novakovich’s 1.3 average would have ranked him level with Jay Rodriguez, Britt Assombalonga, Oliver McBurnie and Billy Sharp.
Take the following goal, scored for Fortuna Sittard against Willem II last season in a 4-4 draw (in which the American completed a brace). Here, Novakovich receives the ball in a relatively weak area. He shows impressive awareness and technical ability to first shift the ball onto his stronger right foot, before moving into a more dangerous shooting area, from where he finishes.
On face value, his finishing numbers aren’t breath-taking. However, the context of who Novakovich is must be considered. For a 22 year-old striker, playing his second season of competitive football, he’s on par with admirable players. Furthermore, his high quality of shot locations suggests a player with strong positional awareness, and the ability of get himself into the right striking areas - a ‘poacher’s instinct’ so to speak.
Yet, as demonstrated, the American appears capable due to his impressive dribbling ability of not only getting into the right areas but also of creating chances for himself - an ability I would say Reading have lacked into a striker for some time. If he were to improve the number of shots he’s managing, but keep the same quality, he could certainly be quite prolific.
Of course, all of these stats and figures are relative, and any predictions completely hypothetical. Players have good and bad seasons, and judging their ability off of one year gives a limited view. Additionally, the Eredivisie is a naturally unpredictable league, and players have shown a tendency to massively overperform and underperform there. Novakovich could yet be another Siem de Jong, or a Vincent Janssen - players seemingly unable to replicate their impressive figures outside the Netherlands.
Thus, he may be a gamble, but for me he’s one worth investigating. He’s a young striker, coming off of a scoring season within a relatively poor team, who has displayed numbers suggesting an impressive and useful skill set with a competency in the final third, skill in front of goal, and a physical presence to make himself competitive.
While improvement in some areas is definitely required, Novakovich has age on his side. Assuming some natural development as he ages, potentially combined with Gomes’ system and coaching better suited to his talents, the potential is there for these numbers to be sustainable, if not improvable.
I’m definitely not suggesting he’s the finished article, and whether or not Reading can afford to rely on that potential is another matter. Therefore, entrusting him to fix all our offensive issues may be somewhat excessive. While additional firepower is still probably required, I would suggest Novakovich has certainly earned the opportunity to stake a claim for the currently vacant striker position, or at least be a valuable member of a relatively thin squad.
Regardless of whether he is yet quite capable of this responsibility, Reading certainly seem to have an impressive talent on their hands. If this can be capitalised on, Novakovich could certainly go a way to filling an immense problem.
All stats are taken from WhoScored.