Marc McNulty’s exit on a season-long loan to Sunderland, announced on Wednesday evening, was a relief. At least temporarily, it’s a fresh start for a player who’s endured a pretty miserable 12 months in Berkshire. Agreeing a four-year deal with the Royals after being bought from Coventry City should have been the start of a positive new chapter in his career.
In the end, it was anything but. By the time McNulty quit Reading for Hibs on loan in January, he’d played just 15 times in Berkshire and only scored once - the opener in a 2-2 draw against Stoke City. Somewhat ironically, that was the last game of Paul Clement’s time as manager.
For a striker billed as the ‘next Adam Le Fondre’, McNulty’s Reading record has been disappointing to say the least. But why did he fail where Alfie succeeded? Was it simply that McNulty wasn’t good enough, or was he a victim of circumstance? For me it’s a bit of both but moreso the latter.
McNulty’s arrival was part of a squad rebuild after the dire 2017/18 campaign. Yann Kermorgant’s drop in form had contributed largely to Reading’s lack of goals, so a new striker to find the net regularly was needed. As someone who’d scored 23 times in League Two to fire Coventry City to promotion, McNulty was a logical option. But getting him to repeat that trick at a higher level would require two things to go in his favour: time and tactics. In the end, neither did.
To take the first, making the step up from the fourth tier to the second was always going to be tricky; few players can pull that off effortlessly. If McNulty were to be a success in the Championship, he needed time to get used to it - not least the quality of defending. But, simply put, he didn’t get it. Having got 31 minutes away to Nottingham Forest in his debut, then 73 in his first start - Bolton Wanderers at home - he would only play half an hour or longer on four more occasions. In fact, seven of his 13 appearances lasted for less than 15 minutes.
Ultimately, he finished with 412 league minutes. For context, that’s a fraction of what was given to the hugely frustrating Sone Aluko (1003), who was loaned out in February, and also fellow summer signing Sam Baldock (1365) who played just twice in 2019 due to injury. It also pales into comparison against what Adam Le Fondre was given in his first season of Championship action. He was not only allowed the full 90 minutes in his debut at home to Watford, but also at least 75 minutes in 14 of his first 20 appearances for Reading - a run that resulted in five goals.
Given that McNulty was given so few opportunities to acclimatise to the Championship, it’s unsurprising that he didn’t find form. The obvious counter here is that there will have been a good reason why he wasn’t being given chances - after all, he simply may not have been impressing Paul Clement on the training pitch.
But, regardless of what the manager made of McNulty, it’s also clear that the Scot just didn’t fit in tactically. Like Le Fondre, his strengths are finding space and finishing chances - not leading the line with his power or using his pace to stretch a defence. To make the most of that, Reading had to play him with a strike partner, which would typically require a 4-4-2.
Indeed, we started the season with that formation, using it in the first half-dozen matches. However, with Reading frequently overrun in the middle of the park, Clement dropped the second striker in favour of an extra midfielder after the first international break - a sensible switch, even if it didn’t pay off in the long run by pushing Reading up the table.
Nonetheless, it was a critical moment in McNulty’s eventual failure in Berkshire. He would only start a game in a front two once more for Reading, partnering Yakou Meite in Clement’s tactically bold 3-5-2 that had the Royals outplaying playoff side West Brom at the Hawthorns... albeit only for 45 minutes. A small sample size perhaps, but that day he looked that little bit more at home on the pitch, free to try to get in behind the defence while the big man next to him did the physical work.
If Reading were to get the most out of McNulty, using that set-up far more frequently is exactly what they should have done, and in both Meite and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson we certainly had the right strikers to partner McNulty and bring out the best in him.
But doing that would have meant regularly going 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 - formations that I don’t think the Royals would have been successful with. In the first case, we’ve lacked an offensive left wing-back since Jordan Obita was ruled out long term with injury, and in the second case it took too long to discover a partnership that had the energy to make a two-man midfield work: Leandro Bacuna and Andy Rinomhota.
Given those tactical problems, you’re left wondering why McNulty was signed in the first place. Tactically speaking, how did Paul Clement see him fitting in? If the manager knew we had to play 4-4-2/3-5-2 to get the most out of him, then the summer recruitment elsewhere needed to be far better. If he wanted to convert McNulty into a sole striker, Clement should have been more patient.
In contrast, Brian McDermott’s Reading side of 2011/12 was set up much better to accommodate Adam Le Fondre. They regularly played 4-4-2, meaning the former Rotherham United man could be partnered by any of Noel Hunt, Simon Church, Mathieu Manset or Jason Roberts across the course of the season - all capable foils for Le Fondre (albeit to varying degrees).
Whether you look at it tactically or in terms of game time, McNulty was given a raw deal by Reading - certainly in contrast to his predecessor. Hopefully that’ll change with his loan move to Sunderland.