Sunday lunchtime’s comfortable win over Cardiff City was intriguing for numerous reasons, so picking out one of them to cover in this closer look at the match was a little tricky. George Puscas’ home debut, John Swift’s eye-catching display in the midfield, and Jose Gomes’ use of the 3-5-2 would all have been good topics. But, having had a closer look at the stats behind how the match played out, the best point of focus was obvious: Ovie Ejaria.
His performances last season always meant that Reading would try to bring back to the Madejski Stadium in the summer, but for a while it looked like that wouldn’t happen. A loan deal was reportedly close before Liverpool changed tack and wanted a permanent deal, then Brentford were interested for a brief time, but - in the end - Jose Gomes and Nigel Howe got the deal over the line.
We’re lucky they did, because the Englishman’s all-round performance against Cardiff showed us exactly what he’s capable of. He was strong defensively, effective in the midfield and dangerous going forwards, as shown by some impressive stats. Ejaria was:
- Third for total passes,
- First for dribbles,
- Joint second for tackles attempted,
- Joint first for successful tackles,
- First for interceptions,
- First for touches
Let’s break down those stats, which all come from WhoScored, in a little more depth.
On the day, Ejaria was part of a midfield three that also included Pele as a holding midfielder and John Swift in a more advanced role. In the absence of Andy Rinomhota, who would have given the Royals more physical presence in the centre, Ejaria had to support Pele and get stuck in to prevent Cardiff getting too much control in the middle of the park.
In some aspects of his defensive game, Ejaria didn’t do so well, making just two aerial duels and putting in one block, but that’s little more than nitpicking. His five attempted tackles were matched only by Omar Richards and Will Vaulks, and edged by John Swift (six), but no-one made more successful challenges than Ejaria’s four (level with Richards).
Interestingly, as the graphic below of all attempted tackles demonstrates, Ejaria got stuck in all over the pitch - not just in one area. In contrast, Swift’s three successful challenges came around the penalty box and Richards’ four in the left-back spot.
Similarly, Ejaria led the way in terms of interceptions with three, with another four players on two (Michael Morrison, Swift, Sean Morrison and Aden Flint). Context is important here - interceptions are more typically done by defenders, as shown by the fact that five out of the eight players to make an interception during the game were centre backs.
Even then, none of those defenders got more than two - a stat registered by Sean Morrison, Michael Morrison, Aden Flint and midfielder John Swift (credit to Swifty here). As with his impressive number of tackles, Ejaria’s interceptions demonstrate a commendable ability to read the game.
Touches and passing
In addition to the sound defensive side of his game, Ejaria didn’t shirk the chance to get on the ball in the middle of the park. Indeed, the stats show that he was one of the most involved players in the match, with the midfielder making more touches than anyone else - his 84 edged John Swift’s 81. Here they are, mapped out, with Reading shooting from left to right.
A few things about that graphic jump out: he’s active in most parts of the the pitch - showing just much ground he covers, most of his touches are on the left (although he sometimes drifted over to help Swift on the right), and he was also good at getting into the box.
That last one is crucial because it gives Reading an extra dimension to their attacking play. That’s particularly important in a 3-5-2 when the two front men need direct support from the midfield, but it’s good to see that Ejaria has the confidence to do that.
In addition, he came out nicely for total number of passes, with his 58 only just beaten by Swift’s 59 and Joe Ralls’ 65. As Biscuit Analytic highlighted on Twitter, these passes were often played to Swift, showing a strong link-up between the two most advanced players in Reading’s midfield three.
Highest pass combo today was Ejaria -> Swift. Interesting that a lot of these passes are to positions in wide areas, really showing how much of a free role Swift had today. #ReadingFC pic.twitter.com/mNx0c1XM6m— The Biscuit Analytic (@BiscuitAnalytic) August 18, 2019
Burrow down a little deeper into Ejaria’s stats and you learn a little more about what kind of passes he tries to make. In total, 97% of his passes were short, in comparison to Swift’s 92% and Ralls’ 83%. The Liverpool loanee also plays a higher proportion of his passes forwards, coming out with 67% against Swift’s 51% and Ralls’ 63%.
So, to summarise those points, Ejaria is a player who is brave enough to get on the ball a lot and play a lot of passes - a decent number of them going forwards - but is keen on playing long balls. Don’t expect to see him raking cross-field passes any time soon.
Dribbling and the final third
There are three final aspects of the 21 year-old’s game that I want to touch on before the end of the piece - one is really good, the other two are pretty poor.
First up, the positive: Ejaria is one heck of a dribbler. To be fair, this is something we already knew, with his ability to bring the ball up the pitch being a key part of why he stood out last season. However, he took that to another level against Cardiff, registering a huge nine dribbles against the Bluebirds. For context, that’s three times higher than the next best dribbler (Andy Yiadom).
Even more impressively, eight of Ejaria’s nine dribbles were successful, seven came in the opposition’s half, and four took place around the Bluebirds’ penalty area. Yes, Ejaria made more dribbles around Cardiff’s box than any other player attempted in the entire game. One of those runs was particularly eye-catching.
That brings us to the two parts of Ejaria’s game that need working on: getting shots away and setting up his teammates. As impressive as the 21 year-old was in defending, getting on the ball, passing it and dribbling it, he needs to contribute more directly to goals himself, as he shot only once and created no chances all afternoon.
At the moment, Reading have a proper creative spark in the form of John Swift, who made a mighty seven chances against Cardiff. Add in the other six he’s made this season, and the former Chelsea man has set a teammate up for an effort on goal more times than anyone else in the division (13).
However, we can’t afford to just rely on Swift - Ejaria needs to increase his involvement in the final third, especially given the fact that a switch to 3-5-2 means more work for the wing-backs to do, and possibly less opportunities for them to create from out wide.
And yet, we’re still talking about someone who’s only 21 years old, and there’s plenty of time for him to add extras to his repertoire - one that already has many positives. With more game time, I’ve no doubt that he’ll gradually build up his decision making and confidence. The £3million pre-arranged fee for him to become a Royal permanently next summer looks like a bargain.