Some players have a knack for dividing opinion. Step forward, Lucas Boye.
That was certainly true in Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Middlesbrough when the Argentine drew different reactions from those who saw him play. For my part, I gave him a 5/10 for a lack of impact in the final third, but our match reporter Dave McCormack praised Boye for “popping up everywhere in defence and attack”, saying the forward could go on to “make that number ten role his own”.
I don’t necessarily disagree with those comments - Dave is right to highlight how omnipresent Boye was, and despite the loanee’s shortcomings on Saturday, I’m similarly optimistic about what he can bring to that number ten role going forwards.
But we’re still left with a fair amount of disagreement here, so I had a look at the stats behind his performance at the Riverside to properly determine whether we’re interpreting the same things differently, both of us are right, or if I’m just being a bit of a plum. Long-term readers will likely veer towards the latter conclusion. But anyway, here goes.
It’s probably best to start where Dave and I agree - how busy Boye was in his performance against Middlesbrough. For this, we can look at his touches - how many of them he made, where they came, and how those stats compare to his teammates and the opposition.
First of all, Boye touched the ball 52 times against Boro in the 84 minutes he was on the pitch before being replaced by Danny Loader. For the most part he played alongside Yakou Meite on paper (more on this later), but came over to the left wing for the final 17 minutes after George Puscas and Lucas Joao were introduced as centre forwards.
That total of 52 touches is a pretty good return for a forward. Looking only at the first 84 minutes of the game (after which Boye wasn’t on the pitch), he’s way ahead of Meite (29) and just edges Andy Yiadom (48) and Ovie Ejaria (51). The only attacking player to comfortably beat Boye’s touches is, naturally, John Swift on 67.
Here’s where all those touches came. In the graphic below, Reading are shooting from right to left.
Although the teamsheet (and Reading’s recent lineups) would suggest he played up top in a 3-5-2, those touches show that to have not been the case. Boye dropped off so much, particularly on the left side of the pitch, that he was more of a midfielder than an out-and-out-forward. Rather than 3-5-2, Reading were 3-5-1-1.
So far so good - Boye coming deep gave us more presence in the middle of the park a clear creative outlet to build through. The problem for me though is just how few of his touches came in the most dangerous areas: the penalty box (6 touches) and ‘zone 14’ (slightly fewer). Also known as The Hole, zone 14 is the area just outside the penalty box. It’s key for Boye as it’s considered to be the most dangerous part of the pitch, so getting on the ball there gives him the best chance of getting goals and assists.
He may be in a more withdrawn position than Meite, but Boye’s advanced role (whether it’s best described as that of a number ten or attacking midfielder) still means he should be attacking the box and the area just outside it more frequently.
With those positional considerations in mind, it’s understandable that he created no chances against Middlesbrough and had just 1 shot on target (with 2 others - from zone 14 as it happens - blocked). Of the 4 chances that Reading did make from inside the box, 2 were from Yiadom attacking from the right, 1 from an Omar Richards pull-back (that Puscas skied), and another from Joao - from zone 14.
From Boye’s point of view, those stats are a continuation of what we’ve already seen. This season, he manages just 0.7 key passes per game (although that goes up to 1 when away from home) and 1 shot per game (the same figure when on the road).
Boye’s dribbling is a valuable asset
Besides his passes, touches and shots, it’s worth a quick note on another aspect of his game: dribbling. This particular skill was always going to be tactically important in the Middlesbrough game - as in other away matches such as West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield Town (Boye started both) - because having someone who can dribble the ball up the pitch, whether centrally or out wide, is a good outlet for the defence and of course an effective way of building counterattacks.
Interestingly, Boye is the second most frequent dribbler in Reading’s squad after Ejaria with 2 dribbles per game to the Liverpool loanee’s 2.6. However, if you only include away games, Boye shoots to the top with 3 per game and Ejaria sinks to third with 1.7. We can see this in the West Brom and Huddersfield matches when Boye attempted 4 and 6 dribbles respectively - coming third and first in those games.
Boye again stood out in this regard against Middlesbrough. He both attempted the most dribbles of anyone on the pitch during his time in the game (7) and completed the most (4). For context, Meite managed 1/5, Richards 1/4 and Marvin Johnson 3/4. Not a bad return for the Argentine at all.
As the graphic below shows, most of those dribbles were on the left wing. The top two were unsuccessful, as was the one that’s third from left at the bottom. Reading are shooting from right to left.
So he’s good at taking the ball up the pitch on the left wing. Although wing-back Richards attempted 4 dribbles of his own, interestingly the only successful one was just inside his half, with the 3 failed dribbles coming around the edge of the box. Nonetheless, Reading have two confident dribblers on one side of the pitch - suggesting that forcing overloads down that flank could be a strong tactic going forwards.
What about his defensive game?
They don’t call him El Toro (The Bull) for nothing. Boye charges around the pitch like a man possessed to win back possession, as shown by his defensive stats. Against Middlesbrough, he attempted a whopping 10 tackles - somewhat ironically level with his opposite number Anfernee Dijksteel, Boro’s right-back. Although he only won 5 of those challenges, that still puts him second only to the Middlesbrough defender (7) in terms of successful tackles.
As we can see below, he was more than happy to get stuck in both high up the pitch and in his own third.
As with his dribbling, Boye’s willingness to put in challenges has been a theme on the road this season. He’s fourth in Reading’s squad for attempted tackles away from home per game (2.5); although that may not sound that great, the fact that a forward is putting up similar numbers to defensive midfielders Andy Rinomhota (2.3) and Pele (2.7), plus defenders Tom McIntyre and Richards (both 3) is impressive.
Perhaps Boye should keep a slight lid on that energy though, as he committed more fouls than any other Reading player at the Riverside (4). Again, this is nothing new: he commits fouls more regularly than anyone else in the squad both overall (1.8 per game) and away from home (2.3).
This tendency to get stuck in boiled over on Saturday just before half time when he needlessly scythed down a Boro player on the right wing, well into their half, and was rightly booked. Passion and work-rate are all well and good, but Boye must keep them in check.
So, what to make of him?
For me, two things are fairly obvious about Boye’s performance at Middlesbrough, at least going by the stats. He works hard - both to get into the game offensively and help the team out defensively, and has real tactical value for how Jose Gomes seemingly wants to set Reading up away from home. However, there are valid concerns to be had in his lack of productivity in front of goal, both in terms of getting shots away and creating chances for others, and also his hotheaded temperament.
That all being considered, I’m confident that he’ll prove to be a very useful asset for Reading this season. His profile is very different to that of other players in the squad: a technically adept forward who likes to get stuck into the opposition as much as dribble at them, and can play both centrally and out wide.