After a good end to a 2018/19 campaign that saw the Royals stave off relegation for the second season in a row, Jose Gomes and his recruitment team faced the mammoth task of rebuilding a Reading squad without the loanees that were so crucial in keeping them up the previous year.
Nelson Olivera returned to Norwich City, subsequently jetting off to Greece to sign for AEK Athens. Similarly, Lewis Baker headed home to SW3, where he was then chucked off the Chelsea pre-season tour after one match before hopping on the next flight to Düsseldorf, signing for (who guessed it?) Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Reading managed to recapture dynamic playmaker and Royals’ legend-to-be Ovie Ejaria as well as American central defender Matt Miazga - whose partnership with Liam Moore has become one of Reading’s most promising defensive duos in recent times.
However, the final, and perhaps best loanee that Gomes, Nigel Howe and co failed to lure back was Emiliano Martinez. The Argentine goalkeeper returned to Arsenal to play second fiddle to Bernd Leno, and Reading were back to square one in the goalkeeping department.
I’ll take a look at Reading’s failure to replace Martinez with a goalkeeper of his calibre, and their subsequent reparation by bringing in Brazilian Rafael. Before everybody jumps on the Virginia slate wagon though, two things must be kept in mind:
- Did the staff at the club make the right decision bringing him in in the first place? Luke Southwood - two years older and a whole year of National League football under his belt - was loaned out by the Royals while Sam Walker was kept and Virginia signed.
- Virginia is 19, and had never played a game of first team, competitive football - in any league. Has he been placed in a position where he will instantly succeed? Smart move? I think not.
The most obvious thing that I’ve noticed about Virginia, and what I believe to be his key failure in his short spell as number one, is his lack of presence in the goal; he looks like a kid playing with men.
I’m not talking about his size, because you can have presence without size. I’m talking about the way he moves around his goal, his seemingly timid interaction with his defenders, and his obvious lack of authority in his own penalty area. Not to mention the way he’s failed to hold down the number one jersey.
However, I also don’t think Virginia is quite as bad as people are making out. Every mistake Virginia has made so far has been down to a poor technique, or not making the right choice of save (Hull City).
Take Sheffield Wednesday’s first goal on the opening day - what Virginia attempted (a spread save) is completely correct. The way he’s executed it, is not. Technically speaking, Virginia should have been closer to Harris as he had the shot, as well as keeping his chest and head forward. As Harris has his shot, they fall back.
Luckily, technique can be rectified, so there is hope that Virginia is simply just a bit taken aback by being thrust straight into first-team Championship football. However, technique should stick with a goalkeeper, regardless of experience/age etc, therefore presenting the question: do Virginia’s problems lie on the training ground?
You could argue that Virginia was perhaps a little complacent at the start of the season. Everton would not have loaned him out to Reading if there weren’t some guarantee that Virginia would start as the first-choice goalkeeper, or at least play a certain number of games.
Similarly, Sam Walker’s performance against Chelsea, as well as the majority of last season, may have made Virginia a little complacent. Also, coming off the back of a Premier League 2 winning season may not have been particularly beneficial for Virginia. On his high horse a little when he joined or underestimating the standard? Probably.
Reading’s defence seemed to lose faith in Virginia fairly quickly. His mistake away at Hull City was inexcusable, and skipper Liam Moore’s face summed it up. It was good of Jose Gomes to start Virginia away at Hull. Dropping him for a goalkeeper who had only trained at the club once (Rafael, at the time) would have shown a complete lack of faith from Gomes, which, in my opinion, would have been pretty unprofessional.
The last thing that needs to be added about the Virginia situation is his ability in comparison to Luke Southwood or George Legg/Lewis Ward. With Southwood especially, a stellar season at Eastleigh in a physically tough National League surely holds more kudos than, respectfully, an untested talent who hasn’t played higher than under-23 football?
If Virginia isn’t going to play, there really is little point in him staying at the Madejski. Get him off the wage bill, and, for his sake, let him go back to Everton to go somewhere he will play. Good luck to him. With Rafael, it’s a whole different story. The Brazilian came to the Madejski Stadium, much like Virginia, on a bit of a cushion. However, this time, the cushion was more plump and comfy. Virginia’s poor start to life at Reading handed Rafael two things:
- A guarantee to at least start his career in RG2 playing games.
- The expectation and pressure of, basically, being good.
The second point is where Virginia failed, and why Rafael has so far succeeded, and should continue to do so. When Emi Martinez returned to Arsenal, Reading fans and players alike (while probably knowing, deep down, the next goalkeeper the club recruited wouldn’t be quite as good as the aforementioned) were always going to hold Martinez’s successor to his level.
Virginia didn’t live up to this expectation (or should we say ‘hope’), but in the five games Rafael has played for Reading, he’s really turned up. The ability to make ‘big saves’ is what differentiates average goalkeepers from good ones, and Rafael has definitely shown that he’s capable in that department. The penalty shootout at Wycombe Wanderers also conveniently set Rafael up to kick his Reading career off on a high. Lose, and it’s not his fault, yet win, and he’s the hero.
You could argue that Rafael is in a bit of an untouchable position at the moment, yet this doesn’t really make much difference as his performances to date means his starting place is deserved. Although Virginia would have most likely expected to start in the curtain raiser vs Sheffield Wednesday, Rafael arrived as Reading’s last hope in the goalkeeping department.
This therefore gave him the security that he couldn’t be any worse than his predecessor, therefore one could argue that mediocre performances could have been ‘hyped up’ as decent ones. Or at least a ‘well he’s still better than Virginia’ situation. Virginia and Rafael were sailing on the same sea when they arrived, yet in different boats.
The way Rafael has performed really says something to me. To come out and put in good performances, in a country where you don’t speak the language and have never played before, and for a team who genuinely require good performances from you (ie we were a bit desperate!) shows extensive professionalism and experience.
Despite some shaky distribution - perhaps not always simply sticking to the safest option - Rafael’s shot-stopping is second to none. He has a good spring and reach, which is vital due to his height, and is fantastically agile. From a goalkeeping point of view, he puts himself in a position that allows him to make the ‘big saves’ - a good set position, which is consistently relevant to the position of the ball.
Rafael’s arrival at Reading is similar to Virginia’s in so many ways, yet the way Rafael has handled the situation has been so much better. We must look at other factors too; for example, Rafael’s age and previous experience, his reputation compared to Virginia’s and even the renowned sense of optimism around the Madejski when he, as well as Ejaria, George Puscas, Pele and Lucas Joao, joined.
Obviously, Rafael’s CV was most likely going to be better than Virginia’s - most 28 year-olds have done more in their careers than 19 year-olds. Virginia should take every opportunity to learn from Rafael - not necessarily in terms of physical goalkeeping skill, but from the way Rafael has adjusted to Championship football.
Plus, they both speak Portuguese.
Virginia will end up having a decent career, I’m sure. Just look at Martinez’ performances in Reading’s thrilling 5-7 loss to Arsenal in what was then the Capital One Cup in November 2012. Most would have written Martinez off after that performance, but he’s now one injury or poor run of form away from being number one at the Emirates. However, at the moment, Reading need experience and consistency to get them back on the right track. Youth should always be pushed, but Reading isn’t the place for that to happen for Virginia at the moment.
He’ll recover from it, but for now, Rafael is number one, and I don’t expect that to change for quite a while.
Let’s not even start on Sam Walker.