Acquiring an effective deep-lying midfielder has been a tricky challenge for Reading in recent years. Although Lewis Baker temporarily made the position his own at the end of last season, he followed a long list of others to have tried - and failed - to do so: George Evans, Joey van den Berg, Liam Kelly, Saeid Ezatolahi among them.
Baker was, eventually, replaced in the summer by Monaco loanee Judilson Mamadu Tuncará Gomes - known simply as Pele. Although they have different skill sets and styles, both players have most prominently for Reading been deep-lying midfielders - Baker as a more creative option, Pele more defensive. It’s worth noting as thing point that this wasn’t always Baker’s role at the Madejski Stadium; he settled there after previously being tried as more of a number ten and box-to-box midfielder.
Nonetheless, the impressive performances that Baker put in meant Reading were left with a distinct hole at the base of midfield when his loan spell expired - a hole that Pele was, essentially, brought in to fill. That’s not the whole story of course - Charlie Adam was also signed as a pretty deep-lying playmaker in the summer, while John Swift has at times dropped back into an equivalent role - but Baker and Pele are the most comparable for a few reasons.
Pele’s now had a similar number of league minutes to Baker (1220 to 1480), is occupying Baker’s area of the pitch more closely than Adam or Swift, and both Pele and Baker took a decent amount of time to settle before hitting form. They’ve also had to contend with various tactical changes. Jose Gomes tweaked Reading various times in the back half of last season, and the same thing’s happened so far this season - but in this case under two different managers.
The purpose of this article is to see how, with all those above factors taken into consideration, Pele and Baker compare statistically in two key areas: passing and defensive solidity. My assumption before writing this piece was that Pele would stack up better defensively while Baker would look the better option creatively.
As I’ll explain below, that’s... not necessarily true.
It’s worth at this point noting some basic facts about both players. Lewis Baker was 23 when he signed for Reading (24 when he left), and had previously played both in England and overseas, for clubs including Leeds United, Middlesbrough and Vitesse Arnhem. Pele on the other hand turned 28 in September, and has stints across Europe on his CV, but only one in England - nine games for Nottingham Forest last season.
Side note - both are exactly the same height at 5”11’. I’d assumed Baker was a lot shorter than Pele - the epitomes of the diminutive playmaker and towering anchorman respectively, but there you go. End of side note.
Neither have been particularly prolific in the final third for Reading; they have one assist each, while Baker also netted a stunner to open the scoring in a 3-1 defeat at Hull City. However, I’d rather not put too much significance on these stats, as goals and assists aren’t really the bread and butter of deep-lying midfielders’ games. Either way, Pele is overall the more creative, making twice as many chances per game (pg) as Baker (0.8 to 0.4), while Baker shot much more frequently than Pele (1.2 pg to 0.3 pg).
Pele is the better passer over long range
This conclusion surprised me to be honest. I’d assumed that Baker would excel at all kinds of passing, particularly long range, but the stats suggest that’s not actually the case. In fact, Pele not only plays more accurate long passes per game than Baker (3.2 to 2.9), but also has a higher accuracy rate overall (53.3% to 48.3%).
The question though is how well Pele uses that effectiveness with long balls to actually influence a game. Baker was, by the eye test, good at spreading the play by pinging the ball out wide when there’s been a man free, but this season Reading seem to rely more on Swift and Adam to play that role in build-ups, particularly recently.
However, Baker’s general passing stats are much better than Pele’s as he averaged significantly more passes per game than Pele (44 to 36.2) and with a better success rate (85.3% to 79.9%). That’s because Baker comes into his own over short range, playing many more close-range passes (34.6 to 25.7) and, again, with a much better success rate (91% to 85%).
Of course, we can’t really discuss these stats without giving them their proper tactical context. Gomes often wanted Reading to control possession - allowing Baker to play lots of short, accurate, simple passes - while Bowen in contrast has been noticeably more direct. But that’s not the whole story. Gomes made Reading more of a counter-attacking side from late February 2019 onwards, and Bowen has at times embraced a more possession-based team.
Properly examining that tactical context might therefore not be an exact science, but for me that grey area leaves enough wiggle room for us to compare Pele and Baker. Both have had to adapt to different tactical requirements - although admittedly to varying degrees.
Pele does indeed have the edge defensively
Each of them have their own strengths when it comes to passing ability, and there would appear to be a fair amount of parity defensively too. Pele has the edge on Baker in three areas: tackling (1.6 pg to 1.3), interceptions (0.9 to 0.7) and how often he’s dribbled past by an opposition player (0.5 to 1.1). Baker on the other hand pips Pele when it comes to two sides of his defensive game: clearances (1.6 to 1.4) and blocks (0.6 to 0.2).
But for me, those last two traits aren’t quite as important as the ones Pele is better at. Baker may well get in the way of shots better and clear the danger that bit more often, but Pele’s stats illustrate a more impressive defensive profile: that of a holding midfielder who’s better at reading the game (thanks to his interceptions) and more dominant in one-on-one challenges. Such a player protects the defence more effectively overall.
Of course, a potential counter here is that Baker is intended as a more creative midfielder - after all, when he really excelled at the tail end of last season, he had Andy Rinomhota slightly ahead of him to do the dirty work. But Baker was still being deployed in the same part of the pitch as Pele - the deepest-lying midfielder - so the protection offered to the defence is of vital importance, regardless of creativity.
At the end of the day, we’re still talking about two good midfielders, even if the stats above show that they have different skill sets. In fact, the distinctions between Pele and Lewis Baker - not to mention the latter’s ability to play higher up the pitch, as shown earlier on in his brief time at Reading - suggest they could play together in the same midfield.
The Royals will, at the end of this season, have a big question on their hands: how to replace the creativity from deep of Charlie Adam. He’s out of contract in the summer and, at the ripe of age of 34, is unlikely to be offered a new deal - although his impressive recent impact means he’d probably get one if he were just a bit younger. If only there were a younger version of Adam that Reading could turn to?
Should that man be Baker, he could well be playing alongside Pele at the Madejski Stadium in 2020/21. By a handy turn of fortune, Pele was up in front of the local media on Thursday afternoon - in between me starting writing this piece on Wednesday and finishing it on Thursday evening. As he explained in his own words, which you can read in full on The Reading Chronicle, he now seems settled both on the pitch and in his personal life:
“It is [too] early to say, but it is a great team and if I have a chance to stay, I’ll stay.”
“My son and my wife are here. They like the city, it is quiet so it is perfect for me.”
For a player who’s been on the books for around a dozen clubs across five or so different countries in his 11-year career, that’s great to know. He seems to be growing in confidence after initially struggling to settle, but to be fair that was anticipated by Portuguese football writer Alex Goncalves when we asked him about Pele back in August.
“To get the best out of him, he needs to be given time to get to his best level and he needs to feel welcome. He showed some of his best stuff at Belenenses, and that’s because the fans appreciated him and wanted him there, which he in turn appreciated and it really brought the best out of him.”
Giving him that backing now - to further boost his confidence levels after they’ve already been on the upturn - could mean we see Pele get better and better. You never know, he may live up to his namesake even more.
All stats were taken from WhoScored.