The brief promise of a Sone Aluko revival appears to come around on an annual basis.
After signing in 2017 and flopping so badly under Jaap Stam in his first season at the club, there were hopes of better fortunes under Paul Clement in 2018. Although that didn’t come to pass, Aluko seemed to be on track at the beginning of 2019 when he put in his best performance for Reading up to that point - away to Derby County - but his progress was halted with a loan move to Beijing Renhe.
The subsequent 18 months or so have been frustratingly stop-start for Aluko. Although he did get regular game time in China, his last appearance was in July 2019, meaning that it would be around six months before he would play first-team football again: 22 minutes in the 2-2 FA Cup draw with Blackpool on January 4.
The rest of the 2019/20 campaign went quietly for Aluko, who played for just 229 minutes under Mark Bowen - predominantly in the FA Cup - before the Welshman left the dugout. There was however time for one memorable moment, arguably his most significant in a Reading shirt thus far: scoring the winning penalty in a shoot-out win over Cardiff City, putting the Royals into the fifth round of the FA Cup. He had come on as a substitute in normal time and showed pace and energy to change the match.
After that game in south Wales though, all the way back on February 4, he would play just once more that season for the first team: a few days later at home to Hull City in the Championship. It was clear that Bowen had no intention of bringing Aluko back into the first-team fold in the long term, opting not to give him regular enough football to build his match fitness and let him fight his way back into the side.
Instead, Reading would try to move their record signing on in the summer. However, despite a mass exodus of first-team and back-up players after the conclusion of the 2019/20 campaign, Aluko survived the cull. Reading may well have tried to move him on to reduce the squad size and wage bill, but given how poorly he had done at the Madejski Stadium up until that point, and how much he’s reportedly being paid, finding a new club would have been easier said than done.
Either way, Aluko remained a Royal. What’s more, he seems to be a valued part of Veljko Paunovic’s first-team plans. Having played the full 90 minutes (just the second time he’s done so since July 2019) in the opening-day League Cup win over Colchester United, he’s gone on to feature in all but one of Reading’s 2020/21 matches, and has already played more minutes than last season.
Although Reading do need to make maximum use of their entire first-team squad, such is the lack of options available, Aluko getting regular football still shows that Pauno trusts him. If that were not the case, the new boss could alternatively have given a youngster more game time in place of Aluko - such as Dejan Tetek, Femi Azeez or Lynford Sackey.
The most recent of Aluko’s performances this season was, by far, the best. He was at his dazzling best in the 1-0 home win over Watford, exerting the kind of confident swagger in possession and dogged work-rate out of it that he’s rarely displayed for Reading. It was his first league start under Pauno - in fact his for the Royals in 20 months - and you’d have to say that he took his chance with open arms.
The thing is though: we know he’s capable of playing like that. His display against Watford was somewhat similar to his 45-minute show against Derby in January 2019 - both being eye-catching performances in the number-ten role when he seemed unplayable.
Of course, the real test is whether or not Aluko can turn those brief flashes into consistently impressive performances. If he doesn’t do so, days like Watford will be irrelevant. Ultimately, that’s what Aluko’s season boils down to.
If Aluko can display that elusive consistency, he’ll be a valuable asset for Reading in Pauno’s 4-2-3-1. He looks most at home in the number-ten role behind the striker, which not only positions him centrally enough to be constantly involved, but also allows him to drift into other areas depending on where the space is.
However, this season Aluko has played on the left wing (a rarity in the context of his Reading career) and has often also lined up on the right; in that latter scenario he can cut infield onto his stronger left foot. Although he’s not a classic wide player in the mould of Jimmy Kebe or Bobby Convey, his change of pace and desire to run at a defender still mean he can stretch a defence.
In addition, Aluko has the versatility to be deployed as a false nine if the manager is so inclined. He’s no stranger to that role, having taken it up in the 0-0 with Sheffield Wednesday under Jose Gomes in Nelson Oliveira’s absence.
However, Aluko’s success won’t rely just on what he does himself. As with the abrupt loan move to Renhe that curtailed his 2018/19 season in Reading, external factors can hamper his progress this time around. Chief among them is the quality of the competition he faces in the Reading squad. Although John Swift will be out for some time due to injury, Pauno can also call on Ovie Ejaria, Michael Olise and Yakou Meite to play in that attacking trident behind the lone striker. That’s before you get to any further signings this window; Reading will likely try to sign at least one more winger before the 5pm deadline on Friday.
That could however be just what Aluko needs. Going up against three to five teammates for a spot in the starting XI each week would mean he’s got enough competition to keep him on his toes - without crowding him out of the first-team picture entirely. Contrast that to the situation last season, when a bloated squad meant Aluko was going up against not just those four players above, but also Garath McCleary, Ayub Timbe and Lucas Boye.
It is ultimately up to Aluko though. Being shown faith by Pauno, fitting into the manager’s system and having the right amount of competition merely create the platform for a successful 2020/21 campaign, nothing more. To reuse a common Pauno quote (see post-match quotes from the wins over Derby County and Watford), Aluko hasn’t done anything yet.
The elephant in the room here is Aluko’s contract situation. He’s now into the final 12 months of his four-year deal and, given that Reading forwards of years past (naming no names) have magically upped their performances just before becoming a free agent, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the possibility of that being the case here.
The impending prospect of being without a club is bound to be on Aluko’s mind at this point, perfectly understandably. After all, with his future uncertain, this season is his opportunity to put himself in the shop window for future employers or to earn a new contract at Reading. How well he does that - not to mention where Reading finish this season - will determine whether he starts 2021/22 with a club in the Premier League, Championship or lower leagues, or with no club at all.
How much that influences his performances this season doesn’t really matter though. There’s no bad way to get consistently good performances out of a player. Whether or not that happens though is up to Aluko.