Reading’s first-team squad looks rather thin, to put it lightly. Add up the dozen or so summer departures, string of injuries and general inability thus far to sign many new players, and Veljko Paunovic doesn’t have a lot of options to choose from.
That’s true pretty much across the squad. Although Reading are well-stocked for goalkeepers, number tens and centre backs called Tom, everywhere else needs work. Granted, there is a fresh batch of academy talent on the horizon, but given that the more experienced crop was released en masse in the summer, the current under-23s are probably too young to rely on.
To illustrate the lack of depth, here’s Reading’s squad as it stands going into the Watford game (bar any surprise late signings). I’ve put the players into positions generally according to where they’ve played so far in Pauno’s 4-2-3-1. Midfielders are split into deeper-lying ones and more attacking options, and I’ve greyed out players that are either injured (including Joao who’s touch and go for Watford) or very inexperienced academy graduates.
The shopping list to bulk out that squad goes to five to eight or so new faces. A new right back or two to cover for injuries to Andy Yiadom and Felipe Araruna would be most pressing. Then a midfielder or two, given the lack of cover for Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent, maybe a left back if Ethan Bristow isn’t ready to be second choice, one or two wingers, and probably also another target man as back-up for injury-prone Lucas Joao.
Get all those players in, whether on loan deals, free transfers or cheap permanents, and the squad looks a lot stronger. Reading would be in a position where they’d have enough depth to cover for injuries as they occur over the course of the season.
Reinforcing the squad has to be done over the coming two weeks before the domestic transfer window shuts on October 16, but there’s a danger of doing it badly and undermining the progress that’s been made recently. Reading’s summer clear-out, in which 20 players left (five loanees returning to parent clubs, 13 players released, two sold), has left the squad lean and focussed.
Less flab around the edges of the group means fewer disgruntled players and more who know exactly where they stand in the manager’s plans. The first team has pretty much picked itself this season (in the league at least). Contrast that to last season when a bigger squad meant numerous established pros being surplus to requirements at certain points of the season - take Ayub Timbe and Lucas Boye after lockdown for example.
It all makes for a more harmonious group, and that will certainly have been a big factor in Reading making their best start to a league season since 1985. Although that group must be reinforced if Reading are to have a strong chance of finishing in the top half of the table, it can’t be at the expense of morale.
Pauno seemed to be getting at that in his pre-match comments to the media on Thursday afternoon:
“If we can bring somebody in, great, but we’re not going to bring someone in for the sake of it. I’m not obsessed about it. I want to work with the group and if we can improve it with pieces from outside or from within inside that’s our approach.
“We’re not going to go to the market crazy and anxious about bringing players in. But if there is an opportunity we will do it, given our circumstances and possibilities. We have to stay with our feet on the ground, keep improving and add depth to the team if the circumstances allow.”
Side note: there may well have been a decent amount in there of Pauno trying to reduce expectations on Reading’s transfer activity. It’s as if he wants to play down the possibility of the club bringing in half a dozen signings or so, lest Reading only end up managing one or two, thereby leaving fans disappointed.
That all being said, not signing players “for the sake of it” is the sensible approach. That’s less the case in some positions - Reading need at least one right back and central midfielder - but in others we can and should be more picky.
Take centre forward for example: Reading would benefit from a like-for-like understudy for Joao, but if one isn’t available, there are still other options on the books to call on. Signing a striker who doesn’t fit the profile for the sake of it would be counterproductive, potentially lowering morale in that part of the squad.
High morale is a valuable quality in football - one that’s been in short supply at Reading in recent years. It’s difficult to build up but easy to lose, and that’s potentially the risk if Reading don’t get their summer recruitment right from here on in.