So… when do we start to take all of this seriously? I’m back with another set of talking points, and trying very hard not to get too ahead of myself. Still there’s yet more signs that Reading could continue this form after the recent rounds of games, so let’s take a look.
Reading are exhibiting all the old football cliches
Since my last column a week ago, Reading have continued on their inevitable march to the title with a pair of wins from their two games. And while the similarly high scorelines would suggest the scoring dam has finally burst, and Reading have eschewed xG in favor of actual goals, the paths to victory in each game could not have been more different.
It’s an old cliche in football that good teams find a way to win, and can win when they’re not playing well. Reading certainly weren’t playing well in the first half against Rotherham United at the weekend, and yet they still found themselves ahead at the break thanks to Yakou Meite’s fine finish.
They didn’t play well against Wycombe Wanderers for the majority of the match either, but the Chairboys never looked like scoring, and a moment of quality from Lucas Joao proved the difference. These were wins built on our defensive solidity, with outcomes determined by individual moments of quality, and our trademark Reading FC 2020/21 clinical finishing.
Meanwhile against Blackburn, a free-scoring side, Reading flipped the playbook. I’m sure Rafael and the defence would have loved to keep yet another clean sheet, but getting the win is more important, and Reading were punishing on the break. Blackburn pressed us hard, as we expected, but Reading were fully conscious of where their defensive frailties lay, and pounced quickly on any runs behind the defense to catch Blackburn on the counter. Alfa Semedo’s poked through ball to Joao for his goal was the highlight of this for me.
It’s October, it’s eight games in, and it’s not time to plan the parade just yet. Still, as we’ve said for years, there’s talent in this team, and their confidence is only growing. It’s great to be able to squeak out wins when we’re not playing well, and it’s even more encouraging that we’re able to come out victorious in both scrappy, and free-flowing games.
Where does Swift fit back into this team?
Over the tough last three or four years of being a Reading fan, John Swift has, for me at least, been a shining light in what has otherwise been a hard team to love. He was a big fish in a small pond at times, but his stats over the last five years are nothing to sniff at, and it’s not surprising that Premier League teams were tempering bids for him this off-season.
Six games into his injury break though, Reading are doing more than just “coping” in his absence. With that in mind, it’s an interesting hypothetical to ask how we get Swift back into the midfield in January, while not disrupting the overall flow of the team, or our defensive solidity.
Our midfield is playing as two rows: the first row being a defensive two that shields our centre backs, and fills in when they come for the ball. The second row is a fairly narrow three that sits behind Joao and seems mostly concerned with either going for a dribble or finding the “touchdown pass” that will unlock a team that’s pushed a little too far forward.
So where does Swift fit into this? The obvious answer would be that front three. This is the section of our team that’s had the most rotation so far this year, outside of Meite mostly locking down the right-hand side. I wouldn’t take Meite out of the side personally, as I think he links up very well with Joao. Swift therefore is probably only looking at the centre of that forward three as a potential spot for his comeback. But we’re not exactly lacking for talent that’s perhaps more suited to the role in this position.
I’m not 100% sold on Semedo in this role, but mostly because I’m yet to fully grasp what kind of player Semedo is. Olise for me has been our best player in the centre so far though, and I’m still partial to playing Ejaria out on the left, even though he can be wasteful at times. Swift himself started the season in this role, but didn’t find quite the same level of success that he had in previous years (admittedly from a very small sample size). He’s not particularly fast, and showed that he’s not a definite finisher in a one-on-one situation in our first game (because Swift only scores goals from 25 yards out plus).
Many Reading fans feel as though Swift played his best football last year in a deep-lying playmaker role. If we wanted to try to get this out of him again, he’d be more suited to the deep-lying two that Laurent and Rinomhota are currently manning. Herein lies the issue though: do we really want to drop either of those players when our defensive record is as good as it is?
Laurent has been a fantastic signing. His confidence on the ball in high-pressure situations has helped us to play the ball out from the back, and his positional nous and covering have been spot on. Lovely goal on Tuesday night as well. Rino for me is a little more vulnerable to losing his position to Swift, but again, his defensive work is important and I just wonder if Swift will have the legs to contribute both on the defence and going forward.
Realistically: if Swift is in the team in any position in his first available game back, then I’ll be happy. I think Reading are a better team with him playing. It’s mightily encouraging though that the question of where to put arguably our best player doesn’t have an easy answer thanks to the organisation and performance of the team so far.
Rafael is sharp after weeks of inaction
Going into the game on Tuesday night, I wasn’t convinced we would carve out another clean sheet. Blackburn are the highest-scoring team in the Championship this season, and Adam Armstrong might be the second-best striker in the league behind Lucas Joao...
While Armstrong did indeed get his goals (with two fine finishes to boot), Rafael made several fantastic, athletic saves at crucial times that kept the Royals on top. This was fantastic to see. It’s not news to any Reading fan that Rafael is a fantastic goalkeeper, but as I discussed a few weeks ago, he’s not had a glut of tough shots to stop thanks to our stout defence and ability to force other teams to take shots from outside of the box.
Before the Blackburn game, Rafael had the second-highest save percentage (93.3%) in the top five European leagues + the Championship (Jan Oblak, possibly the world’s best keeper was his only competition), so we know that Rafael’s been sharp in our first seven games. Post-game, with two goals conceded, the stats will have been dented somewhat, but in my opinion Rafael’s game against Blackburn was his best so far.
A trio of highlights:
At minute 42 he showed his cool head to track the ball as it was crossed one way into the box, then headed back across for the lethal Armstrong to head at goal. Rafael’s positioning was fantastic and he calmly plucked what could have been a dangerous ball out of the air.
At minute 80 and leading 3-2, he made a fantastic save on a slightly deflected effort from Lewis Holtby. From one replay angle, you can watch as Rafael shuffles across his line as Holtby moves into position, and then gets two strong hands to the ball to push it far wide.
And in the 90th minute, Rafael earned redemption for Armstrong’s second goal when the latter attempted essentially the same finish as his 66th-minute goal, heading across goal into the side netting. This time though, Rafael had quick feet to get across his goal quickly and make a low save to his right.
These are saves that are showing Rafael’s talent, sure, but they’re also saves that exhibit Rafael’s concentration, intelligence and fine positioning (one of the only areas I thought he had room for improvement in last year). He’s developing a great sense of when and where the danger is coming from early, and reacting accordingly.
It’s one game of proof, and it’s one game in which Rafael conceded twice as many goals as he had conceded all season! Still, after weeks of relative inaction, it’s encouraging that there are no signs of rust on Rafael, and his concentration level hasn’t slipped.
Often, you’ll hear pundits say the best keepers are capable of doing nothing for 89 minutes, and then making a game-changing save in the 90th minute. I truly trust Rafael to do the same. He’s made it clear that he wants to be a top-tier goalkeeper, and it’s not hard to see a path for him to be one: I just hope it’s with us!