Similar squad, different results
After a record-breaking start to the Championship season for the Royals, we look at how the new man at the helm has transformed the results of a struggling side into table toppers. Many Reading fans have felt for a while the squad on paper contained plenty of Championship quality and has certainly been underachieving. Yet with a relatively similar core squad of players, surprise appointment Veljko Paunovic has already done what both of his most recent predecessors failed to do: win games consistently.
The summer clear-out
It’s fair to say Paunovic has a much more streamlined and close-knit group of players to work with now following the summer clear out, as opposed to the overly bloated squad that both Jose Gomes and Mark Bowen were trying to balance. There have also been a handful of useful additions, none more important than the sole permanent signing, Josh Laurent, who has so far proven to be the perfect midfield partner for Andy Rinomhota. Alfa Semedo and Tomas Esteves look like solid loan acquisitions too.
However, it would certainly be a stretch to say this squad is totally transformed in terms of personnel from last season. So how has Paunovic gone about unlocking the potential of this squad where others before him could not?
One size doesn’t fit all
Flash back to December 2018 when Jose Gomes came into the club, a warm and energetic personality who did a great job of uniting fans and was an all-round likeable bloke. He kept the club in the Championship, but the following season ultimately failed to get consistent results. Gomes wanted to play a slick passing style and have a possession-based team, but not every player was comfortable playing this way and at both ends of the pitch we began to struggle.
His replacement Bowen also came in with a blanket tactical approach to the team, with the aim of making us harder to beat and more combative. After some early promising signs, the creativity going forward and in turn results faded. Gomes’ inability to adapt his game plan and Bowen’s overly cautious style had fans feeling the squad was performing well below expectations and ability. It seemed the approaches from both managers were too broad and imprecise, which meant we failed to allow our influential players to showcase their abilities and impact games consistently.
What’s different now?
Paunovic has instilled some “non-negotiables” which run through the entire squad, but there is a feeling that he has placed much more value and a deeper emphasis on the players as people and their individual strengths, weaknesses and relationships. After all, coaching in any team sport is about understanding the people behind the players and knowing how they tick.
Of course, winning games goes a long way towards building confidence and togetherness, but rather than forcing a rigid tactical plan onto the team, he’s looked at the unique skills of each player and how they can impact games on a more regular basis within his system. It’s not that Paunovic doesn’t expect the team to follow a certain tactical structure and game plan, but he’s managed to utilise the qualities within the squad to better effect. So far this season that has translated into a much more united squad, with closer relationships and a team pulling in the same direction.
No doubt this is not the only factor behind the early season success; we’ve already heard captain Liam Moore speak about the meticulous preparation from the manager, along with detailed analysis of clips from the upcoming opposition which Paunovic undertakes. Yes, this is something all modern-day management teams do, but you get a sense the players have trust and belief in the guidance they are being given now and a clearer picture of their specific roles.
Paunovic has been firm but fair, very driven and with an obvious passion for football, and even with the results achieved so far it’s clear to see he is still focused on improving as well as building a stronger culture and mentality at the club.
So far, so good
Reading fans will be all too aware that it is still early days in a long Championship campaign, and it will be a different challenge to bounce back now from the first defeat of the season on Friday night. But Paunovic comes across as measured, full of self belief, and certainly not a man to get too carried away with a few wins, or too despondent with some less favourable results.
We all hope he has struck upon a formula which can bring continued success back to Berkshire by placing a greater importance on the individual qualities of each player, creating more accountability and stronger relationships within the team. Time will tell, but for now even if it is from behind a TV screen or laptop, we can all enjoy the performances and results that Pauno and the team have produced, and long may it continue!