Remember Felipe Araruna? His topsy-turvy but commendable performances at the start of the season feel like a world away from here and now.
Of course I’m sure you all remember Araruna’s contribution - my point here is just that our team seems more banged up than ever right now, and names that were on the team sheet in September are drifting further and further into the memory banks! With that in mind, let’s take a look at what we can expect to see after the international break, and the player I’m most excited to have back in the squad.
Have we ever been this excited to see an international break?
Phew, remember the heady heights of October 29th 2020? Reading were six points clear at the top of the Championship, undefeated and riding a three-game winning streak. Put short: life was breezy. Cut to exactly two weeks later, our lead at the top is down to one point, we’re riding a three-game losing streak, and Reading are hobbling - literally as well as figuratively.
Let’s take a breath here. It would have been difficult to find a fan at the start of the season who thought that Reading would be top after 11 games, and regardless of whether the lead is six points or one, that’s where we are. Even if this isn’t the quality of team we’re going to be for this entire year, we’ve put ourselves in a great place to have a successful season just by virtue of the points we’ve picked up (and hopefully the belief we’ve instilled).
I’m personally never too upset about an international break. Especially since my leaving blighty, and the 2018 World Cup, I’ve been pretty invested in the England team’s development. Still, I’d be hard pressed to remember an international break I’ve been more excited for, and primarily for what Reading will get back AFTER the break.
Reading have injuries - serious injuries that are clearly hurting our quality at key moments in games. Mistakes can happen to anyone in football, but it’s tough for me to imagine this 2020/21 version of Liam Moore making the same glaring mistakes Lewis Gibson and Tom McIntyre have made in his absence. Sone Aluko has now started a far higher % of games than I expected at the start of the season as well, and while I don’t feel that he’s been awful, he’s a step down from Ovie Ejaria or Yakou Meite in that role.
I won’t blame our recent defeats entirely on injuries, and I think we can also hope and expect that Pauno will take the opportunity of the international break to help his team reset. The fantastic atmosphere around a team that just couldn’t lose is only two weeks removed. We’ve shown mental toughness this year with the Cardiff City victory and coming back twice against Coventry City. It’s tough for me to think that mentality disappeared again after only a few weeks, so hopefully we’ll see a return on November 21st.
Meanwhile, “big” clubs: predictable promotion challengers are beginning to circle at the top of the table, with relegated Bournemouth, Norwich City and Watford looking menacing. With challengers like these waiting in the wings, Reading will need to have as many players back from injury as possible after the break in order to keep up the pace.
Where do we see ourselves finishing at the end of the season now? And what would we be happy with? Starting this year, I wanted a 12th-placed finish. I would’ve been happy to see signs of progress, and our league position giving us a realistic but tough shot at the playoffs in February or March. Now though, being honest, I’d like to see Reading challenge for sixth place. A fit back line should return to being one of the best units in the league. A fit attack should allow us to return to our more clinical ways. A return to the mental stability that defined the first month of the season should allow us to weather storms in tight games.
Put short, there’s no reason we can’t have an exciting season… we just need a nice 10-day break to restore our team to something resembling fitness!
Meite is the missing ingredient
Over the past three years, I’ve obviously been delighted with the goal return, and amused by the social media feed of Ivorian Yakou Meite. At the same time however, I’ve struggled to pin down exactly what allows Meite to be effective. After watching Reading slump to three defeats in a row without him however, I’m beginning to understand the depth of his contribution.
Obviously Meite is a physical specimen: tall, fast and strong with a shot like a cannon. In previous seasons though, I’ve felt that he often struggled to make the most of these qualities, either with loose touches that lead to him losing the ball, or by making poor decisions and taking inadvisable shots. His four goals against Luton Town, before getting sent off against Swansea City during Project Restart, are a great example of how Meite can throw up wildly contrasting results in a short space of time.
In his games before injury this year however, I think we saw a smarter, more deadly Meite who’s honed some of the shakier aspects of his game.
I believe Meite’s ability to beat a player this year has also come on leaps and bounds: crucial if we intend to keep playing him on the wing. Meite seemingly uses a perfect combination of his size and speed. He’s developed quite a deft touch for trickery too, and his beating two Cardiff players on the wing with some quick feet showed off all of the ways Meite uses his physical gifts in combination with developed skill.
I believe this is something we’ve missed in the defeats. I haven’t been totally disappointed with Alfa Semedo or Aluko, but I don’t think they offer the same ability to beat a player and drive directly at the goal that Meite does. I understand that at least Aluko has offered crosses into the box, but Omar Richards (and occasionally Tomas Esteves) are already performing that role for Reading, so having more players do the same seems one dimensional.
I’ve also been impressed this year by how Meite has been seemingly able to find Lucas Joao over and over with knock-downs from Rafael’s drives out of goal. It shows a certain level of positional awareness, not just for yourself but for your teammates, to be able to consistently pick out a pass while challenging for a goal kick.
In fact, while they’re not usually playing in a traditional top two together, Meite and Joao have the makings of a very exciting striking partnership. For defences, having one player with the combination of size, speed, and skill that Joao combines clearly causes issues. Having two of them with Meite harassing your backline as well is a nightmare that’s going to lead to mistakes and goals.
Finally, Meite’s attitude is key for Reading. There have been times over the past few years when I’ve felt as though, based on play alone, Meite hasn’t quite earned his place in the team. Regardless of quality however, I can always trust that Meite will keep running, and I know that he’ll be just as hungry for a shot in minute 90 as he is in minute nine. He must be an inspiration especially to the younger players around him, and I doubt he has much time for passengers.
I think Meite’s bicycle kick goal against Rotherham United is a great example of everything he contributes. It’s also fun to watch again, so let’s assess!
Late in the game, Meite has the creative arrogance to try something bold, his physical gifts allow him to maneuver quickly and get power on the ball, and his touch lets him connect fully with the ball and send it soaring into the net.
Look, I’m obviously not pinning my hopes of a Reading resurgence after the international break on Meite’s ability to score bicycle kicks on a regular basis. That said, for me, it’s the perfect encapsulation of everything that Meite brings to this team, and everything we’ll get back with his return: ability, power and boldness. Reading look more capable of keeping pressure on teams than they did at the start of the season, but a little of Meite’s controlled chaos in opposition backlines should hopefully give us the keys to unlock our scoring form again.