You know things haven’t gone to plan when you hook a player at half time. Alfa Semedo only got 45 minutes on the pitch against Millwall on Wednesday evening before Veljko Paunovic decided that he had seen enough; Semedo had offered little in the number 10 role he’d again been given, and replacing him with Michael Olise made a lot of sense.
As has been widely mentioned elsewhere, it’s a change that shouldn’t have had to be made. Olise is Reading’s leader for assists so far this season, so the decision to bench him - again - and start Semedo in the key playmaker role behind lone striker Lucas Joao was perplexing. The youngster really should have started.
He showed Pauno exactly why that was the case, providing the spark that drew Reading level - a spark that few in this squad possess. Olise was involved at the start of a move that began deep in Reading’s half and eventually ended with him expertly playing in Joao like so:
The weight and flight of the ball are inch perfect. Too little on the pass and Joao can’t get onto it, too much and he’s taken too wide, meaning he’ll have to shoot from a tighter angle. Joao’s marker may as well not be there; Ryan Leonard is caught off balance and completely taken out of the equation.
Joao deserves credit here too: he quickly spots the possibility of the ball being played in behind the Millwall back line and is ready to run onto the pass when it comes. You wouldn’t have blamed Joao for hanging back in that situation, but he read the play well and was rewarded accordingly. That’s also a sign of Olise’s ability and reputation. As soon as the ball goes to Olise, just outside the box, Joao has the confidence that his younger teammate will be able to come up with a quality pass in behind.
I love the fluency of the move too - Olise doesn’t need a touch to control the ball, instead dinking it first time. You can tell he knows exactly what he wants to do as soon as he takes that brief glance over his shoulder while Omar Richards receives possession.
All in all, it’s exactly the kind of moment you want from your playmaker-in-chief: a spark of genius, perfectly executed, to create a quality open-play chance for your leading goalscorer. Such assists don’t come about too often and besides Olise, only John Swift and Ovie Ejaria in this Reading squad has both the ability and the audacity to make them happen.
It’s also the kind of moment that makes you wonder why Paunovic is so reluctant to start him. Olise has been on the bench for Reading’s last three games despite his contribution this season in goals and assists (he’d scored twice and set up three goals before Millwall), no obvious drop in form and no known fitness problem.
He also adds plenty in all-round play. Swift is the only squad member capable of consistently hitting long, accurate passes, whether over the top or as a crossfield, so removing both those playmakers means Reading don’t really have the option of mixing it up and playing more direct to exploit space.
So, surely, Olise isn’t missing out because of what he offers in possession. Even when he’s not at his best and isn’t coming up with passes like that one at The Den for Joao, he still has a level of swagger and arrogance that can make things happen - or at least put the opposition on the back foot as they try to work out how to handle him.
That brings me back to Semedo, the man who’s been preferred to Olise in the number 10 role in the last few games. He’s a defensive midfielder by trade and, in all honesty, it shows. Reading’s loan signing was anonymous in the first half at The Den, failing to have a shot, create a chance for a teammate or complete a dribble. Of his 22 touches, none were particularly near the Millwall box, let alone inside it. In the graphic below, Reading are shooting right to left.
It was probably his worst performance in a Reading shirt. At the end of the day, the stats didn’t really matter - Pauno seeing fit to take Semedo off at half time is all the information you need. Naturally, with Reading 1-0 down and facing a clear need to create chances in the second half - chances that had eluded them in the first - bringing Olise on was the obvious call. But it’s not the biggest vote of confidence from Pauno to Semedo when the manager fails to give his starting number 10 any time after the break to try to make an impact.
Perhaps he had previous matches in mind. Semedo has now played nine times for Reading (two sub appearances followed by seven consecutive starts), but he’s consistently failed to show creativity, coming up with just six chances - albeit excluding the penalty he won at Bournemouth on Saturday with a mazy run. For context, Olise is top for chances created at 17, followed by Joao (13), Ejaria (8) and Richards (7), while Josh Laurent is level with Semedo.
Of those six, one came off the bench against Wycombe Wanderers, three were at home to Preston North End and two at Blackburn Rovers, both of which resulted in goals - his only two assists so far. That match at Ewood Park was his best all-round performance for Reading so far, but it came as a box-to-box player - not a number 10.
Plus, none of Semedo’s chances created have been from long passes. This may look a little picky, but it highlights his relative inability to pick out a teammate at range, which would allow him to unlock those more difficult chances. Olise, Richards, Liam Moore and Tom McIntyre have all done this more than once, while Sone Aluko, Rafael, Ejaria and Yakou Meite have done it once.
It’s worth noting Semedo’s aerial threat though. He’s the second-tallest player in Reading’s squad at 6ft 2in, behind only Lucas Joao (6ft 3in), and he’s been able to exploit that a few times by becoming essentially an auxiliary centre forward. Think of the two headed chances Semedo had early on against Stoke City or the one he had Bournemouth - they show the danger he can pose an opposition backline as a late runner into the box.
But that’s not enough to make him an effective attacking number 10. Semedo lacks the guile and technical ability of Olise, let alone alternative options for that role such as Ejaria, Swift or even Aluko. So why does Pauno persist with Semedo? It’s probably to do with what he wants from his number 10s when Reading don’t have the ball.
For a number 10, Semedo comes up with some very decent defensive numbers. He’s fourth in Reading’s squad for tackles (2.2), which is impressive given that the rest of the top eight are all explicitly deep-lying players. Similarly, he’s fifth (of all Reading players with at least two appearances) for interceptions, with 1.2 of those per game.
I’m loathe to say Olise has bad defensive stats - 1.2 tackles per game and 0.6 interceptions put him broadly in line with Reading’s other attacking players - but there’s a big discrepancy between him and Semedo. The lanky Bissau-Guinean clearly offers more when the Royals are trying to win the ball back higher up the pitch - even if he lacks the creativity to capitalise when Reading have done so.
So where do we go from here? The obvious answer is to say Reading need Olise to work harder off the ball, in addition to what he brings as a creative force, thereby making him the all-round number 10 that Pauno can’t say no to. Ironically, we were in a similar position last December; Mark Bowen told the media he needed to be able to “trust” Olise when Reading didn’t have the ball for the youngster to get regular football.
Bowen returned to that same theme of “trust” the following month, praising Olise’s work rate and defensive duty in a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest. Olise had to bide his time and earn his manager’s faith before getting that opportunity at the City Ground, but stepping up to the plate that night opened the door for a spot in the first team.
Paunovic may well be trying a similar ploy to the one his predecessor used last season. Olise is more than capable of matching his ability on the ball with work rate off it, but perhaps he needs a little tough love and occasional time out of the team to drive home the importance of continuous improvement.
It’s important to remember he’s still young. We’re talking about a player who’ll only turn 19 in a couple of weeks - as opposed to Semedo (23) who has experience in multiple countries and even the Champions League. Progress for Olise will take time and he’ll sometimes not meet the lofty expectations that Pauno and the fans have for him. That being said, Olise should be rewarded with a well-earned start on Saturday. He may well have room for improvement when out of possession, but we need his creativity.
As for Semedo, we don’t have to judge him just as a number 10. His pre-Reading experience was largely as a more defensive midfielder, and Pauno should be open to that in the future. It’s no coincidence that Semedo looked more comfortably as a box-to-box midfielder at Blackburn in Reading’s 4-4-2 diamond/4-3-3 hybrid. Even if we don’t return to that system, Semedo would be a valuable, more attacking alternative to Andy Rinomhota as the more advanced deep-lying midfielder in Reading’s 4-2-3-1.
Stats are taken from WhoScored