If you had never seen Lucas Joao play before, you might fancy your chances of guessing what sort of player he is just by looking at him. He stands 6ft 3in tall, is physically imposing, and generally seems like the kind of striker you would the lump the ball up to in the hope he might get his head on it or at the very least act as a nuisance for defenders. The archetypal target man.
Yet Joao’s goal against Coventry City last Friday - as he collected the ball 30 yards out, turned, drove forwards, held off a defender and released a shot from the edge of the area that arrowed in to the bottom corner - was more akin to a tricky, nimble winger at least half a foot shorter.
It’s a passage of play we’re becoming used to seeing. Only three days earlier against Blackburn Rovers, Joao raced towards goal before checking inside the defender and curling the ball into the back of the net. Against Wycombe Wanderers he did brilliantly to spin the defender with his first touch, break through on goal and fire home.
Cardiff City’s Curtis Nelson was made to look a fool on Reading’s trip to South Wales when Joao showed quick feet and good strength to turn away from him and score. I was salivating when he took three defenders out of the game with one delicious bit of skill to set himself up for the completion of his hat-trick against Colchester United in the Carabao Cup.
Joao is creating goals for himself out of nothing thanks to his agility, remarkable ability on the ball and quick thinking. He is not waiting around for the ball to come to him. Despite his frame, he is certainly not just a target man.
All 15 of the Portuguese’s non-penalty shots in the Championship this season are illustrated below, with his goals highlighted. None have come from inside the six-yard box, emphasising his anti-poacher nature. Although only three fall into the ‘outside of the penalty area’ category, strikes against Derby, Wycombe and Blackburn are only just inside.
As a comparison, Championship top goalscorer Ivan Toney has taken 23 non-penalty shots this season. Five have been inside the six-yard box, with four resulting in goals.
It’s also noticeable how rarely Joao uses his head to test goalkeepers. Just one of his 15 goals for Reading has come courtesy of his noggin (against Colchester in September), while only 10 of his 48 attempts on goal since joining the Royals have come in the air. In comparison to other Championship strikers of similar height last season, Joao ranked bottom for percentage of attempts on goal with his head.
However, when the ball is at his feet, Joao ranks highly. Of all the strikers in the Championship, only Watford’s Joao Pedro (16) has completed more dribbles than Joao (14) this season. For someone with a relatively high centre of gravity (Joao is a few inches taller than Pedro, who is 5ft 9in), it’s an impressive statistic. Joao has, as the saying goes, a good touch for a big man.
The 27 year-old is also blessed with a decent level of pace, meaning he can race away from defenders and get on the end of through balls, like he did against Blackburn. It also allows him to have a deeper starting position and be more involved in the play. For some strikers, dropping deep may be considered a negative, but for Joao it’s a huge asset of his game, particularly when comparing him to George Puscas, who has a tendency to become isolated and anonymous in matches.
Perhaps most important is that Veljko Paunovic has identified what kind of striker Joao is. This Reading side is playing to the striker’s strengths and allowing him to thrive - the Royals rank bottom of the Championship for crosses per game and 19th for total long balls because that is not how Joao scores goals.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that Joao is not incapable of playing that traditional number-nine role. His goal against Wycombe came from Liam Moore’s punt upfield, while the penalty he won against Rotherham was a result of Rafael’s long clearance towards him, as was his assist for Ovie Ejaria at Derby County on the opening day. Furthermore, his goal in that same game and strikes goals last season against Birmingham City, Barnsley, Derby and Stoke City were all instinctive, close-range, poacher-esque finishes.
That’s what makes Joao so good - he can do it all. The element of surprise in his game is a nightmare for opposition backlines to deal with. He is as good as anyone out there in the Championship in terms of being an all-round striker, and raw quality wise he must rank among Reading’s best centre forwards of the modern era. Putting aside his profile as a striker, Joao’s biggest asset is his exceptional finishing ability and clinical nature. He consistently outperforms his xG rate because he scores goals from statistically unlikely scenarios.
His ability has never been in doubt. Even when Sheffield Wednesday sold Joao to Reading in August 2019, they knew they were letting go an accomplished striker, and Owls fans had seen enough over the course of his four-year stint at Hillsborough to tell how good a player he could be.
It is his consistency and fitness that, rather ironically, have been consistent issues. Reading found that out last season when Joao went on on a run of 10 matches without scoring and then played just two games in the second half of the campaign because of injury.
It has been a remarkable start to 2020-21 for both the Royals and Joao himself. But as the clichéd caveat goes, it is still early days. If Joao can sustain this form for the rest of the season and, crucially, stay fit, he will be in with a shot of fulfilling his dream of playing in the Premier League.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.