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Grading The Reading Squad’s 2020/21 Season So Far: Centre Backs

How have Morrison, Moore, McIntyre and Gibson got on so far?

Blackburn Rovers v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

We’ve already talked about Reading’s goalkeepers and full backs - now we turn our attention to the centre backs, whose fortunes have been pretty polarised...

Michael Morrison: A-

How were things going before this season?

Very well indeed. Having been snapped up on a free from Birmingham City in the summer of 2019, Morrison enjoyed a strong 2019/20 campaign and was a real contender to be named Reading’s player of the season. His aerial presence at both ends of the pitch, leadership and experience were big assets, and his consistent performances stood in positive contrast to an otherwise inconsistent season for the Royals overall.

How well has he done so far this season?

It’s been more of the same. I’d initially expected Lewis Gibson to be phased in as a new partner for Liam Moore - as a more mobile, technical option - but Morrison’s form has made him pretty much impossible to drop. His place in the side has never really been in doubt, and he’s accordingly played every league minute so far this campaign - the only outfielder to do so despite being pushed close by Omar Richards and Andy Rinomhota for a lot of the season.

That being said, his lack of technical ability has to an extent held back Reading when in possession. Pauno wants his team to pass out from the back but, with Morrison not suited to doing so, Reading have more than a few times struggled to play through the lines effectively. It’s a little harsh considering Morrison’s otherwise strong performances, but it’s enough for me to add that minus on the end of his grade.

AFC Bournemouth v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

What does the future hold?

Morrison’s deal is up at the end of the season and the point I mentioned above has left me in two minds as to what should happen next. On the one hand, Morrison’s been a huge asset both on the pitch and off it since joining on a free, and giving him a new deal lasting one or two years would make sense. His experience, leadership and knowledge of the club are qualities that can’t easily be replaced.

Then again, Reading probably shouldn’t be planning to have Morrison as a first choice next season whether we’re in the Championship or Premier League. He’ll be 33 at the end of this season, doesn’t suit the style we’ll be looking to play, and there are younger players in the form of Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre ready to replace him.

If he’s happy to stick around for another year with less football while we embed a successor into the team, great. Otherwise, he could well be moved on.

Liam Moore: A

How were things going before this season?

His Reading career had gone off the boil somewhat. There was talk that he didn’t see eye to eye with former boss Mark Bowen off the pitch but, either way, things weren’t going his way on it. Moore was left out of the first team just before lockdown - apparently due to illness, but it coincidentally came after a half-hearted attempt to stop Wigan Athletic’s third goal in a 3-0 win at the Mad Stad.

He was then benched for a few matches after lockdown with Tom McIntyre preferred, leaving fans wondering if his future would be in Berkshire.

How well has he done so far this season?

Moore’s responded very well to the above issues. He’s playing much more like the commanding defender we saw in his early Reading days, and less like the shaky one that emerged after the collapsed transfer to Brighton and Hove Albion in 2018.

Reading v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

His influence is most clearly seen in how poor Reading have been defensively when he’s not been in the side (or not fully up to speed). The Royals conceded three times in the first eight games when Moore was an ever present, then 13 in four as Moore was injured against Coventry City, missing for the matches against Preston North End and Stoke City, then reintegrated for Bournemouth.

What does the future hold?

His deal may still have another three years to run, but I could see Moore leaving in the summer if Reading aren’t promoted. At 27 he’s in his prime and will have an eye on playing in the Premier League sooner rather than later, which he’s capable of doing as his form this season has shown.

I wouldn’t expect him to agitate for a move away though as he seems happy at the club. It would however be interesting to see if he ends up as a right-sided centre half at any point - should McIntyre emerge as Morrison’s successor, moving Moore across would allow both to play on their stronger side - which we’ve not seen happen for Moore that much in his Reading career.

Tom McIntyre: C-

How were things going before this season?

McIntyre’s career seemed to very much be on an upwards curve. Having made his debut in late 2018, he started to get more regular game time last season, particularly in the post-lockdown period alongside Morrison at the heart of Reading’s defence. The sense was very much that he was set to break into the first team properly in 2019/20...

How well has he done so far this season?

Well, those hopes of breaking into the side didn’t come to pass. McIntyre lost out from the club’s decision to sack Mark Bowen, who had started to select the young Scot more regularly over the summer and seemed to have earmarked a tailor-made role for him with a new-look back three system.

Not only has Pauno stuck to a back four this season, meaning fewer opportunities for McIntyre at centre half, but he also brought in another left-footed centre back: Lewis Gibson. Throw in the strong form of Morrison and Moore and there simply haven’t been enough opportunities for McIntyre in his favoured position.

Reading v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images

Instead he’s been used as a midfielder in the Championship, typically off the bench. He’s shown a commendable level of versatility to adapt to that, but again he’s not had a lot of game time there to show what he can do.

What does the future hold?

With injuries mounting, McIntyre is essentially the next option at centre half and in the defensive midfield double pivot, so he could well soon get his chance to impress in the league. If the fitness problems clear up though, McIntyre will have to bide his time for first-team action.

How the rest of the campaign pans out for him will likely play a big part in where he decides to spend next season. His deal runs out in the summer and, given his lack of chances in general - let along at centre half - you wouldn’t blame him if he headed off elsewhere in search of regular football.

Lewis Gibson: D+

How were things going before this season?

He’s still very early in his career. Gibson is yet to feature for parent club Everton’s first team, but did get 11 games for League One side Fleetwood last season, where he helped them into the play-off semi finals, only to be defeated by eventually promoted Wycombe Wanderers. Moving up a level to the Championship with Reading was the next step in his career as he sought to amass higher-quality experience.

How well has he done so far this season?

It wasn’t until the 11th league game that Gibson made his debut for Reading, making his first Championship appearance on the left of a back three against Stoke City. He had a rough start to the second tier though, with a late error directly leading to the third goal in that 3-0 defeat.

Reading v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Gibson looked to be back on the fringes at that point with Moore returning to the side in the next match, but injury to Omar Richards briefly opened up a chance at left back. However, the Everton man would only play three times there (twice off the bench, once as a starter against Norwich City) before himself being ruled out.

What does the future hold?

Probably a recall to Everton. The Toffees won’t be happy that their bright starlet has been given just four appearances at Reading - only one of them coming in his favoured position of centre half. Bringing back to Goodison and then sending him out on loan when he’s fit once more is probably their best bet of getting Gibson more match practice.

Anyone else?

Nelson Abbey made his first-team debut in the League Cup this year as a substitute and recently agreed a pro contract, although he’s yet to play in the league. Fellow academy man Jeriel Dorsett was named on the bench at Brentford - his first involvement with the first team since making his debut in the FA Cup against Blackpool last season. Omri Luzon has also been added to Reading’s youth set-up.

Finally, a quick word on Tom Holmes, who Adam discussed more in the full backs section. Although he’s done a fine job at right back this season in the absence of Andy Yiadom, I do feel his future is at centre half, possibly as a direct successor to Morrison. Although Holmes lacks the dynamism to operate as a truly attacking right back, he’s comfortable enough on the ball to play out as a centre half.