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

Some great scores and some... not so good... in the last installment of our player assessments.

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

We’re at the final section of our squad-wide assessment of Reading’s individual performances so far this season. You can click the links here for the goalkeepers, full backs, centre backs and midfielders.


Lucas Joao: A*

How were things going before this season?

Eyebrows were raised somewhat when Reading splashed out a few million to bring Joao to Berkshire from Sheffield Wednesday late on in the summer 2019 window, and he took a while to properly get going. When he did though, he was on fire, playing a key role in the Royals’ four-match winning run this time last year.

The second half of the season was spent almost entirely in the treatment room. Joao managed most of the 2-1 win at Fulham on New Year’s Day before succumbing to injury, and scored on his return in the 1-1 draw with Stoke City, but again missed the rest of the campaign through injury.

How well has he done so far this season?

Superbly. Joao’s form in front of goal has been terrific, netting 11 times in the Championship and a hat trick in the League Cup, in addition to getting four assists in the league. That combined record of 14 goals and four assists from 18 matches in all competitions has justifiably led to talk of him being one of Reading’s best strikers in quite some time.

That’s not all though. Joao’s hold-up play and ability to create out of nothing makes him far more than just a poacher, and you can tell Reading are much better, more rounded attacking force when he’s leading the line.

Reading v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

As was predictable with an injury-prone player, he’s spent some time on the sidelines. Joao missed the 1-0 win over Watford and the last few matches, but he’s in line to return for the Boxing Day clash with Luton Town. However, I’ve not let that push his grade down as a) he’s still managed to play a lot, b) his consistent contributions on the pitch have made up for the times when we’ve had to do without him.

What does the future hold?

I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more talk of a move away. Joao is arguably the best striker in the Championship when you consider his all-round ability and goalscoring, so you’d have thought a Premier League club would come in with an offer for him in January or the summer.

Whether they do or don’t, Reading are in a strong position with Joao. He’s got another three years on his contract, so the Royals can reasonably demand a bumper fee for him if suitors do come calling. Given that Ollie Watkins went to Aston Villa for around £28m, Reading could ask for at least £20m for Joao.

The key thing in the mean time is to keep him fit.


George Puscas: D+

How were things going before this season?

It depends who you ask really. A lot of fans would quite reasonably point to his lack of consistency and goals from open play last season as evidence that he wasn’t worth spending ~£7m to bring him in from Inter Milan. Some howler misses early on in the season hardly helped. When a marquee signing doesn’t meet expectations, it’s bound to lead to disappointment.

My view though is that 2019/20 was a solid, if underwhelming, introductory season to the Championship for a young player. Puscas contributed 14 goals and three assists in 42 games in all competitions - hardly a disastrous return - and probably would have come up with a fair few more if Reading had played to his strengths tactically more.

How well has he done so far this season?

My hope was that he’d get regular football this season in a system that suited him more, but two things have held him back: Joao and injury. The form of Reading’s top scorer has made him impossible to drop, and with the Royals having consistent success in a formation requiring just one striker, there’s been little room to start Puscas.

Joao’s absences should have opened up the door for Puscas. Although the Romanian did score in his only 90-minute league appearance this season (at home to Watford), recent injury problems have left him unable to step in for Joao when he’s been out of the side.

Reading v Watford - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

I was torn between a D+ and a C- for Puscas. Although going closer to a D is a tad harsh, especially given that he’s actually scored twice (unlike Baldock who’s yet to open his account), Puscas’ campaign has been very disappointing considering the hopes we’ve had for him.

What does the future hold?

Hopefully a lot more game time this season. Puscas has a lot to offer Reading when fit, whether as another attacking option off the bench or as a back-up for Joao, so he could yet play a big part in our promotion push. There’s every chance that he recovers from injury in the New Year and provides vital extra firepower.

His future beyond that depends on his form this season. If he does well in the second half of the campaign, he could well put himself in the shop window and get a multi-million-pound move elsewhere, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem for Reading given how good Joao is. Puscas also has plenty of time to run on his contract (four years in his case), so Reading are in a similarly strong position when it comes to negotiating a possible transfer.


Yakou Meite: A-

How were things going before this season?

Pretty well. Meite’s proven to be Reading’s most reliable source of goals in recent years, netting 12 league goals in 2018/19 and 13 in 2019/20. Doing that in underwhelming sides, often from out wide, is a great indication of how effective a presence he is in the opposition’s penalty box.

Although there’s been little doubt over his goalscoring, his technical ability has been open to criticism. Meite’s ball control and decision making in the final third in open play have often been poor, and that’s held him back in recent years from pushing onto the next level and becoming an all-round quality forward.

How well has he done so far this season?

Impressively. Meite’s kept up his goalscoring form by netting six times in his 12 league appearances, putting him behind only Lucas Joao in Reading’s scoring charts. There have been some real beauties in there - the acrobatic volley against Rotherham United and neat finish against Bristol City after a neat run in behind certainly stand out. I’ve also been impressed by his general development. Meite’s technical side and maturity both seem to be improving - probably best shown in his terrific performance on the right wing at home to Bristol City.

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

Stop me if you’ve heard this before in this mini series of player assessments, but Meite’s season has been somewhat held back by injury. He’s missed eight of Reading’s 20 Championship matches so far and is due to be on the sidelines for a while yet, having had a nasty collision in the 2-1 home defeat to Birmingham City.

For me, Meite’s been a bigger miss than Joao. Although Reading have different (albeit not as good) centre-forward options to Joao, there is no other wide player in the squad like Meite that can make runs in behind to become an extra goal threat from open play.

What does the future hold?

Hopefully getting back into the first team and giving us that boost to get into the top six. The longer Meite is out of the side, the lower Reading’s chances of going up.

Beyond this season, anything is possible. His contract expires in the summer of 2022 but, given his fondness for the club, importance to the team and Reading’s upwards trajectory, I could well see him signing a new contract in the not-too-distant future.

Then again, he’s been linked with moves away from Reading before and there’s a possibility that - if we don’t go up - he’s sold to a bigger club. Meite’s knack for finding the net, positional versatility and technical improvements mean there are bound to be suitors for him in the summer.


Sam Baldock: D

How were things going before this season?

Not great. Baldock has never really fitted into any Reading manager’s tactical plans on a consistent, extended basis. His fortunes were particularly bleak under Jose Gomes, who barely used him in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons, and even seemed to temporarily exclude Baldock from the squad along with Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary, although the striker did play a minor role in the League Cup.

Things were better under Mark Bowen, who made much more extensive use of Baldock. There was promise last season in a partnership with George Puscas, although two factors went against Baldock afterwards: Lucas Joao’s return from injury, then Bowen’s preference for playing one striker in the back half of the campaign.

How well has he done so far this season?

He’s been restricted to bench appearances for most of the league campaign so far; eight of his Championship appearances have come as a substitute. You get the clear sense that, even though there are a few players ahead of him in the pecking order, Paunovic doesn’t much fancy Baldock as a striker anyway. That’s even been extended as far as the former Brighton man playing as a winger in Reading’s 4-2-3-1 - both in the League Cup and off the bench at Derby County.

Derby County v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Pride Park Photo by Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images

Baldock has however managed two Championship starts in recent weeks due to Reading’s mounting injury list, getting 87 minutes as a lone striker in the 1-0 win at QPR then beginning his 90 minutes at Brentford as a right winger in a 4-3-3. He’s yet to impress though, not looking like a goal threat in either of those matches, and being dropped in preference of a false nine in the 2-1 defeat to Norwich City.

What does the future hold?

In the short term: more game time, with Baldock probably getting a few more starts in the near future while Lucas Joao recovers. He could well be called on at other points in the season if injury problems rear their head later on. The key thing for Paunovic will be to develop a system that allows Baldock to be an effective attacking force - for me that entails pressing and playing higher up the pitch, meaning Reading can make use of his energy and get more bodies in and around Baldock quickly.

Beyond that: a summer exit. Baldock’s deal is up at the end of the season and it’s looking hugely unlikely that we’ll offer him a new one unless Mark Bowen makes an unexpected return. It’s 2020, would you really rule it out?


Sone Aluko: B-

How were things going before this season?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Sone Aluko hasn’t done very well for Reading so far. His 2017/18 season was pretty awful and the first half of 2018/19 wasn’t much better and, despite a brief improvement under Jose Gomes, he was shipped off to Beijing Renhe on loan for the rest of 2019. He returned to play a handful of games in 2020 under Mark Bowen but, besides scoring the winning penalty at Cardiff City in the penalty shoot-out, didn’t really have much of a chance to do anything.

To be fair to him, although his dire reputation precedes him - at least on social media - he’s not actually been that awful player for around two years now. The season and a half or so going up until the current campaign were stop-start, with Aluko not really given the opportunity to show us he could change for the better.

How well has he done so far this season?

Pretty well. It’s not been the star-studded comeback story we’d have hoped for, but it’s been solid improvement for a player that’s been in need of exactly that for a while now. He’s missed just four of Reading’s 20 league games so far, starting six times and coming off the bench on 10 occasions, so Pauno is clearly happy to play him.

Aluko’s repaid that trust with some very bright moments. His performance in the 1-0 home win over Watford was truly fantastic and, even though he didn’t grab a goal that day, he did so twice on other occasions. He slotted home after Ovie Ejaria’s through ball at Bournemouth and most recently nodded in Michael Olise’s cross for a consolation at Brentford.

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

What does the future hold?

He’s another player set to leave Reading when his deal runs out in the summer and, although there’s a chance he gets a new one, it’s a very small one. Aluko just hasn’t done enough since joining the Royals in 2017, is likely on pretty high wages given that he was brought to Reading from then-promotion rivals Fulham, and will be 32 at the end of this season.

That being said, there’s a minor possibility of Aluko being offered a one- or two-year deal on much reduced wages. He’s a good fit for Pauno’s system, popular in the dressing room and a decent experienced back-up for younger players, so having him around for another season if Reading don’t go up may be appealing to the Paunovic. I’m not saying it’ll happen, but there’s a chance.


Anyone else?

A few academy forwards have been involved for Reading’s first team this season, although none have started a game. Nahum Melvin-Lambert came off the bench in the League Cup against Colchester United and almost scored, and has recently been an unused sub in the Championship.

Lynford Sackey made his debut on the right wing against Luton Town in the League Cup, as did Jayden Onen against Norwich City in the Championship. Femi Azeez wasn’t called on when included on the bench for the Watford match.

Reading have two fringe strikers out on loan: Marc McNulty at Dundee United and Sam Smith at Tranmere Rovers. The former has scored once in nine games north of the border and somehow still has 18 months to run on the contract Reading gave him in 2018. The latter is yet to find the net this season and is due to become a free agent in the summer, although his loan deal runs out on January 7 so he may be needed as an extra option for Reading if injuries don’t clear up.