By the end of last season, Rafael’s position as Reading’s number one was clearly established. He had enjoyed a solid first campaign in Berkshire, quickly breaking into the first team after Joao Virginia’s rocky start and staying there for the rest of the season, pulling off some eye-catching saves but primarily impressing due to his reliability and consistency. His performances earned him the player of the season award.
Not so this season. Rafa’s error for Luton Town’s consolation goal on Boxing Day was his sixth major mistake that directly led to a goal in 21 league appearances so far. A poorly directed parry allowed a tap-in at Coventry City, where he also flapped at a long-range effort, he gave the ball away when playing out in the run-up to Stoke City’s second goal, lost the ball to Dominic Solanke for Bournemouth’s fourth, and was beaten by very stoppable efforts against Brentford and Luton.
You can forgive any goalkeeper for making the odd error here and there - it’s an occupational hazard. That’s particularly true in the modern game with ‘keepers increasingly asked to play out from the back under pressure, so some mistakes - such as the ones against Stoke and Bournemouth - can at least partially be put down to what was asked of Rafael tactically.
But mistakes are becoming a far too regular occurrence for Rafael this season. They seem to come in spurts rather than being spread across a longer period. The first four of the errors I listed above came in a four-game period (Reading’s four-match losing streak from late October to late November), while the last two were in back-to-back fixtures.
You’d think therefore that the problem is likely to be one of confidence: when one avoidable goal goes in, it affects Rafael and makes further blunders more likely. Of course, confidence works both ways. When he started to avoid making errors after that four-match losing streak, he was able to put together a better run of form, going without a blunder in the seven matches between the visits to Bournemouth and Brentford.
Instability in front of him could also be a factor. Rafa was at his best in the first eight games when the back four in front of him was consistent - although Reading went through four right backs in that time, Michael Morrison, Liam Moore and Omar Richards were ever-presents at centre back (x2) and left back respectively. Errors started to creep in when the defence started to change. Moore was in and out of the team in the four-match losing run and was later ruled out for the Luton game, and Reading went through a few left backs after Richards’ injury at QPR.
That inconsistency may have slightly contributed to Rafael’s problems but, as a bigger explanation, it’s a bit of a stretch. After all, Rafael didn’t have the same problems last season when the defence in front of him was often changing. Either way, it’s no excuse - an experienced goalkeeper should be able to deal with issues like that and perform consistently.
Rafael isn’t doing that at the moment and Veljko Paunovic needs to act. There’s a clear answer though: bring in Luke Southwood. Doing so wouldn’t be without its risks. Although Southwood made his senior debut for Reading in the League Cup earlier this season, he’s yet to do so in the Championship, so throwing him into the first team now - in the middle of a play-off push - would be something of a baptism of fire.
But it would be one for which he’s well prepared. Southwood has done his time out on loan, impressing in non-league with Bath City and Eastleigh and in the Scottish Premiership with Hamilton Academical. He was highly regarded at each of those clubs and those spells evidently had an impression first on Mark Bowen, Reading’s manager when Southwood agreed a new deal earlier this year, and then on Pauno who promoted the youngster to second choice.
The next step is him getting a proper chance in the first team, but dropping an established first choice so that can happen is a big decision for Pauno that needs to be thought through properly. For me that comes down to three broad factors. From Southwood’s point of view getting an opportunity in the league needs to be properly earned, for Rafael being dropped needs to be a fair call - otherwise it risks undermining his morale ahead of when he comes back into the team, and Pauno needs to be confident the switch must have the potential to actually improve the team.
The first two of those criteria are met: Southwood’s shown his ability and acquired experience elsewhere, while Rafael’s shaky form this season (particularly in recent games) means dropping him would hardly be unfair or unexpected.
Giving Southwood a chance in the league can improve the team too as it creates a real sense of competition between the two. Making it clear to both that good performances will be directly rewarded with a run in the team, and a drop in form will push them out, would bring a competitive edge from Reading’s two ‘keepers.
This certainly wouldn’t be the end of the story. Rafael will inevitably get another chance in the team at some point, but spending some time out of the side would allow him to recharge after recent mistakes and boost his focus that bit more - driven by the desire to not be dropped once again.
Reading stand to gain in the longer term too. As things stand, the Royals are going into next season with just one senior goalkeeper (Rafael), but he’ll be in the last year of his contract and has made no secret of his desire to play in the Premier League. If Reading don’t plan ahead quickly, they risk needing to recruit a new number one in the summer. We’ve seen when replacing Ali Al-Habsi in 2017 and Emi Martinez in 2019 that that’s easier said than done.
The solution is to prepare Southwood to succeed Rafael, but that requires game time in the Championship. Not only does he need it for the sake of his own development, but he’ll also understandably want assurances of a first-team opportunity before agreeing to extend a contract that currently expires in the summer.
If Southwood doesn’t get an opportunity in the league now, when does he? The longer he goes without it and the more mistakes he watches Rafael make - while reasonably thinking he should have the chance to prove he can do better - the more frustrated he’ll get. Now’s the time to give him a shot.