Defensive midfield seems to be a pivotal role in the Reading squad nowadays. Mark Bowen has deployed both Pelé and John Swift in the role between the lines in recent weeks, but in markedly different ways.
Pelé, of course, almost seems like he’d be the first name on the team sheet with many fans. Typically he sits in front of the back four, with almost no offensive responsibility. If there’s a player making a run into the space he occupies he’ll track them, but other than that his role is mainly static.
He breaks up attacks, recycles possession, and tries to play the odd ball over the top to start counter attacks - although more often than not they sail through to the keeper. Recently, those optimistic long balls have become runs to drive the team forward. Ignoring Wigan Athletic - because I think we all want to - in his last four games he’s almost completed more dribbles than the rest of the season combined (15 vs 16).
John Swift is more dynamic. As well as being that screen in front of the defence he’s also supposed to be a creative outlet. As a quarterback, or regista, it’s his job to initiate attacks from deep. You’ll find him dropping between the centre backs frequently, and, if either Morrison or Moore have the ball, Swift will always be looking to give them an option in a way that Pelé is not expected to do. On the ball he tends toward playing long most of the time, but he’s more than capable of dribbling out from the back or picking a pass between the lines.
Dropping Swift deeper may mean he’s not as effective in the final third, but he’s not under the same instruction to constantly sit in front of the back four. Over the course of a game he’ll pop up in attacking positions when required. When he goes forward others have to cover though, so there’s more of a requirement on those around him to be switched on.
Which leads us nicely into the third option that isn’t: Andy Rinomhota. Most would argue that he’s better alongside another player, and Bowen has never used him as the holding midfielder. His inclusion in the team allows those on the pitch with him more flexibility, in the knowledge that they’ll be covered. His strength is not so much as a ball winner, although his defensive numbers are not dissimilar to Pelé’s, nor a deep-lying playmaker, but in using his energy to find spaces on the pitch and winning fouls to alleviate pressure.
Another player that could take the position going forward is Felipe Araruna. So far he’s been required to fill in elsewhere on the pitch, but he arrived with defensive midfield touted as his main position. I think we’ve seen enough to know that he has the ability to win the ball, but his positioning has been his main flaw. In a role such as Pelé’s, maybe that’s not as much of an issue.
Mainly due to lack of available data, we’ll exclude the Brazilian and Rino from further consideration. Both could probably do a job there, and it may be worth auditioning both in the run-in so we’re ready to hit the ground running without Pelé next year.
The first question, when choosing between the two remaining candidates, is what does Bowen want from his DM? The manager’s focus has always been defence first, which automatically elevates Pelé above his rivals for the spot. Swift, for all his qualities, will never be that anchor man - that was painfully obvious in the Wigan game, as he was continuously dribbled past.
As I’ve touched on though, there seems to be an increasing desire for them to also instigate attacks. Without doubt, Swift’s passing is superior, and there are very few people in this squad who could boast the vision that he seemingly has on the ball.
Against teams we’re expected to struggle against, and especially away from home, you’d be hard pressed to make a case against Pelé. Regardless of whether you believe he’s been at fault for goals recently, there’s nobody else in the squad that is as adept at playing the defensive role in general.
The second question is whether Pelé is needed when we’re not up against it so much. Reading’s only league wins since New Year’s Day have come in games he didn’t start. Even when that midfield destroyer wasn't on the pitch, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley struggled to create chances from open play, and Pelé’s presence would surely have been superfluous.
When a lot of Reading’s issues seem to stem from playing out from the back, either because the balls into the frontman are not good enough, or the back four panic under pressure, having someone with the quality of Swift able to have more of the ball can only improve the side. It also allows Ejaria to come central, and for the JOvie (I’m intent on making that The Official Portmanteau) combination to be more influential - which is where Yakou Meite’s goal at Hillsborough originates from.
All of this is with the caveat that whoever takes the spot needs energy in front of them. While Pelé not being in the team for our recent wins may be coincidental, I don’t think that the fact Rinomhota and Michael Olise started both games is. It’s difficult to understand why they’ve both been dropped after good displays, but given our performance without them against Wigan, surely they’re nailed on for a run in the team.
So, where does that leave us?
At the end of the day it’s a matter for how Bowen wants us to play, and given the tinkering that’s almost impossible to know week to week. Given the success of Swift against Wednesday and Barnsley, and the friendliness of the run-in, it would be surprising not to see him resume the role. But I have a feeling that in away games in particular, or anytime when Bowen thinks we’ll be on the back foot, we’ll still be seeing Pelé.