It looks a lot like George Puscas is finally starting to hit some form for Reading. He’s now on three goals in his last four appearances, having also found the net against West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield Wednesday, giving him his best goalscoring run for the Royals. His previous best was a mere two-game streak, with goals in back-to-back games against Wycombe Wanderers and Cardiff City.
His recent strikes may not have been that grand - a penalty against the Baggies and deft flick off Andy Yiadom’s long-range shot at Hillsborough - but they’ve done an important thing for Puscas: feeding his confidence. And we all know just how short he’d been on that earlier on this season.
Puscas added to that run, partly thanks to the increased confidence he’s got, by slotting home Reading’s second of the afternoon on Saturday. Although it looks like a straightforward goal, for me it’s one that, whether taken on its own or in conjunction with some his previous strikes, tells us a fair amount about the kind of striker that Puscas is and how Reading should try to get the most out of him.
The goal itself
At first glance, it looks like an initially slightly lucky but overall well-taken goal. The ball comes into his feet, he possibly inadvertently deflects it past the defender, sprints into space and scores. Here it is in full:
There is of course much more to it than that. To explain why, let’s first rewind to the start of Puscas’ involvement in this goal, which you can see in the still image below - and yes, that’s the least blurry I could get it. The clever, important thing from Puscas at this point is that he’s managed to isolate one Barnsley defender, but without getting so close to them that he’ll have trouble controlling the ball.
Puscas has left Barnsley’s centre back, Aapo Halme, in a difficult position. Halme is not only not tight enough to Puscas to slow the Romanian’s progress, but by committing himself forward to close Puscas down, he’s off balance for what comes next.
If the ball had simply gone into a static Puscas with his back right up against Halme, he wouldn’t have had the wiggle room to then create an opening. Instead, Puscas has made intelligent use of the space in front of the defender so that he can then get into the space behind the defender.
For my last ‘Anatomy of a Goal’ piece, I tried to emphasise the importance of one touch in opening up a defence. In that case, it was Ovie Ejaria’s deft flick to create momentum to Reading’s attack in the build-up to Yakou Meite’s opener at Sheffield Wednesday. Puscas’ touch here is just as intricate and certainly more crucial - allowing him to sneak in behind Halme.
That touch may not have come off exactly as Puscas wanted it to or not, but the effect was certainly deliberate. After all, he’s fully aware of the space both in front and behind the defender - and what he needs to do to exploit it.
The touch is lovely in itself, but the overall spin of his body is what turns a good chance into a great one. Puscas knows that, having got into that space, he needs to then be as central as possible to give himself a better view of goal. Because he gets so far around Halme - pretty much 180 degrees in fact - he’s then baring down on goal, not tacking a little bit further to the left to avoid the defender. Had that happened, he may well have been forced onto his weaker left foot or been shut down by a defender.
Puscas’ second touch does two things: it continues him on that central direction which was facilitated by the spin, but it also gives him just the right amount of momentum. A weaker touch means he then needs to control the ball again before finishing, potentially making it more difficult to find the net.
But Puscas’ actual second touch gives him the time to get away from the defender, set himself with a little shimmy and then slot home. That second touch makes his third (the finish) all the more straightforward.
All in all, it’s a really clever, well-executed individual goal. But the encouraging thing here is that Puscas has scored similar goals before, demonstrating that those qualities he showed on Saturday were real strengths of his - not just a one-off.
Jordan Cottle aptly pointed out on Twitter that Puscas’ goal against Barnsley was similar to the one he scored against Queens Park Rangers in Mark Bowen’s second game. In both cases, Puscas burst into space down the left channel (albeit in different ways) before slotting home with his right foot, showing some really neat technique to open his body up before guiding the ball past the goalie into the far corner.
I’ll add in another goal here, albeit for different reasons: Puscas’ second at Wigan Athletic in November. Although it didn’t come in the left-hand channel, so didn’t require a shimmy to set himself for a right-footed shot across the goalie, it did require strength, balance and turn of pace to work the opportunity.
Note in the footage below how, like against Barnsley, Puscas finds space in front of the defender before quickly spinning into the space behind.
Side note: I love how Lucas Joao appears to be celebrating before Puscas has even pulled the trigger.
Finally, and probably his best goal, the opener against Cardiff City. It's noticeably different to the previous examples, but Puscas still has to beat a defender to get into space and fashion the chance. Again, he does that with a quick turn of pace, and a decent amount of upper body strength.
What it all boils down to
The key point I want to make here, particularly from the Barnsley, Wigan and Cardiff examples, is that George Puscas is capable of scoring individual goals that Reading’s other strikers simply can’t. Those goals required a mix of spatial awareness, strength, close control and finishing to turn a decent opening into a dangerous chance and then a goal. Who else has that all-round skill set?
Lucas Joao has the strength but not the turn of pace, Sam Baldock has the turn of pace but not the strength, and although Yakou Meite does well in both regards, he lacks the deftness of touch - particularly in tight areas. That is admittedly an overly simplified summary of their strengths and weaknesses, but it demonstrates the important point: none are as well rounded as Puscas.
Of course, he has thus far not shown that well-rounded ability anywhere near consistently enough. It’s taken him plenty of time to settle into English football, not least in being able to regularly find those pockets of space in front and behind a defence, and improving in that regard will be an ongoing process for the foreseeable future.
But his potential is clear, and puts him above the level of Reading’s other current options. Making the best use of that potential should be a priority.