As the restart of the Championship season looms ever closer, Mark Bowen will have a dilemma to contend with. With the likes of Lucas Joao and Tom McIntyre returning from injury, Reading will have almost all of their options at their disposal (besides the injured Andy Yiadom and Lucas Boye, who has recently reportedly contracted coronavirus), following the Royals’ three-and-a-half month enforced lay-off.
Reading’s last game before the global pandemic forced a halt to football was a clash at St Andrews, where they ran out 3-1 winners against a previously ‘unbeaten in 10 league games’ Birmingham City side. It remains to be seen whether the momentum garnered from Reading’s final two league wins (a decent run of form considering the nature of the Championship) will carry over into the final nine. However, with a favourable (and heavily congested) fixture list, a quick start would provide all the thrust needed for a strong end to a topsy-turvy season, so what team would be best suited for that?
A pretty straightforward decision for Mark Bowen. Rafael Cabral’s entry into English football has been both solid and relatively error-free. Sprinkling in a few spectacular moments over the Christmas period worthy of projecting him into the conversation for being the best goalkeeper in the division, his experience, calmness and downright class make him one of the first names on the team sheet.
Ending the regular stage of the season with four in defence, and Liam Moore on the sidelines, makes this particular area an interesting conundrum for the gaffer. With the skipper originally sitting out due to illness, his stay on the bench was extended by the solid performances of both Matt Miazga and Michael Morrison. One goal shipped in the two league games they were partnered at the back (and that being a mistake from Miazga, misjudging a long ball over the top at St Andrews) certainly justified the adage of ‘never change a winning team’.
Personally, I believe Miazga and Morrison to be Reading’s best central defensive partnership, and a more-than-able deputy in Liam Moore on the bench to be a positive. Whether replacing an injured starter, or adding extra protection in a change to a back three to see out a result (as we saw at Birmingham), Moore would have his own role to play for the remainder of the season, even if it does not involve him playing from the start.
Of course, there remains the fourth central defender, Tom McIntyre. A fan favourite, game time in a (surely) mid-table side should be afforded to the young man at some point over the next few weeks. This though presents the dilemma of fitting four central defenders into two (or three) spaces. If it becomes apparent that mid table will be the name of the game for Reading this season, then perhaps rotation would be the best way forwards in determining who will occupy the berths next season, with Gabriel Osho too having a case for opportunity in the league.
The full-back positions, however, aren’t so much of a quandary. Andy Yiadom’s injury means Chris Gunter will almost certainly take the right back spot, while we can expect Omar Richards to remain at left back for the Stoke City clash. Thanks to a whopping nine games in 32 days though, we will also be seeing Jordan Obita (and perhaps Tyler Blackett) slotting in at times, showcasing the depth the Royals have in this particular position.
One way in which Bowen has exercised this strength (albeit mainly in the cup) has been to play one of these left backs in their regular position and one at left wing. All three possess the ability to carry the ball forwards and enter into one-on-one situations and so, added to the impressive link-up play seen from crosses (see Omar Richards’ goal vs Cardiff City and, more recently, against Portsmouth on Sunday afternoon) and the capability to swap positions throughout, Reading have a subtle but potent strength on their left-hand side.
Be it in a wide position or through the middle, Ovie Ejaria will be a key instrument for Reading come the restart, as will be my personal player of the season so far, John Swift. His move from a number 10 role at Christmas time back to a holding role, due to the injury of Lucas Joao and the tactical reshuffle that ensued, gave him license to create attacks, while also being able to drift forwards when either Pele or Andy Rinomhota would sit back - no better demonstrated than his magnificent performance against Premier League (and Europa League-chasing) Sheffield United.
A side with both of these magicians at the core has need for some steel, something Rinomhota provides in abundance. Energy, dynamism and someone who simply encapsulates the ‘all-round’ midfielder, Rinomhota has worked hard to take his place back in the team ahead of Pele. With the on-loan Monaco man an able deputy, as well as the ‘Plan B’ of Charlie Adam and his more direct creativeness, Reading have strength in depth in the middle of the park.
If Reading were to continue with the team that started against Birmingham in early March, then a wide berth for Ejaria, with mature youngster Michael Olise at the tip of the midfield trio, would be the expected choice for Bowen on Saturday. The versatility this offers, with both Olise and Ejaria able to switch positions throughout, is understated due to the similarities of both players, but their talent make it so comfortable to occur. Of course, Obita in the wide position ahead of Richards has been an option exercised by Bowen recently and so is another alternative, as are the likes of both Garath McCleary and Ayub Timbe, two out-and-out wingers.
The return of Lucas Joao may make the recent line-ups/tactics used by Bowen useless for both Reading fans and opposition sides in working out how the Royals will play. When Joao was leading the line, the base of Reading’s midfield consisted of Pele and Adam, with Swift further forwards in the 10 role, and Ejaria out on the left. George Puscas’ injury at Barnsley in December and Sam Baldock succumbing against Derby County made some of these tactical changes distinctly easier, but Bowen has always found a way to adapt.
When Swift was suspended, Baldock played as a second striker in a 4-4-2, and when he himself was out of the team, Bowen settled on his 4-3-3 (Yakou Meite a fixture on the right wing throughout). With Joao now likely to start, it’ll be interesting to see what will be Bowen’s setup of choice: a front two with Baldock (or more likely Puscas), a 4-3-3 with Joao as a loan striker, or even a 4-3-3 with Joao in the 10 role.
Either way, both Joao and Puscas can be more than threatening on their day and, before lockdown, Puscas himself had been shifting back into the player we know he can be. Netting against Barnsley, West Brom, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, while looking vastly improved at St Andrews, it may be unfair to suggest that Joao will just walk back into this side.
So how should Reading set up?
For Bowen, realising that changing a winning team may be unwise, while still wanting to field his best side, may present a conundrum for him. Meeting halfway, with Joao replacing Puscas at the top of a 4-3-3, while sticking with a midfield trio of Swift, Rinomhota and Olise in front of a back four may provide a happy medium.
Regardless, Bowen has more than enough options at his disposal, and a positive end to the season, with minutes in the tank for the future players of the club, while also being able to display quality in every area of the pitch (helped by the introduction of two additional substitutes), could give Reading a boost ahead of next season and a potentially grim financial summer.
My team: Rafael; Gunter, Miazga, Morrison, Richards; Swift, Rinomhota, Olise; Ejaria, Joao, Meite
Subs: Walker, Moore, McIntyre, Obita, Pele, Timbe, McCleary, Puscas, Baldock.