In 2011/12, Brian McDermott managed to get the very most out of his squad to gain promotion to the Premier League. As a team, we were not the strongest in the division, with the likes of Southampton and West Ham United also fighting for automatic promotion. We utilised our strengths to our advantage - possibly the main reason why we went on such an amazing run in the second half of the season and finished top of the tree.
Since then, we have had many talented players at our disposal but, apart from 2016/17 under Jaap Stam, we have failed to perform above (or even in line with) expectations. I think it’s fair to say we have not squeezed the very best out of our squad - now is the time for that to change.
One marginal gain will not change a lot, but several small changes could make a major difference for the Royals and this is how they could do it.
Ensuring we have goalscorers across the pitch
Have we already achieved this objective? Perhaps so.
We have a decent amount of quality up front, and the return of Lucas Joao is a real boost for us. Before his injury, he showed a lot of promise and I back him to go on and make an impact in our remaining league games this season. His career never fully took off at Sheffield Wednesday, and I desperately want things to work out for him in Berkshire.
Joao’s arrival was overshadowed by the George Puscas deal a couple of days later, but he now has a real chance to prove his worth in the Championship. The Romanian has had a mixed time in England so far. In his first season, he has scored nine league goals, including an incredible five-minute hat trick away to Wigan Athletic. Can we possibly fit him and Joao in the same starting line-up? There’s every chance we could and, if the two gel together well, it could pay dividends for the Royals.
That is not even considering Yakou Meite, who has also been a reliable source of goals this season. Despite his poor first touch, he has been a very good addition to our squad and we have to commend the likes of Jaap Stam and Brian Tevreden for signing him back in 2016.
Joao, Puscas and Meite can all fit in the same starting lineup - all bring a goalscoring threat, even if the latter plays out wide.
Do I think we currently have a 20-goal-per-season striker in our squad? I’m not so sure. The last time I queried this, it was about Yann Kermorgant before the 2016/17 season, so another infamous moment could be on the cards for me! However, Puscas is still adapting to English football, Joao is settling in Berkshire after a mixed time in Sheffield and Meite is often deployed on the wing.
This makes it vital we have an attacking threat all over the pitch. You could also make the case therefore that Michael Morrison should be playing for his aerial threat from set pieces. His time at Birmingham City demonstrated how lethal he can be, even as a centre back.
Two of our best players, Ovie Ejaria and John Swift, can also provide an attacking threat in midfield - both in terms of creativity and scoring goals. Even though Mark Bowen may only use four of the five attackers mentioned, considering both Joao and Puscas may not start, it still means we have four real threats in front of goal. Make it five if you count Michael Morrison.
However, they all need adequate service and that brings me on to my next point.
A threat on the wings
I sound like I’m stuck in 2012, but I really do miss Jimmy Kebe and Jobi McAnuff. They both scared Championship full backs - and that is why I was so happy to see Modou Barrow and Sone Aluko join in 2017.
However, I feel like we haven’t had an exciting threat down the wing since Garath McCleary’s struggles with injury and consistency, with the exception of Barrow of course. It was a pleasure to see the Gambian winger play in 2017/18. He’s the type of winger who puts you on the edge of your seat every time he starts running. Even though some will criticise him for his lack of end product, he manages to skip past players and get into threatening positions - and was partly responsible for keeping us up in his first season at the club.
On the other end of the scale, Aluko is a shadow of the player he once was at Fulham - it’s a shame to see his decline because he could have been such a good player for us. Both him and Barrow on top of their game on either wing would have been exciting to watch.
However, now is the time to look to the future.
Michael Olise will be making his case to start on the left for the remainder of the season and beyond, with Ejaria central and Meite on the right, but is his best position out wide? Ejaria could also play out wide, but some people (including myself) like to see him in the centre controlling and providing a threat down the middle.
If Barrow does go in the summer, it would be ideal if we could bring in a replacement that could terrify Championship defences like he did. Whether Ayub Masika (if he extends his loan) can fill that void remains to be seen, but we need someone like Barrow to give us an option on the wing.
This is without mentioning our full backs. Both Tyler Blackett and Jordan Obita have delivered some amazing balls from the left-hand side during their time at the club. The latter showed that as recently as Sunday when his cross was converted by Omar Richards in a friendly against Portsmouth.
A good crosser like Obita can be a game changer - that’s why we need to keep hold of him and extend his contract - with Blackett looking more and more likely to leave this summer.
It would also be good if Andy Yiadom can perfect his crossing skills when he returns from his hamstring injury. Having players who can cross on both wings will be a good asset to us – and I honestly think Yiadom is one of the best right backs in the division.
Some of the link-up play between Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary, especially in 2013/14, was sumptuous. If our full backs and wingers can link up in a similar fashion, it will give us a real threat down the sides. We can only be a goalscoring threat if the service is on point - this could help in that department.
Let’s hope Mark Bowen opts to play wingers for the foreseeable future.
Academy graduates for an identity?
You’re probably going to ask how many times I’m going to mention academy graduates. I can’t help it I promise! I always bang on about having an identity as a club and how important I personally think it is. It can help supporters relate to their football club and even goes as far as giving the team a direction. Without this, it can be quite disheartening.
Over the past few years, have we really tried to form an identity for ourselves? In 2016/17, our Dutch revolution under Jaap Stam excited all of us, but what’s happened since? When Nigel Howe came back as CEO in 2018, we have tried to form a relationship with the local community again. There’s also no doubt that the club have always highlighted when an academy player makes their debut.
However, there is only so much you can do to build an identity when there have been so many incomings and outgoings over the past few seasons - both managerially and in terms of players. We also have no director of football at the time of writing - the person whose job is to steer a club in one direction or another.
Despite this, we can use the academy to our advantage, providing we do it in a sensible way.
Omar Richards and Andy Rinomhota have already been heavily involved with the first team this summer. It is great to see the pair do well - and academy involvement does not stop there. Michael Olise and Tom McIntyre are also in and around the first team, with the former establishing himself as a starter under Mark Bowen in the games before the pandemic shut football down.
The advantage of using a selection of academy graduates in the same lineup is the fact they could have already built up an understanding from their time in the under-23s. Having a team that’s on the same wavelength in crucial - so including a number of them in the senior matchday squad could prove to be fruitful for Mark Bowen.
The other young players who could be given a chance by Mark Bowen to shine will need to step up to the plate if they want to remain in the first team squad. Even if they provide just an injection of youthful energy, Bowen may feel vindicated by his decision to take a chance and give those who wouldn’t usually be involved the chance to shine.
That injection of energy is another marginal gain that could be taken from including more academy players - along with ensuring that players are on the same wavelength. Unless there are key departures in the summer, I can’t see Reading rebuilding again this summer, which could give us a real chance to also build that identity we’ve needed for a long time.
If we can retain some of our key players and add a bit of quality in the next transfer window, we could do very well next season...