Teamsheet consistency is a wonderful thing. It’s often the sign of a working formula - a manager’s dream.
At Reading in recent years, it seems like we have not had a consistent lineup, or a winning formula for that matter. Despite this, I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel - and we may just be getting back to where we want to be. This summer will be vital in continuing our good work.
Although building from the back has always been important for any club worth their salt, our midfield and attack also need attention. Goals win games - so let us take a look at where we are now in terms of our midfield and attack.
Two of last summer’s signings are both tussling for the sole striker spot as we approach the end of the season. Lucas Joao and George Puscas have had a mixed time in Berkshire so far, although the former’s return to the side after a spell out with injury has excited supporters.
Like every position, we need to determine what we really need from our striker. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but we need someone who can play up front on their own. This often means creating chances out of nothing and making yourself a nuisance against defenders.
At the moment, Joao is ahead of Puscas in the pecking order. That presents us with a problem - but why? Firstly, we have made a significant investment in Puscas across an extended period of time. He is at the stage of his career where we needs to be starting and getting as much game time as he can. Being benched can only knock his confidence and reduce his value if we decide to cash in on him within the next couple of years.
Secondly, will he even make a meaningful impact as a substitute? He is able score goals - his hat-trick away at Wigan Athletic shows that - but is he effective up front on his own? If his appearance against Stoke City is anything to go by, maybe not. A change of system when he comes on could do him the world of good - but should we really be adjusting our tactics just to accommodate Puscas?
It felt like we were crying out for a like-for-like replacement for Joao on Saturday and Puscas just could not quite fill that void. Maybe that’s quite harsh, considering Puscas has only spent less than a season in English football - but we need to climb our way up the table by whatever means.
You could put Sam Baldock in the same bracket of not slotting straight in to the system we play with Joao - and Mark Bowen will have to make several important decisions this summer.
If Joao (and it’s a big if) can stay fit - he could establish himself as a Reading starter for next season and beyond. He struggled to nail down a spot at Sheffield Wednesday, now could be his time to become a force in the Championship.
Another player who has excited Reading fans this season is Ovie Ejaria, with the Liverpool loanee expected to make his move to the Madejski permanent this summer. Not only has he been a regular starter - but he has also become a key player at the club and a man who can single-handedly get bums on seats when fans are allowed back in stadiums.
After a disappointing time with Rangers, his performances under Jose Gomes in the second half of the 2018/19 season helped to revive his career, making the reported £3m price tag an absolute bargain.
Despite playing on the wing numerous times, his best position is arguably in the centre. On his day, he can be unplayable and even if he does suffer from little spells of poor form in the future, I think it’s worth the sacrifice because when he’s at his best, he can change games.
For me, there is no doubt about his spot in the starting lineup for next season, providing we actually do go on and sign him.
Yakou Meite has also solidified his spot in the first team - and is literally the personification of the term ‘marginal gain’ - something I talked a bit about in one of my previous articles. Not only can he operate well on the wing, he can also score goals.
Relying on Lucas Joao would be foolish – and that is what makes Meite such an important player for the Royals. As I have said before, his first touch can be questionable but his signing in 2016 was a masterstroke and after developing both at the club and FC Sochaux on loan, we are now bearing the fruit of that shrewd signing.
Check out his cross for Joao’s goal against Stoke too – that is exactly what we need from him.
Joao, Ejaria and Meite – that’s three of our front six sorted. After that, things start to become a little more complicated, especially when you look at the left wing.
Jordan Obita, Omar Richards and Michael Olise are all options. The latter was especially impressive alongside Ovie Ejaria in the centre last week – and it could be argued he plays a lot better in the centre like Ejaria does. If we do play one of those three in left wing, it gives us flexibility in two possible ways.
Michael Olise starting could mean him and Ejaria can make the switch to and from central attacking midfield and left wing. That sense of unpredictability can always work in our advantage. The 18-year-old can also track back well - and I think it was the Leeds United game at Elland Road earlier on in the season where he really showed that.
Alternatively, Obita and Richards can switch from full back to the wing. Both can cross a ball but do they provide a constant attacking threat like Modou Barrow? The Gambian used to terrify defences down the left with his pace and ability to get in behind Championship defences. Unfortunately, Barrow is likely to leave this summer in a sad end to his Reading spell.
If I’m honest, I don’t think Obita has the ability to tear defences apart with his pace and it remains to be seen whether Richards could do that. There’s no doubt both link up well, having done so in a friendly against Portsmouth, but they need to be effective attacking wise as well as defensively.
One of the two is likely to start at full back next season, can the other make it in to the first team lineup as well?
Whoever plays there will need to establish themselves as a starter. If we can nail down that spot, I really do think we can maintain consistency in our starting 11. Hopefully, that can translate on to the pitch.
However, our set up against Stoke was a concern for me.
Although it was a pleasure seeing Olise and Ejaria operating in the middle together - there will always be concern when John Swift is the deepest lying midfielder in the lineup. Although he has adapted well to a more defensive role alongside the likes of Andy Rinomhota and Pele, if we are hit on the counter with a similar set up to Saturday, it puts a major amount of pressure on our defence.
Swift should not be dealing with that on his own - especially when his main focus should be on being a playmaker. When he is at his best, he can have an impact on games like Ovie Ejaria does. When both are on top form, we are a force to be reckoned with in the second tier.
We can only hope Swift decides to stay with us for years to come - and pray that he can stay fit. There is no doubt he has a spot in my preferred starting lineup.
Now we approach another selection dilemma. Who should play alongside him? Pele and Rinomhota have been battling it out for a spot this season, although the AS Monaco loanee is unlikely to return to Berkshire after his loan spell ends.
This gives Rinomhota a real chance to secure his place in the first team for many years to come. His rise from non-league is a great story - and he can help to provide much-needed defensive solidity alongside Swift in the middle. The midfielder’s status as an academy graduate is a bonus - and I would really like to see him become a long-serving player at the club.
Just from this article, I have been able to selection five of our six players in midfield and attack that could be solid starters for us next season. Consistency can help players build an understanding - something that was key for both of our Championship promotion campaigns in 05/06 and 11/12.
Here is my midfield and attack so far: Rinomhota and Swift in defensive midfield, with Ejaria in central attacking midfield, Meite on the right wing and Joao up top.
Currently, a left winger is missing from that lineup and I want you to suggest which player you would like to see establish himself as a starter in that position.
Do you like the Obita and Richards combination down the left? Is Olise catching your eye and are you willing to push him and Ejaria out of the centre at times to accommodate both of them? Or do you think we should make a signing to replace Mo Barrow and the impact he had when he was playing for the Royals?
You may even decide to scrap my rigid 4-2-3-1 with Rinomhota and Swift at the base and play both Ejaria and Olise in the middle again like last weekend. Perhaps even switching it up to a two up front to accommodate both Puscas and Joao.
Now is the time to have your say.