Like so many summers past, the importance of good recruitment this summer feels huge. With the backdrop of Covid, financial uncertainty and potential key player sales, more than ever, we need a clear strategy on and off the pitch. We’ve got an unbalanced squad, multiple players out of contract and a raft of loan players that will also leave. Money will be tight, and we will need to assess where in the squad we can cut corners or promote youth.
The club needs to align on a way of playing and recruit for it. Crucially, the manager needs to follow through with that way of playing or the recruitment will have been in vain. That all begs the question: is Mark Bowen the man to trust with all of that?
His first few months saw us move clear of relegation and won him a new contract. There was even a brief flirt with a play-off push but, much like a virtual Zoom date, that too ended in a lot of talk and not much action. Whilst I maintain relegation is unlikely, we’re now in danger of sleepwalking our way into another summer of apathy and ill feeling towards a manager. A feeling all too familiar.
I could, and one day may, write at length about what I consider to be a tremendous lack of structure and leadership at the top of this club. To put all our issues at Bowen’s door would be grossly unfair, but his future is likely to be up for consideration long before anyone above him, so I think his suitability is worth unpacking.
As I have already touched on, this summer the club needs a clear plan on the pitch to guide the recruitment off it. So, what does a Mark Bowen team look like? He’s been manager for nine months and I’m not sure I know. He’s pragmatic, likes a low block, dabbles in man-marking and talks a lot about second balls, but I think we are still some distance away from seeing a Mark Bowen team.
What I think I can say with some certainty is that what we’ve seen this season, the good and the bad, is not really a Bowen team. There has not been much sense of identity in the side under Bowen. Instead it has felt like he’s doing what needs to be done with the players he has. Publicly he has spoken of grit, effort and a team difficult to beat. He’s talked about wanting bravery from the players, to play in key moments and to stand up to the test. I’m afraid I’ve seen little in the way of bravery in the way he sets his team up.
As for what a Bowen team could look like, his frequent attempts to try 4-4-2 perhaps hint at a preferred formation, and his early moves away from possession suggest a style different from what we’re currently watching. Jose Gomes was all silk and no steel. Bowen has managed to balance the two for long enough to keep us safe, but I think that is despite, rather than because of, his natural tendencies. His shoehorning of technical, possession-loving players into a rigid, defensive formation has had its moments of success but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the longer he has worked with these players the poorer their output has been.
Could it really be that in those early months the team had picked up enough from Bowen to shore the defence but hadn’t picked up enough to stifle the attack? Did we hit a sweet spot of learning one style and forgetting another? Naturally that would be never sustainable if it is the truth. Perhaps that is too neat as life is rarely that simple.
That is not to say he hasn’t been hamstrung by the squad available. The players signed last summer, and the remnants of Jaap Stam’s team, were brought in to keep possession and pick holes in opposition defences. We emptied the squad of wingers last summer in preparation for a tactical setup where fullbacks/wingbacks provide the width. We filled the squad with players that want the ball to feet and not in behind. Even our breakthrough young player, Michael Olise, is in that same mould. I think Bowen has had to sacrifice his own beliefs and preferred way of playing in order to win games with the squad he has.
Bowen does deserve credit for managing to pick up points with a squad that I think is talented but unbalanced and unsuitable for the football he wants to play. He also deserves criticism for being unable to adapt when plan A (Lucas Joao) is unavailable. He may get the chance, this summer, to recruit the players to play the way he wants to, but what does that mean for the players that are already here? Few of the current squad seem suited to a flat 4-4-2 (if that is Bowen’s preferred direction).
Crucially, Reading’s most valuable assets financially - which in the current climate must be a consideration - appear unsuited to Bowen’s football. What is the point in securing Ejaria for £3 million - which is still a bargain - to then play football that won’t suit him? What is the point of developing a talent like Olise, whose future sale could be so important to the club, to then play football that won’t suit him?
Is it possible to fit players like this into a more pragmatic setup? Of course, look at how Chris Hughton used Anthony Knockaert at Brighton. What was required though was for the other nine outfield players to be more conventional and tactically rigid. To do that there will have to be an overhaul, and even then, it’s going to leave expensive, talented players out of the starting XI. I’m not sure I’m too excited to see what a Bowen team looks like.
Ultimately the decision rests with the club. Whatever has come before and whatever is due to play out in the remainder of this season, the club must decide this summer whether to stick or twist. Find a manager capable of harnessing the talent here or keep Bowen and recruit for style that is at odds with our prized assets.