Do we really need another centre back?
It’s the question that seemingly every Reading fan has been asking on Twitter in the days since it emerged that the club would be signing Lewis Gibson. Besides the odd appearance at left back, the 20 year-old is very much a centre half, and that’s almost certainly where he’ll be lining up for Reading for the duration of his season-long loan spell.
Reading have snapped up a player with plenty of potential. As Patrick Boyland noted in our Town End piece, the 20 year-old is “highly rated by some key decision-makers” at Everton. “The hope is that, after a good spell at Fleetwood in the second half of last season, he can push on and play regular games in the Championship before coming back to compete for a place in the Everton team,” Boyland explained.
Gibson certainly impressed at Fleetwood. Ryan Lea from Cods Chat calls the youngster a “huge success” who “transformed our defence when he joined”. “He’s one of the best loan signings we’ve seen at Fleetwood in recent times and it would be no surprise to see him feature for Everton in the Premier League and follow up his youth success with England with a senior cap,” Lea recalls. “It would be no surprise to see him as a regular starter [for Reading], or to move back to Everton early.”
Gibson’s ability isn’t in question. And yet, he comes into a Reading squad that’s already well stocked for centre backs.
Despite summer exits for Matt Miazga, Tyler Blackett, Gabriel Osho, Akin Odimayo and Andre Burley, Reading still had four senior centre halves on the books before Gibson’s arrival: starting pair Michael Morrison and Liam Moore, plus academy Toms McIntyre and Holmes. That goes up to six if you include youngsters Jeriel Dorsett and Nelson Abbey, both of whom have made their debut this year.
There’s no shortage of numbers at the back, and no obvious weakness among the available options. Morrison (32) is a veteran at this level and a worthy contender for 2019/20’s player of the season and Moore (27) is in the prime of his career, while McIntyre (21) and Holmes (20) have some experience while still very much having time on their sides. Dorsett (18) and Abbey (17) are the longer-term prospects.
Despite his own ability, adding 20 year-old Gibson wouldn’t appear to address a clear problem that currently exists with Reading’s defenders. If the Royals are this season to play a back four, which looks likely on the basis of Veljko Paunovic’s first few games in charge, I’d be very happy with the main quartet we already had.
However, that assumes all those defenders fit the playing style Paunovic is developing at Reading. Although his tactically inconsistent spell at Chicago Fire would suggest there’ll be no single approach at Reading, Pauno has described Gibson as fitting the “philosophy we are implementing out on the training pitch”, while Gibson himself said they share the same view on how to play. Those comments suggest Gibson has been brought in due to his specific profile.
So what style will we see? The Liverpool Echo reported at the end of August that Everton’s plan was to send Gibson “on loan to a club who mirror the style of play Carlo Ancelotti wants to bring to Goodison Park”: pressing football. That was originally set to be Huddersfield Town, but ended up being Reading instead.
At Reading’s end, Josh Laurent mentioned in a recent interview with The Football League Paper that Paunovic wanted the Royals to “press teams the right way”. Admittedly that’s a broad statement, and how that develops in practice is to be seen, but - in conjunction with what we know about Everton’s plans - to me it strongly suggests there’s an intention to develop some kind of pressing system at Reading.
Such an approach requires a specific type of centre half. When out of possession, Reading’s defenders would likely be playing a high line, requiring them to possess the mobility to take on forwards getting in behind. In possession, they’ll need the technical ability to keep the ball when Reading have won it back.
Reading have defenders with such a profile in Moore, McIntyre and Holmes, but not in Morrison, who’s less mobile than his fellow centre backs and not as comfortable in possession. The first of those deficiencies, the more pressing concern (pun unintended) of the two, was less exposed last season due to the Royals typically playing a low block rather than winning the ball back higher up. It would however be more problematic if Reading play a higher line this season.
Look at things from that perspective and signing Gibson makes more sense. Given that Everton will want him to play regularly this season, I’d imagine that the plan is for him to generally start alongside Moore, who fits the same template of a mobile defender who’s comfortable in possession. Although Morrison will still be a useful player, especially given Reading’s need for depth across the course of the season, he’s less well suited to this style of football.
This signing does still screw over players that don’t really deserve it. Morrison was one of Reading’s best players last season and still has plenty to offer in a generally young team, while McIntyre and Holmes would have had fair hopes of regular first-team football to continue their development. After I started writing this (but before publishing it), it was reported that McIntyre has been earmarked for a loan move away now that Gibson’s joined.
The elephant in the room though is the level of ambition that’s likely guiding transfer activity like this and where that ambition will leave us. Reading could well have tried to change their tactical approach by promoting McIntyre or Holmes instead of signing Gibson, but - like with Matt Miazga last summer - the Royals have opted to make a short-term improvement to the squad rather than develop a long-term asset.
In this case, we’ve certainly added a defender who has plenty of potential, and I’m excited to see how well Gibson will do for us this season. Given the glowing reviews from Everton and Fleetwood, I’d back him to be a success at Reading. But although there’s plenty to be optimistic about with Gibson’s arrival, it doesn’t come without drawbacks.