Building from the back is underrated.
When you tighten up in defence, players more advanced up the pitch will have faith they can win a football match. Under Nigel Adkins, this proved to be a problem in spells – we just couldn’t keep a clean sheet despite some promising attacking play.
Despite finishing 14th last season, Reading conceded the second lowest number of goals out of any Championship team outside the top nine. Only Wigan Athletic conceded less – and this will give the Royals a bit of confidence going in to next season despite some of the results at the end of the last campaign.
However, a lot has changed since the final game of last season (you can say that again).
Here’s a list of the defenders who have been released this summer: Tyler Blackett, Gabriel Osho, Jordan Obita, Chris Gunter, Andre Burley, Akinwale Odimayo, Emmanuel Obamakinwa, Roberto Nditi, Ramarni Medford-Smith, Marcel Elva-Fountaine and Lexus Beeden. Have I missed anyone?!
This leaves us quite a bit lighter at the back, even though some were nowhere near the first team.
You might be asking this question at this point: who do we even have left?
At left back, the departures of Jordan Obita and Tyler Blackett has left us with Omar Richards and Imari Samuels fighting a starting spot. That’s why I was surprised by the departure of Ramarni Medford-Smith, knowing that Obita and Blackett were likely to depart.
Medford-Smith is actually 21 now – and with only one senior Royals appearance to his name – perhaps I should have been less shocked. Samuels’ call-up to the England U17 squad will also give us hope he can step up to the mark in an emergency. Despite this, I don’t think his potential will be enough for Veljko Paunovic not to bring in another left back this window.
One thing is needed from this potential signing: experience. An Ian Harte-esque (perhaps with a bit more pace) figure at the back providing competition to Richards will not only help to instil more authority in the dressing room, they could also be responsible for ensuring both existing left backs fulfil their potential – because there’s no doubt both academy graduates can go on to do great things. Another academy graduate who can also fill in at left back is Jeriel Dorsett, although he is tipped as more of a centre back right now.
Being careful of injuries will be key – and increases the need for a signing in this position. Richards will need to step up and build consistency, another thing that will be crucial.
Moving on to right back, we seem just a little more secure in that position. Andy Yiadom and Tennai Watson are the two obvious senior options, although the latter’s progression in the last few years can be questioned.
Would I be upset with them two battling it out going in to next season though? Not at all – and if Watson can replicate the form that allowed him to shine against Arsenal – then it can only be good for Yiadom who will know he needs to keep performing up to expectations.
There were murmurings that Watson was on his way out - but can we really let him go at this point?
Understand Tennai Watson is not in Mark Bowen's plans and the club are looking to send him out on loan.#ReadingFC— Sam Rourke (@samrourke_) August 21, 2020
Andy Rinomhota and Felipe Araruna can also fill in where needed – but the last thing we need are square pegs in round holes. Rinomhota will be needed in the middle, leaving Araruna as possible second choice if Watson does go.
First choice right back Yiadom brings both quality and leadership to the backline along with Michael Morrison – and both will be key to our success next season. Paul Clement’s finest moment at the club was when we bought the former Barnsley captain in on a free transfer – what a move that was.
His presence makes Chris Gunter’s departure a bit less important, although the Welshman was a constant figure at the club for eight years.
Another monumental figure in the dressing room is Morrison, who is proving to be one of the best signings the club has made in years.
At the start of last season, we would have thought he would only play sporadically, with Liam Moore and Matt Miazga forming a solid partnership at the business end of 2018/19 – but the former Birmingham captain has stepped up to the plate and will be important again next season. We can only pray he stays injury-free again.
Someone who is less experienced is Tom McIntyre, who proved to be a shining light in the Royals’ team at the end of last season. His partnership with Morrison ensured we kept three consecutive clean sheets against Luton Town, Huddersfield and Charlton Athletic - and could be in line to start for the Royals quite frequently in the next campaign.
Gabriel Osho’s departure is a shame – but it’s vital that we now hold on to the Scottish youth international who is tipped to become a future captain at the club. I can definitely see it – but our formation could play a role in how much game time he gets. Lining up with three at the back can only boost his chances, especially with the departure of Matt Miazga.
The expiration of Miazga’s loan could also benefit Tom Holmes, who made his surprise debut under Jaap Stam in March 2018. Whether he’s up to the task of competing in the Championship remains to be seen - but there’s every chance we could keep him for the upcoming season if his performance against Tottenham Hotspur is anything to go by.
Club captain Liam Moore’s future is uncertain – but I’m sure we will be able to replace him if he goes. Former Royal Rob Dickie, who recently signed for QPR, is one player we could have made a move for - but we would probably have had to offload Moore first.
It could make sense for the club to get his wages off the payroll, especially when we look at the £40m in outgoings. It’s doubtful a major offer will come in for him in this current climate though – but it will be an option we need to consider if there is an approach.
What he does seem to generate is an enormous amount of team spirit - and he is just one of three or four leaders we have at the back. We just need him to get that 2016/17 form back - because he was a shining light in his first season at the club.
Having Moore, Morrison and McIntyre at the back is a good mix of leadership, experience and youth – but do we need to think about having strength in depth?
If we are to play three at the back, the Royals will probably need to make another signing in central defence, whilst trying not to block the path of Holmes.
One position where we do have depth is in the goalkeeping department. Rafael came in at the start of last season to provide a safe pair of hands – with Luke Southwood, Sam Walker, Coniah Boyce-Clarke and also in contention to make the matchday squad next season.
Even though the latter is likely to go out on loan or stay in the U23s, you can’t rule anything out, especially with the potential he has and the teams he has attracted in the past. This is one position we don’t need to strengthen in my opinion.
In answer to the headline, we do have a decent backline to build from. Morrison and Yiadom provide leadership and a wealth of Championship experience, McIntyre and Richards bring that Reading identity to the fore and if Samuels is given a chance at some point, it could be an amazing opportunity for him to make his mark.
It would be wise to bring in another left back though, someone with experience to fill the void left by senior departures. Depending on what Paunovic chooses to do with Watson, we may also need to bring in a man on the right side of defence to compete with Yiadom.
With the current financial situation we’re in though, I think it’s worth the risk to gamble on Watson as a backup, in the hope he performs to a similar standard he did back in 2016/17 under Jaap Stam.
Another player’s future that is uncertain is Liam Moore. He would almost certainly be replaced – especially with Gabriel Osho leaving. I don’t think the captain’s departure would be the end of the world – but Paunovic may not want to rock the boat with next season coming up shortly (didn’t stop Mr Dai though to be fair).
If we do press on and play three at the back, we may need one or two more centre backs regardless of existing players leaving.
Conceding 58 goals in 46 league games last season ensured our goal difference was positive at the end of the campaign, even after the 4-1 home loss against Swansea City. Our defence will be just as important as our attacking firepower in 2020/21 and if we can tighten up further, we could push up the table.
A few reinforcements could help us on our mission, although we may need to rely on the likes of Imari Samuels and Tom Holmes to step up on the odd occasion in our current situation.
Departures will also determine who we need to bring in - and it will be interesting to see where we’re at at the end of the window.
One thing is for certain: Veljko Paunovic needs to keep building on the good defensive work Mark Bowen started.