Happy New Year! 2020 is officially behind us and the world is back to normal… Ok, well not quite, but our Royals are starting the year in the play-off places, meaning Reading fans are probably the most comfortable they’ve been with their team’s position on January 1 in years.
One man who won’t be comfortable though is Veljko Paunovic. It’s no secret that the owners are looking for promotion as soon as possible, and that appeared to be the stated reason for bringing in the Serbian. That the manager has been able to keep Reading competitive throughout the injury crisis that currently plagues us speaks very well of Pauno, but we know Dai Yongge is ambitious. His track record in the transfer market isn’t exactly stingy, and rumours swirled in the summer that Yongge was looking for promotion as soon as this season.
With that in mind and the transfer window opening again, plus the confirmation from Veljko that potential transfers are being discussed seemingly confirming the club will attempt to be active, I figured there was no better time to assess the squad, and see where improvements are most needed. And hey, with Diego Costa now on the market for a free, anything is possible!
I see two things impacting this window for Reading. Firstly, with a completely healthy squad, Reading are giving the impression that they’ll be able to compete at the top end of the table. This may encourage Pauno to be cautious in the market. What’s more, players that perhaps wouldn’t feature in the strongest possible Reading lineup such as Sone Aluko or Tom Holmes are getting a chance to play right now and are proving to be useful depth pieces. When first-team players such as Lucas João, Yakou Meite and Andy Yiadom return to the squad, new additions could cause squad congestion.
Still, Reading are routinely filling their bench with 5+ academy prospects, most of whom have very little or even no league experience. Therefore, despite what I may have said about the squad depth back in those heady undefeated days in October, Reading’s inexperienced bench and subsequent drop from first to sixth due to injuries suggests that depth would certainly be a welcome investment.
Secondly, the lack of clarity from the EFL regarding Reading’s potential soft transfer embargo makes it tough to make predictions about the type of deal we could get done right now. While there were some reports that it had ended around the time Ovie Ejaria came in, Rodrigo Riquelme seemed to languish on the edge of a deal with Reading for an eternity this summer, before eventually signing with Bournemouth.
Pauno’s comments at the time suggested that deal fell through in part thanks to the EFL’s decision-making. Hopefully any embargo is over, but with such lack of clarity it therefore would appear most likely that it will be easiest for Reading to dip into the loan market: not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it difficult for us to look for long-term solutions. .
LB - With Omar Richards out, Reading were lucky enough to get a decent performance at LB from Lewis Gibson and even better ones from Tom McIntyre. Still though, they’re clearly not naturals at that position and our ability to transition from defence to attack down the left side took a big hit when Richards was injured. It was great to see him back against Swansea, but we’ll need a more experienced replacement available if we want to keep our attacking edge when Richards isn’t out.
A loan at LB for cover seems perfect here. I like giving McIntyre games, but those should really be at CB anyway, and we need a more attacking option for dispatching the smaller teams in the league when our defence won’t be tested so hard.
RB - While we’ve seen some great performances from a number of players in this position, a revolving door at such an important position is never ideal. Tom Holmes has mostly made the spot his own and done so admirably, but he also looked steady at CB against Swansea, and that’s where I’d like to see him in the future.
Right back could seem a similar situation to left back: when fit, Reading have one of the best in the league at the position in Yiadom, just as they do with Richards on the other side. Yiadom’s persistent knee injuries are starting to worry me however. He missed almost half the season last year and has re-injured his knee twice since, giving him just three appearances in 2020/21.
As Adam Jones wrote on this site recently, Yiadom is in last-chance saloon at his age if he wants to make it to the Premier League, so he certainly will be motivated to come back with a bang, and I expect he’s itching to contribute to the first promising season in RG2 since he joined. However, it may be time to consider a more permanent back-up option for Andy. If that isn’t available, I do think we have another option though.
I’m certainly higher on Esteves than a lot of Reading fans (mostly thanks to our shared haircuts). Sometimes his concentration lapses, and he makes defensive errors that seem baffling. That said, he links up play with the midfield nicely, and is fantastic at playing quick passes outside of the box... when he chooses to. Too often he dallies too long and loses the ball. If he can continue to improve through the season however, and show a little more maturity, perhaps extending the loan for another year would help establish continuity at the position when Yiadom is out.
A winger - ideally versatile
When it comes to midfield, it’s tough to know how to feel. I wrote in early October at the end of the last window that we could do with one more winger, and I stand by that. We are lacking wide players in the squad, even though Aluko has been able to put in some good shifts on the wing, and Esteves is capable of playing higher up the pitch.
That said, the lack of wide players in the squad looks almost by design three months later. Ejaria and Olise regularly fill the wide positions in the forward three behind the striker, and while they can produce results on the wings, they’re both stronger more centrally. With Richards and Yiadom fit, Reading could rely on their full backs for crosses and attacks down the wing.
Until we can guarantee those two players will be fit however, a loan move for a speedy player who could play down either wing could be a great way to inject something a little different either into the matchday squad, or on the bench.
A big man
Reading’s current striking options are an exciting but frustrating mix. João can do no wrong when he can stay on the pitch, but he’s yet to show that he can do that consecutively for even half a season.
Puscas has looked pretty sharp while on the pitch this year and grew into his role over his first season in English football. That and his hefty price tag would indicate that he has a future at Reading, but he’s not ideal for Pauno’s lone striker system however, and now he’s been injured for a significant period.
Then comes Baldock. I very much appreciate Baldock’s industry and his attitude. Clearly he’s been through some nonsense at Reading and I’m sure many of us can sympathise. That said, he’s just not a fit in this Reading team.
We all hope that João is back for a long run soon, and Meite and Puscas returning would help to make sure Baldock is left on the bench. Regardless of the availability of those options though, Reading could do with a new target man up front. Part of Reading’s excellent defensive record in the early half of the season came down to our striker’s ability to bring down the ball on an out-ball from the defence. That provided a way for Reading to alleviate pressure and not immediately have the ball come back towards them.
Having a big-man back-up striker for João could open this option back up. It would also help to hold up the ball long enough to get our exciting creative players further up the pitch and present less of a change for the squad with João out. A loan with a view to a permanent move seems like the perfect solution here.
As stressful as this year’s transfer window could be as we fend off bids for Olise, Swift and Richards, it could also be a very important month for Reading. We’ve great memories of hugely important windows completely changing the course of a season for us, and in my search for a big man up top, perhaps we could pick up 2021’s Jason Roberts!