According to several sources, Omar Richards is close to agreeing a deal to join European champions Bayern Munich on a free transfer in the summer. While first disclosed by The Telegraph, the rumour has since been reported by The Athletic and Sky Sports, among other outlets.
The left back’s contract at Reading expires at the end of this season, meaning he is now able to negotiate with other clubs to sign a pre-contract deal ahead of the summer window. But how did we get to this stage? Just why is the deal reportedly so close to happening and how are Reading set to allow one of their best players and an academy graduate to leave for nothing?
Has Richards always been tipped for big things?
Richards joined Reading at the age of 16 following his release from Fulham. At the time, he was a winger/attacking midfielder, but was moved to left back by coach David Dodds for one game and has been there ever since. He quickly became a regular for the academy sides and was part of the under-23 team that reached the final of the 2017 Premier League Cup.
That summer, Jaap Stam took Richards on the first team’s pre-season trip to the Netherlands and the left back was the only member of the squad to play in all four fixtures - two games per day on two occasions. He would make his debut aged 19 as a substitute on the opening day of the 2017/18 campaign against QPR and then start in the League Cup against Gillingham three days later.
In November of that season, Richards signed a new contract at the Madejski Stadium - the one that is now set to expire - and there was high praise from Stam, who said: “Omar is a left back with a lot of quality on the ball, pace and real drive going forward - and those are attributes which every team in football is looking for in a player.” It is a quote that has aged excellently.
Injury to Jordan Obita meant that more opportunities became available to the youngster, and he competed with Tyler Blackett for the left-back spot. It was a battle he had arguably won by the end of the campaign, scoring twice and collecting both The Tilehurst End’s February player of the month award and Rookie of the Year accolade.
For a long time, that looked to have been Richards’ peak. He missed a total of five months in 2018/19 because of injury and that appeared to somewhat hamper his progress. Jose Gomes’ switch to a back three at the start of 2019/20 meant Richards was deployed in a wing-back role that really suited him as he was able to support the team going forward but was not exposed as often defensively. He became a regular in the side and even made his England under-21 debut in October 2019.
However, Richards’ performances were not consistent and he sometimes looked like the weak link on the left-hand side. Obita’s return to fitness meant there were now three left backs at the club competing for one starting spot and Mark Bowen rotated the position fairly regularly. Richards got a decent amount of game time throughout the rest of last season, but never did enough to nail down a place in the XI.
As the campaign came to an end, Richards - by now 22 - was seen by most of the Reading fanbase as a safe option to have, but someone who had found his level after his development had plateaued. This was typified by a TTE Twitter poll in December 2019, in which only 14% of respondents felt he would be playing in the Premier League in three years’ time, with 55% settling on the Championship and 31% suggesting he would have dropped down to League One or League Two.
What has happened this season?
The departures of Obita and Blackett last summer left Richards as the only senior left back at the club come the start of 2020/21. This might have previously been a worry but it is a role that the academy graduate has relished; his improvement and maturity have been remarkable. Before picking up an injury in December, Richards had started 18 consecutive games - his longest-ever run in the team, which appeared to give him a huge amount of confidence.
That is a credit to Veljko Paunovic, who has overseen the individual improvement of not just Richards but several other players in Reading’s side too, such as Michael Olise and Liam Moore. While Richards was always seen as a valuable attacking left back, there had been question marks over his defensive ability, but that has all changed this season.
Of players to have attempted at least 50 tackles in the top two tiers of English football in 2020/21, only Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88%) has a better success rate than Richards (85%). The left back was a key part of the Reading backline that kept six clean sheets in the first seven league games of this season, with his excellent reading of the game enabling him to make vital interceptions and blocks.
Attacking-wise, he has proven a strong ball carrier who is important in getting Reading up the field. No full back in the Championship has completed more dribbles this season than Richards, and only two have made more accurate short passes. Overall, most of the 22 year-old’s statistics rank among the best in the division and he has become a dependable option for the way Paunovic wants to play.
Why haven’t Reading handed him a new contract?
There is likely to be little sympathy with the club in this respect, but as highlighted above, before this season there wasn’t a huge case to hand Richards a new contract. He was relatively inconsistent and there were doubts over some aspects of his game and even whether he was good enough to be first choice left back.
Nonetheless, it would appear to be poor planning for the club to have not tied down a player of Richards’ ilk. While he has not stood out in previous seasons, he still came into the current campaign having clocked up more than 50 Championship appearances and had been capped internationally at youth level. He is still in the typical years of development, not turning 23 until next month. While Reading could hardly have expected Bayern Munich to come calling, Richards’ profile means he will never have been far away from the radar of recruitment teams at top-end Championship clubs and bottom-half Premier League sides. The Royals were never going to get away with letting his contract run down.
Richards’ situation is representative of a wider problem with contracts at Reading. As well as Richards, the deals of two other promising young players, Luke Southwood and Tom McIntyre, and the ever-present Michael Morrison, also expire in the summer, with no word on extensions. The lack of long-term planning is incredibly worrying, as only five first-team players are currently contracted to the club beyond the end of the 2021/22 season. If it is too late to keep Richards around, then the Royals must act sharpish to avoid being burnt in the same way in a year’s time.
Why are Bayern Munich interested?
Let’s be honest, it’s a pretty unusual link. While there is no doubting Richards’s talent, arguably the main reason why Bayern are keen to sign him is because he would cost them nothing and therefore be excellent value. There is still some debate as to whether they would have to pay Reading any compensation, but if they did, it would be small change for the European champions.
In the last five years, German clubs have identified England as a hotbed of up-and-coming talent. Furthermore, these players are being developed in a way that perfectly suits the Bundesliga and are usually available pretty cheaply. As a result, clubs are now actively scouting academy games and youth internationals, so Richards’ appearance for the England under-21s in 2019 will certainly have helped his cause.
In return, German clubs are willing to give youngsters far more opportunities than their English top-flight counterparts. Jadon Sancho has been the prime example of what players can achieve by making the move, and his success has encouraged others to do the same. 18 months ago, Bayern snapped up Jamal Musiala from Chelsea, who has made 16 first team appearances this season and started in the Champions League at the age of just 17. In the summer, the Bavarian giants were reportedly interested in signing Max Aarons (21) from Norwich City.
David Alaba is keen to leave the Allianz Arena at the end of his contract in the summer, so Bayern are on the hunt for a new back-up to Alphonso Davies at left back, although they do also have Lucas Hernandez in their ranks. Richards fits the profile of the sort of full back that the club like as he is quick, athletic and happy bombing up and down the flank, meaning he would be able to play their high line with ease.
The big question is whether Richards would actually be able to make the step up and play at the very highest level. For Bayern, that doesn’t really matter. There is hope that the similarities with Davies would continue, with the Canadian needing just half a season to adjust to the jump from MLS to the Bundesliga and Champions League. But if it doesn’t work out, Richards will only ever be an understudy and even if Bayern sold him a couple of years down the line, they would make a profit on him.
Can Reading do anything?
Not really, unfortunately, and that is a problem entirely of their own doing. A contract offer may still come in from Reading, and that would at least ensure any eligible, but minimal, compensation is received if Richards moved on.
Veljko Paunovic said last month that he had encouraged the Royals board to make Richards and Michael Olise “part of our long-term project” and claimed the club’s hierarchy were working on contract offers for the pair. On January 5, the Reading Chronicle reported that talks with Richards were “progressing very well”.
However, the following day the same outlet suggested that a deal was in fact nowhere near close and Courtney Friday added that Reading were “resigned to losing” the player. Certainly when Bayern Munich make their interest known, a player’s head is understandably going to be turned and Berkshire becomes rather unappealing in comparison. The only advantage that the Royals have over the German side is the promise of being first-choice left back, potentially in the Premier League, but that is unlikely to hold much weight.
In addition, Sky Sports reported on Friday that “Reading feel the stringent financial regulations they have been forced to follow to comply with the EFL’s Profitability and Sustainability rules have made it impossible for them to offer Richards the kind of deal which would keep him at the Madejski Stadium”. It is true that the club’s position remains precarious with regards to Financial Fair Play, which makes it even more frustrating that they would receive no transfer fee for the left back, who is valued at at least £10 million.
In terms of replacements, Imari Samuels (17) and Ethan Bristow (19) are coming through the ranks in Berkshire, with the latter appearing in three cup fixtures this season. However, neither player is likely to be able to slot in and become a first-team regular straight away, so the club will probably have to dip into the transfer market in the summer. It’s worth pointing out that Bristow’s contract also expires this summer.
There might be a hope that Richards returns on loan next season, but that would seem wishful thinking as Bayern will want to further develop and hone the left back while giving him game time every now and again.