Saturday’s defeat to Luton Town was a frustrating one with regards to the result - Reading did enough to deserve at least a draw in normal time - but it was a good afternoon for the academy. Veljko Paunovic handed out three debuts (Oli Pendlebury, Conor Lawless and Mamadi Camara), played another five rookie youth players (Jeriel Dorsett, Ethan Bristow, Jayden Onen, Nahum Melvin-Lambert and Dejan Tetek), and made room on the bench for another two that didn’t appear (Coniah Boyce-Clarke and Imari Samuels).
I make that 67 academy graduates in total - the 63 on the club’s board plus four more: Onen, Pendlebury, Lawless and Camara. What’s more, Reading’s academy production line is having a real impact on the make-up of the squad. Last summer I highlighted the fact that 39% of the players used by the Royals in 2019/20 had come through the academy; Saturday’s match brought that figure for 2020/21 up to exactly 50%.
That’s a clear indication of two things: how effective the academy has been in creating talent capable of playing for the first team, and the ongoing clear-out of fringe players which started in the January 2019 transfer window and was particularly evident in the summer of 2020.
The key question though is, on a more specific level, what the future holds for individual young talent that’s on the verge of the first team. All the youngsters who appeared at Kenilworth Road gave a good account of themselves in front of Pauno, and will have realistic ambitions of kicking on either this season or next.
So, with the help of some graphics and stats from WhoScored, plus a bit of match footage from YouTube, I’ve analysed the contributions of the new kids on the block - predominantly Pendlebury, Onen, Bristow and Dorsett - to see how they did, what they offered the team and what their chances of involvement later this season are
Defensive midfielder, 18
One of my two biggest stand-outs at Luton alongside Tomas Esteves, Pendlebury has been talked up as a big prospect for a few years now. In 2017, when the-then 15 year-old captained England’s under-16 side, he was linked with a move to Chelsea. Fortunately for us that move never materialised and Pendlebury signed his professional contract in January 2019, keeping him at Reading until this summer.
Pendlebury started on the right of Reading’s double pivot at Luton, essentially replacing Andy Rinomhota. Interestingly, although that’s predominantly a defensive role, Pendlebury still had license to push upfield, particularly on the right wing, as his touch graphic below demonstrates. He even managed a shot from inside the area in the first half, forcing a save from Simon Sluga - represented by the line on the left.
NB: Reading are shooting from right to left.
Pendlebury finished the game with a respectable two tackles won out of three attempted (only Bristow tried more) and three interceptions (only Tomas Esteves made more). Those stats, taken with his touch map, suggest that he fits the profile of a Paunovic midfielder: able to do the defensive work but also with the energy to get about the pitch. I would however like to see if that bears out over further appearances - one game is after all a small sample size.
However, you would think there could be more chances for him this season. There is currently no obvious back-up to Rinomhota and Josh Laurent; Alfa Semedo has barely featured in that part of the midfield and Felipe Araruna’s season has been severely curtailed by injury. There’s an opening for Pendlebury to be defensive-midfield cover right now.
Looking to the longer term, Reading need to sort out his contract. Pendlebury is due to leave the club this summer, so handing him a new deal sooner rather than later is a sensible move. Depending on how well he does over the rest of this season, there’s every chance that he could be a more regular fixture in the side in 2021/22.
A much more recent arrival to the academy than Pendlebury, Onen joined Reading this season after being released by Brentford in the summer. He’s made a quick impression though, scoring four times in 10 appearances for the Royals’ under-23s. That form has clearly caught the eye of Pauno, who’s named Onen as a substitute for nine Championship games, bringing him off the bench in one of those: the 2-1 home defeat to Norwich City.
The Luton game was his first start for Reading, and although he had the deeply frustrating moment late on off missing a follow-up chance after Melvin-Lambert hit the bar, the evidence is there that he could be a very useful option for Reading going forwards.
Onen began the match on the left wing for Reading and played there for the majority of the contest, although he had a spell on the right wing in the second half. The important point for me though is that he’s a different kind of wide player to the other ones at Pauno’s disposal, which is evident in two areas.
1) Steven highlighted on Twitter that, when Onen played on the right wing, he stayed wide - thereby making space for Esteves’ underlapping runs through the middle. You can see that in the build-up to Sone Aluko’s golden chance, when Onen taking up a wider position drags the left back out that little bit, leaves him in no man’s land and allows Esteves to slip in:
Onen’s positioning looks really simple (and is), but little things like that open up space for teammates to work in. Reading don’t really have other wide players who do that; other options for play on the right like Yakou Meite, Michael Olise and Aluko are all left-footed so prefer to cut inside. Onen’s preference to stay closer to the touchline and stretch the play is reminiscent of, for example, Garath McCleary at his peak.
2) Where Onen’s play at Luton wasn’t reminiscent of McCleary so much was in his desire to get into the box on the end of chances. To me this seemed to come about more from when he was on the left, suggesting he’s got different tricks up his sleeve depending on where he’s deployed.
That desire is demonstrated in where his shots came from. Four Reading players had at least three shots against Luton: Onen (3), Aluko (3), Olise (4) and Sam Baldock (4). But where attacking midfielder Olise took all of his shots from outside the box, and the same was true for most efforts from fellow wide player Aluko, all of Onen’s three shots came from inside the area.
From these spots specifically:
They came from Onen being picked out when Aluko got in behind down the left on one occasion and two more when he was following in when the ball fell loose after a teammate’s shot: one from Baldock’s saved effort and another from when Melvin-Lambert hit the bar.
Shooting from inside the area is something you’d expect from a centre forward, and that was true for three of Baldock’s four efforts. But it’s less common for an attacking midfielder or winger. Onen doing it a few times against Luton indicates that he’s got the mentality to push that bit closer to goal in the hope of a chance coming his way - in a similar fashion to Meite. Reading typically don’t get the same from Ovie Ejaria, John Swift and Olise, who don’t look to break into the box for their chances.
As I pointed out with Pendlebury, it’s important to remember that this is a small sample size, but they’re still encouraging signs from Onen. He’s well down the pecking order for the first team at the moment, and will drop even lower when Meite returns from injury, but for me there’s enough there to show he could be a useful alternative option off the bench, such as when Reading need a new idea to break down a side in open play.
There’s room for improvement defensively - as you’d expect from a youngster playing at senior level for the first time. Reading were badly exposed on the left in the first half and Onen, who didn’t attempt a tackle all game, could probably have done more to help out full back Bristow. He’ll improve with experience though.
Left back, 19
Bristow had difficulty defensively in the first half at Luton but I wouldn’t put that on him. The hosts made a deliberate effort to overload that side and, without an experienced player in front of him for protection, Bristow couldn’t stop the supply that came from right back James Bree. For the goal, Bristow did pretty well to scamper across to close down Bree, but he still had a lot of ground to cover on his own. I’d put the blame more on Aluko not tracking George Moncur’s run into the area.
Bristow looked bright going the other way. Although he didn’t have any shots or create chances of his own, he got forward down the left in a way that will have encouraged Pauno. The location of his 62 touches at Luton look pretty similar to the location of Omar Richards’ 61 at Huddersfield a week ago - in each case, you can see plenty of touches not only in the opposition’s half, but also quite close to the opposition’s box.
Ethan Bristow touches vs Luton:
Omar Richards touches vs Huddersfield:
So what does the future hold for Bristow? In the short term, Richards will lock down the left-back spot if he stays fit, but if he doesn’t I’d expect to see more experienced players like Tom McIntyre or Lewis Gibson get the nod over Bristow. Although Bristow is the longer-term option, Pauno will probably prefer safer options for the promotion push.
Beyond that, you’d expect Bristow to be in contention to break into the first team next season, but Reading need to sort out a new contract first. Bristow’s current deal runs out in the summer.
Centre back, 18
I don’t really have much specifically to say about Dorsett from his performance at Luton. He was assured, looked at home at centre half and didn’t have any of those panicky moments you sometimes get from young defenders in the early stages of their time with the first team.
Dorsett did show a tendency to play long passes though; he attempted more of those (11) than any other outfielder and completed more than anyone else in the side (6). Whether he’s able to ping passes around the pitch like a young Charlie Adam is something to look out for in future appearances.
His development does raise an interesting question though: with Tom McIntyre established at senior level and Nelson Abbey also coming through, the Royals have no shortage of left-footed centre halves. Add in Liam Moore and Lewis Gibson who both typically play on the left of a pairing, and Reading’s options are somewhat unbalanced. With Morrison out of contract in the summer, we may see Moore shift to the right while younger options come through on the left.
I wouldn’t expect to see much more of Dorsett this season. Reading have plenty of options at centre half and, barring a particularly bad injury crisis, there will likely not be an opportunity for Dorsett in the league.
Four other youngsters appeared for Reading at Luton, although there’s little to go on as they each played only a quarter of an hour or so. Nahum Melvin-Lambert, 18, had the biggest moment with his late chance when he went through on goal but hit the bar. It was of course frustrating, especially when you consider he nearly opened his Reading account in the League Cup against Colchester United too, but he needs to keep his head up.
He’s doing well to get into those positions and, although it’s probably too early to say he should be higher up the pecking order than Baldock, it’s not too early to suggest he’s got plenty of potential.
Conor Lawless (19) and Dejan Tetek (18) both looked bright in midfield and, like Pendlebury, may get some more game time in the league due to Reading’s lack of back-up for Rinomhota and Laurent. Lawless has actually been on the scene for a little while now, having been involved with the first team when Paul Clement included him on a trip to Wigan Athletic in late 2018. Clement said at the time:
“He’s a good player – I’ve seen him in games and he’s trained with us. We’ve got a lot of good prospects. I could have brought an older academy player, but it was important for some of them to be involved with the under-23s against Fulham.
“So I thought let’s bring Conor, so it’s not a shock to him when he does finally step up. He can smell the dressing room a little bit and get involved. And he’s been good to have around.”
Tetek made his debut in the League Cup earlier this season and has already turned heads on the international scene, being called up for Serbia’s under-19s after Pauno persuaded him to turn his allegiances away from England. He’s highly regarded by Serbia’s head of youth development Goran Grkinić, who intends to move Tetek up to the under-21s.
Mamadi Camara is the youngest of the academy players to feature at Luton, having only just turned 17. The right winger joined Reading in late October from Portuguese second-tier side Feirense on a two-year deal. Given that he’s a very new prospect and only joined the action in the 78th minute I don’t have enough to judge him by, but the fact that he’s been involved already suggests the management see something in him.