So we’re 23 games into the season. Half way through. Thanks (and it’s the only time I’ll be giving thanks) to Reading’s late 2020 injury crisis, we’ve been able to assess far more of our squad’s depth than we might’ve expected at the start of the year. Players who began the campaign on the fringes of the squad, young and old alike, have had time to impress. Sone Aluko has shown us he still has something in the tank. The academy Toms are making a solid case that they’re Championship-ready players.
When we get important players back from injury then (Liam Moore, Yakou Meite, Andy Yiadom), we’ll get a boost from their return, but we have certainly benefited from learning more about our squad. With Reading looking up the table at a potential finish in the playoff places or even higher, Veljko Paunovic will certainly be happy that he knows which squad players can contribute to wins for the Royals.
Now seems like a good time then to assess which players in our squad I believe will have the biggest impact on just where Reading will finish this year.
Rightfully regarded as Reading’s talisman over the last few years, Swift finally got his first start against Huddersfield Town after returning from injury. After spending nearly a half season on the sidelines, Swift should be hugely motivated to return to his best and contribute to the most talented Reading squad he’s had a chance to be part of so far.
During his absence however, Michael Olise has emerged as a scintillating talent, operating in a similar position to Swift, and demonstrating some of the same louche flair. Much of how Swift plays with the remaining time this season then will rely on how Pauno is able to make the most of both Swift and Olise.
Still though, Swift is capable of winning a tight game by himself. Just see QPR at home last season if you don’t believe it. He won’t have to do that as much this year, but I expect he’ll have opportunities. If Swift is able to send a few more screamers into the back of the Madejski nets before May, those points could be crucial to ensuring we finish as high as possible.
Reading’s striking options as they currently stand have us bouncing back and forth between “hero” and “zero” at a frightening rate. With Lucas Joao in the team, it appears that link-up play is slicker, opposition defenses are forced to sit deeper, and occasionally Lucas himself will simply decide it’s time to score, and that will be that. Without Joao however, it’s a different story, and no matter how solid Reading can look at the back, they struggle to transition the ball up to the striker for an effective chance on goal.
The only exception I can remember to this formula came during Puscas’ first league start this season, and the lack of options in attack has been exacerbated by his lengthy absence. That start came in our 1-0 win against Watford back in the heady 100% record days. Puscas hassled and harried the Watford defence tirelessly that day and got his reward with a deflected finish past Ben Foster.
Indeed, Simeon gave Georgi a seven in his player ratings that day, remarking that he played the lone striker role well. Puscas grew in his lone striker role last year as the season went on, and while I called for Reading to buy a more physically imposing striker just two weeks ago, it’s worth noting that Puscas is 6”2 and slim but not as skinny as Sam Baldock. On his day, he links that physical ability with good hold-up play, and impressive vision for a forward pass.
If Puscas can come back from his injury and immediately provide competition to Joao, perhaps even starting one game a week when the schedule gets congested again, Georgi-boy could be the most decisive player when it comes to determining our final position. If Joao gets injured again, that’s almost guaranteed.
With everything Holmes’ namesake, Mr McIntyre, had going for him at the start of the season, it would certainly have seemed surprising to me at the start of the season that Holmes would’ve jumped ahead of McIntyre in the depth chart. At the moment though, it appears that Pauno prefers Holmes to McIntyre outright, starting him consistently through the season at right back, and then giving him the start at centre back against Swansea City with three out of four first-team defenders out.
In both positions, Holmes has been at times excellent, at others a touch inexperienced, but always a much-needed steady presence in a defence that has been racked with injuries since December. Whether he keeps his starting position in the team once both Liam Moore and Andy Yiadom are available for selection is up for debate, but you’d be hard pressed to find a reason to drop him that lies entirely within his own power.
I therefore expect that Pauno will continue to prefer Mr Holmes over Mr McIntyre as the season goes on, and he may even keep his position over Yiadom. That will depend on whether Holmes is able to keep up his high quality of performance as the season drags on. Holmes is young (born after 2000!) and has played in 17 games so far this year. If he tires, as wouldn’t be too surprising, at least we have cover in his positions. If he’s able to maintain his performance level however, Holmes could be a key part of Reading reinstating their rock-solid defence of the Mark Bowen era.
Time to contribute to the ongoing Rafael/Southwood conversation, and bring half of you onside while turning the other half off!
Let’s be frank: on his day, Rafael is the best keeper in this league, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. To me, most Championship goalkeepers are solid on set pieces, they stop what they should stop, and everything else is a 50/50 chance. When Rafael is on form though, as he was against Swansea City and Huddersfield Town, his cat-like reflexes and nimble reactions seemingly boost that 50% chance way up, and we see certain goals clawed out by Rafael, proving why he was once a teammate of Neymar.
Still, Rafael is not riding the same purple patch he was last year. Last week’s Tilehurst End Podcast discussed this at length: pointing out that Rafael’s latest round of stupendous saves had come after a period of mistakes and seemingly low confidence. Whether this has come as a result of a difficult year for a player so far from home, or is just a consequence of the general mental state of the Brazilian, it’s certainly something to watch.
If, through the back half, Rafael can produce the form that made him last year’s player of the season, there’s no reason Reading can’t steal a few games from talented opponents. With Joao on the field, there’s no reason Reading couldn’t have found a goal to complete the smash and grab against Swansea for instance.
Those points will be crucial as the run-in brings us closer to May, and Rafael will have arguably the biggest say on the team as to where we finish. Let’s just hope we see more of the brick wall Rafael has recently morphed into, and less of the Swiss cheese that defined the Coventry City and Birmingham City games.
Ejaria has been an exciting but frustrating player to watch since arriving in Reading. His boundless talent is obvious. His legs move like rubber bands at times as he jinks around defenders. By the same measure however, he’s occasionally unaware of when it’s time to stop jinking around defenders, often taking on one too many.
For me, much of how Ejaria plays depends on the players around him. Ovie has stayed remarkably free of injury so far in his Reading stay, and has been a mostly constant presence on the left side of our forward three this year. That means he’s faced an alarming lack of consistency in the players around him. Some weeks he’s opposite Meite or Aluko, and the expectation is clearly that he’d hug the wing and try to get crosses in. Other times, Pauno has started Semedo and Olise in the forward three with him, and he’s been expected to play a more central game, or even track back . While he has the skills in his repertoire to fit a range of playing styles, it’s clearly not an ideal situation for a player looking to build consistency.
My hope is that with Swift coming back into the team, Ejaria will find it easier to get on the same page as the rest of his midfield. Swift and Ejaria seemed to operate almost telepathically at times last year as their skill sets complimented each other perfectly. If Ejaria’s play is elevated by Swift, and if players returning from injury lighten his defensive load we could begin seeing peak Ejaria again. And if we can get Ejaria, Swift, and Olise operating well together in the attacking three, Reading will have as good of a front four as anyone in this league.