‘He looked shot in the second half.’
‘He looks knackered.’
‘He looked really, really tired today.’
Our player ratings for Reading’s 2-0 defeat to Blackburn Rovers last weekend read like a thesaurus for the word ‘tired’. Our match report was simply titled ‘Signs of Fatigue’. Yes, like a parent who has been up all night dealing with their newborn baby, Reading are absolutely exhausted.
This is hardly breaking news and squad burnout was arguably one of the main reasons why the team collapsed so catastrophically in the final months of last season. Reading used the second-fewest number of players in the Championship in 2020-21 (27) and only 17 of those played more than 20 games. Relying on a small core group that performed so well in the first half of the campaign meant they were knackered in the second half.
This season, the Royals have already used 24 different players - only five clubs have a higher tally. So squad depth is not necessarily the problem this time around, but rather the freakish amount of injuries that have been attained.
It is important to note that Reading’s injury record this season is not the club’s - or specifically the medical team’s - fault. Almost all of the injuries have been ‘contact’ injuries that have happened in games, meaning they are difficult to predict or prevent. It is not that there is an issue with training or recovery sessions.
Nonetheless, with essentially a full XI on the treatment table, Veljko Paunovic has had a very limited number of options to choose from in recent matches. Reading played three games in the space of a week following October’s international break and made just one change in the starting lineup: Femi Azeez replacing George Puscas at Blackburn, which was effectively cancelled out by the youngster going off injured after 36 minutes and the Romanian taking his place.
Paunovic made five out of a possible nine substitutions across the three matches - three of those were Azeez for Puscas or vice versa. The other two were late cameos from Jahmari Clarke - replacing Tom Dele-Bashiru on 83 minutes against Blackpool and replacing Ovie Ejaria on 84 minutes against Blackburn. That means eight players played 90 minutes three times in the space of a week and a further two missed less than ten minutes.
In comparison, when Blackpool visited the Select Car Leasing Stadium last Wednesday, they made five changes from the previous weekend. One of their substitutes, Owen Dale, scored their first goal to set their comeback in motion. Meanwhile, Blackburn Rovers made four changes to their team when Reading went to Lancashire on Saturday. Their two goalscorers, Sam Gallagher and Tyrhys Dolan, had been rested against QPR in midweek.
As the Tangerines and Rovers attacked with energy and freshness, Reading’s tired legs became evident, which, when you consider the players on the pitch, is hardly surprising.
Danny Drinkwater has played more first-team minutes in the last five weeks than he did in the previous 18 months. It is John Swift’s longest run of consecutive starts (without a Covid-enforced three-month gap) since March 2020. It is the first time in his career that he has completed 90 minutes nine games in a row. Tom Dele-Bashiru has started 11 consecutive games after only returning from a season-long ACL injury in the summer. Josh Laurent has played every single minute in the Championship this season after missing just 141 minutes of league action last year. These are players whose bodies are catching up with them for one reason or another.
Yet Paunovic clearly feels he cannot afford to rest them. This is understandable, to an extent, as in a dream world you want your best players playing every minute of every game. But there’s a niggling feeling that it may end up doing more harm than good. Given Reading’s injury luck this season, John Swift straining his hamstring yet again seems more inevitable by the week.
Paunovic’s dilemma is that, due to the squad’s injury crisis, he has very few senior options in reserve. Of the outfield players on Reading’s substitutes bench at Blackburn, only Tom Holmes and George Puscas were over the age of 19. It has been a similar story throughout the season, as highlighted by the statistic below.
This earns the Serbian a fair slice of sympathy and, considering his squad trouble, he’s done pretty well to have Reading two points off the playoffs with just over a quarter of the season gone. But I’m starting to get the feeling that, while the situation is no doubt difficult, it is being aggravated by his persistence with clearly tired players instead of giving opportunities to the youngsters on the bench. The Royals are also becoming slightly predictable, with the same system, the same players and the same substitutions each week.
At first glance, Paunovic’s record of promoting youth at Reading looks pretty good. He handed debuts to 11 academy players in 2020/21 (a joint record for a single season) and under-23s have been commonplace on the subs bench throughout his tenure.
But that is slightly misleading. There were only so many debuts last season - the majority of which came in the early rounds of cup competitions - because of the mass clear-out of the under-23 squad the previous summer. Meanwhile, we have already established that the inclusion of youngsters on the bench has only been out of necessity because of injuries to senior players; they are very rarely brought on. On the opening day of the season against Stoke, he named just five substitutes instead of completing the bench with academy players.
Of course Paunovic has a history of success with young players, having led Serbia’s under-20s to World Cup glory in 2015. Again though, this hasn’t really translated into club football, with Chicago Fire fan Patrick McCraney telling us last year that Pauno “was particularly bad about integrating young players from the academy into the team” in his time in the MLS.
Aside from Femi Azeez, the only young players Paunovic has trusted with a league appearance this season are Ethan Bristow before the signing of Baba Rahman, Michael Stickland, who came on in stoppage time against Middlesbrough due to injury to Dejan Tetek, and Jahmari Clarke. Clarke’s seven appearances have come almost exclusively in the final 15 minutes of matches, as well as 27 minutes against Derby County.
Then there have been bench inclusions for Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan (eight times), Mamadi Camara (six), Claudio Osorio, Kian Leavy, Tyrell Ashcroft (all three) and Lynford Sackey (two) but with no league appearances this season so far.
Such has been the manager’s reluctance to place his faith in academy options, he opted for Tom McIntyre and Andy Yiadom over Bristow when there were no senior left-backs, and deployed Yiadom and Josh Laurent over Stickland when there were no fit centre-backs.
Clarke is perhaps the one for whom there is the most clamour to see more of, largely due to George Puscas’ struggles up front. Yet really it is difficult to pass judgement on quite how good the teenager is, considering you can’t really make an assessment based off 10 minutes of football each game. His hat-trick against Norwich City in the Premier League Cup caught the attention, but he has only one goal in six Premier League 2 appearances this season.
Camara is the other player where more first-team game time seems logical, considering Reading look most tired in the final third of the pitch and the winger has three goals in his last four appearances in Premier League 2. With Blackburn killing off Reading with two goals in three minutes on Saturday afternoon, there surely would have been no harm in seeing Clarke introduced a little earlier and giving an opportunity to Camara or perhaps even midfielder Osorio.
Ultimately it is Paunovic who sees these players in training every day and is in the best place to assess their credentials for first-team football. This is a particularly young set of under-23 players and it may simply be the case that they are not yet ready to make the step up. Reading have changed their strategy in recent years and are making decisions earlier on under-23 players, meaning we have seen a clear-out of players aged 20 and 21 in the last two summers. As a result, the under-23 squad this season is made up exclusively of teenagers.
Azeez, the one recent academy graduate to be given regular opportunities in the first team this season, is at least one school year older than any of the other youngsters to feature on the bench. Clarke, Ehibhatiomhan and Sackey were part of the under-18 squad last season. Camara does not turn 18 until the end of the year. Usually you would expect players making the step up to have featured heavily for the under-23s first, but the four highest appearance makers in Mehmet Ali’s squad last season - Ryan East, Conor Lawless, Tennai Watson and Jayden Onen - are no longer at the club.
It’s also worth pointing out that the under-23 side have not performed that well this season anyway. They currently sit 12th out of 14 teams in Premier League 2 Division 2, with two victories from nine matches so far. They are winless in their last six games. If they aren’t getting results at youth level, you can understand Paunovic’s reluctance to throw them into senior football.
In truth, having to call upon academy players probably isn’t a situation the Serbian would have expected to be in this season. After all, Reading do not lack squad depth, they have just been desperately unlucky with injuries. As individuals return from the sidelines one by one, Paunovic will have more senior options he is more confident in using and regular rotation should be able to take place. No midweek game this week will also be a huge boost as the squad aim to recover in time for the visit of league leaders Bournemouth on Saturday, which kicks off another set of three matches in eight days.
It means that this should only be a short-term predicament until the squad becomes more healthy. For supporters, that will only increase the desire to see more youngsters given a chance. For Paunovic, it may only encourage him to persist with the same senior players for just a little while longer. As the saying goes, you can sleep when you’re dead.