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Felipe Araruna: Reading’s Odd Man Out, Still Looking For A Way In

The Brazilian has endured an injury-hit time in Berkshire so far, but returned to action for the under-23s on Monday.

Reading v Luton Town - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

One of the advantages of TTE being part of SB Nation is that we have access to the Getty Images library. It gives us access to a vast array of high-quality action photos, general images such as stadium shots when there’s nothing specific available for the story in question, and even some more, ahem, ‘symbolic pictures’ when the occasion demands.

So you’d think that, 21 months after Felipe Araruna joined from Sao Paulo, I’d have no trouble finding a photo of him in a Reading shirt. In fact, the image you can see above (one of just two available) was annoyingly elusive. Getty simply labelled him as “Araruna of Reading FC” - so no joy when I typed his full name into the search function.

Looking for evidence of Felipe Araruna being at Reading but having difficulty finding it is an apt encapsulation of his time in Berkshire. We’re into his third season at the club but, due to painfully extensive injury problems that kept him sidelined for the vast majority of the past year and a half, it still feels like we know little about him.

After all, he’s been limited to just seven first-team appearances for the Royals thus far. Ironically, given how things have panned out since, he had a quicker start to Championship action than even he anticipated, playing three times from the first six available after signing. He “didn’t expect anything so fast”, as he said in April 2020.

After those three appearances he managed a further two in the following season’s League Cup, including an assist for Lucas Joao against Colchester United, in addition to playing twice in the Championship. And then... nothing. Having picked up an injury in the 2-1 win at Cardiff City, opening the door for Tom Holmes’ introduction to life as a right back, he wouldn’t play competitive action for a further 394 days, when he managed 55 minutes for the under-23s in their 1-0 home defeat to Southampton on Monday evening.

We’ve seen a few long-term injuries at Reading in recent years. Callum Harriott was out for around two years between late 2016 and early 2019, netting on his return to action at home to Swansea City, while Jordan Obita had a similar-length lay-off between 2017 and 2019. Such an experience is hugely challenging, mentally as well as physically, as Obita told TTE in November 2019:

“At first it was going okay then there were times when it wasn’t and you never knew if you were going to play again. You’re hoping that something is going to work and you’re trying to find a solution somewhere, it never really happened and unfortunately it took about two years to find it and unfortunately it meant another surgery.”

Araruna’s time out must also have been a tough for him personally, not least for the frustrating set-backs. He was due back in February, then towards the end of last season, and then in late August. From the outside looking in, his return started to feel more like a hopeful matter of ‘if’ rather than ‘when’, so seeing him finally start for Reading on Monday night, even if it was just for the under-23s, was a heartwarming surprise.

In a wholesomely upbeat video interview with the club this week (seriously, I love his positivity), he shared how difficult the past year and a bit had been for him.

“I have had tough months that I spent – now I just want to look forward. I don’t want to forget everything that I passed through, but now I am just looking to move on. It is really hard to get a long-term injury. Mentally I think is the most difficult, to be honest! But I am at the end of the rehab now, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I am happy.”

Fingers crossed, the bad times are now firmly behind Araruna and he can finally now start to properly show what he can do. With his contract set to expire next summer, he’s got a lot of lost time to make up for.

Reading v Luton Town - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

While he’s not an obvious starter in any position, his versatility stands out in its own right. In fact, that trait was the first thing that came to mind for both writers we talked to for the Town End feature on him in February 2020. Between them they mentioned right back, holding midfield and box-to-box as positions where Araruna could play.

He’d go on to prove that versatility later that month, with his three 2019/20 appearances (home games against Hull City, West Bromwich Albion and Wigan Athletic) requiring him to take up four spots. Araruna lined up as a right wing back then right back against Hull, as one of two more advanced central midfielders in a 4-1-4-1 against West Brom, and then on the right wing in a 4-4-2 against Wigan. That last move admittedly went poorly, but it’s a tentative positive nonetheless that Mark Bowen felt confident in trying it in the first place.

Veljko Paunovic loves versatility in his players (perhaps a bit too much sometimes), so you’d think he and a fully fit Felipe Araruna would get on famously. While the obvious move would be to use Araruna as right-back cover for Andy Yiadom - like in his four appearances last season - the Brazilian should be a comfortable fit elsewhere too.

As one of the two deep-lying midfielders in a 4-2-3-1? Check. As a sole holding player in a 4-1-4-1 or a box-to-box spot just ahead? Double check. As a number 10 or right winger in a 4-2-3-1, seeing as that’s where Pauno used defensive midfielders sometimes last season? Sure, why not.

It’s too soon to confidently say how good Araruna would be in any of those positions (the serious suggestions anyway). After all, the most extensive evidence we have of his qualities was a handful of appearances at right back - not to mention that getting up to top form can be easier said than done for someone who’s so out of practice.

However, his prior experience of those positions puts him that bit ahead of others in the squad who would be being shunted into unfamiliar roles. Araruna is at least a square peg in not just one square hole, but several. In a season already gravely affected by injuries across the squad, that versatility could prove to be a valuable asset for the sake of rotation and cover.

It’s a little odd that he’s here in the first place

Besides all of that about his injury history and what he may or may not offer on the pitch, what really intrigues me about Araruna is what he represents off it. Really, it’s a quirk of fate that he ended up at Reading in the first place.

His arrival at the end of the January 2020 transfer window looked like it would herald a new transfer policy. As I explained in early February 2020 (in a piece that’s aged abysmally given all that’s happened in the world since), there were numerous pieces of evidence that Reading would be looking to the international stage, including well outside Europe, for squad building:

However, any attempts at developing such a strategy quickly stalled - due in no small part to Covid.

When Mattos’ appointment broke down in mid-March, days after the 3-1 win at Birmingham City, he cited the pandemic as a factor. Brazilian academy player Pedro Neves, who’d said he looked forward to Mattos’ arrival, was one of a significant number of youth talents released that summer. Reading’s other mid-season signing, Timbe, returned to China after a handful of appearances (he’d later spend five months of 2021 with Japanese side Vissel Kobe but is now without a club). And while Reading would still recruit from overseas later that year, bringing in Alfa Semedo and Tomas Esteves from Portugal in the summer window, it didn’t seem to be part of the strategy apparently teased at the beginning of the year.

Taken in that context, Araruna looks very much like an odd man out: a player signed as part of a transfer strategy that never took off, by a director of football who was never appointed. In a way, he’s a hint of what Reading may have started to look like - had Mattos’ appointment been completed and Covid never happened.