Before this weekend, Reading were the only team in the Championship not to have a recognised centre forward score this season. The closest we got were the two goals of Femi Azeez, really more of a wide player than an out-and-out striker.
To an outsider, that could have been taken as a pretty alarming statistic. But in reality it hasn’t been that surprising, given Lucas Joao’s injury in August left us with only one fit senior centre forward, the misfiring and low on confidence George Puscas. It’s also not proved that much of an issue, thanks to John Swift’s excellent start to the campaign and the contribution of others around him. As a team, Reading drew a blank in only two of the opening 13 league matches.
But over the last few weeks, the goals have dried up and fatigue has played a big part in that. In addition, despite no lack of effort, Puscas hasn’t been the centre forward the side has desperately needed. The 1-0 defeat to Millwall was his 21st successive match without a goal, a run dating back to the start of April. For Reading, it was the first time they had gone three games without scoring since December 2018.
There appeared little sign or hope of these droughts ending at Birmingham on Saturday. Puscas started up front again and it was the same tired support act behind him that couldn’t even muster a shot on target at The Den on Tuesday.
When Liam Moore gifted the Blues the lead inside three minutes at St Andrew’s, there was a sense that it could be another predictable 90: Reading concede an unavoidable goal and go on to lose 1-0 because of their lack of energy and cutting edge in the final third. Like day turning into night, Jahmari Clarke would replace Puscas in the 81st minute but not have enough time to make an impact of the game.
But at half-time, Veljko Paunovic, perhaps being driven crazy by listening to BBC Radio Berkshire’s commentary from home, went off script. He made the Clarke for Puscas switch earlier than usual and also changed formation, switching from a 3-4-3 to a 4-1-4-1, deploying Andy Yiadom as a winger (we’ll come back to that later). It was one of Paunovic’s boldest and most intuitive tactical decisions of the season, which would prove a masterstroke.
It has been difficult to gauge quite how ready for first-team football Clarke is from his 10-minute cameos at the end of games. After all, this is the 18-year-old’s first season at under-23 level, let alone senior level. Paunovic has used him with caution and really only out of necessity due to injuries to Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite, Junior Hoilett and Azeez.
But in scoring two goals in the space of 12 minutes to turn Saturday’s game on its head, Clarke displayed attributes that Reading have been crying out from a centre forward all season. Before we go any further, this isn’t intended to be a slight on Puscas. But when the player who replaces him wins the game with a brace, it is hard not to be drawn into comparisons which inevitably are not going to paint the Romanian in the best light.
Clarke the aerial threat
Let’s start with the equaliser. A cross from from the left, headed in by the striker in the middle: one of the most rudimentary types of goal in football, but not one scored by Reading previously this season. The Royals average the joint-fewest crosses per game in the Championship (12) and part of the reason for that is there is simply no target in the box in open play. Their only two previous headed goals this season have come from set-pieces, scored by centre-backs Liam Moore and Scott Dann.
Puscas is actually only three centimetres shorter than Clarke, but he is not a clear aerial threat - after all, only one of his 18 goals for Reading have come with his head. Clarke equalled that with his first senior goal.
It’s the teenager’s movement that I really love about this goal. I’ve cut the clip just before Clarke makes the header, but just watch what he does in the build-up.
He’s a real handful for Marc Roberts (number 4), jostling with the Birmingham centre-back who is unable to predict which way Clarke is going to move next. Then as John Swift’s cross comes in, the striker makes a darting run across Roberts, allowing him to expertly glance his header into the back of the net. The defender will be unhappy that he allowed that to happen, but it’s much more down to Clarke’s awareness and ability to anticipate the cross.
Clarke the poacher
There’s someone else to first praise in the build-up to the second goal. All hail Andrew Kyere Yiadom. As mentioned, the Ghanaian international played further up the pitch in the second half and made Reading a threat out wide, something that has been sorely lacking in the absence of Junior Hoilett and Alen Halilovic. What the latter in particular brought to the team following his summer arrival was a directness and a drive on the right flank, which proved especially fruitful in the away win at Fulham. Yiadom replicated that in the second half at St Andrew’s.
It’s no coincidence that the 29-year-old was the only starter at Birmingham that didn’t feature on Tuesday against Millwall. His freshness showed and was a glimpse into how dangerous Reading could be if they had the capability to rest more of the squad.
Yiadom starts the move for the second goal with an excellent tackle on Jeremie Bela inside his own half. Having got up off the ground, he ushers Clarke away from the ball and then surges Reading forward, driving inwards towards the edge of the box, avoiding lunging tackles on the way from Ivan Sunjic and Mitchell Roberts, who are evidently scared of Yiadom’s pace and unable to stop him.
There was probably a moment in Yiadom’s mind when he felt he could go all the way and score a Diego Maradona-esque solo goal, but he releases the ball to Swift at just the right moment. The midfielder’s shot is saved by Matija Sarkic, who can only parry the ball back out into the danger area. This is where Clarke comes back into the equation. If you look at where the teenager is when the the ball stings Sarkic’s palms, he doesn’t have any real right to be the first onto the rebound.
But whereas Birmingham’s defenders are standing still, Clarke anticipates where the ball is going to drop and gets a first-time shot away. Sarkic makes another save and, once again, the odds are against Clarke in getting to the rebound. This time, Marc Roberts is in the striker’s path to the ball, but Clarke’s anticipation and determination to react quickest are even greater this time around. He muscles past Roberts, who is virtually a statue, and pokes home the winner.
Again, this poacher-like centre-forward play is something Reading have lacked this season. Just 4% of the team’s shots have come inside the six-yard box - the lowest percentage in the Championship. Whether it was Clarke’s eagerness to impress in his longest first-team appearance so far or his adrenaline after scoring the first goal, his desire to follow up after having his first shot saved was brilliant to see.
The teenager touched the ball just once more after that game-winning moment in the 82nd minute and only had a total of nine touches in 45 minutes. But a third of them were shots on target and crucially, two of them (22.2%) were goals. That’s how to be an efficient, instinctive centre forward.