In Saturday’s fixture against West Brom, Reading had more than a handful of problems. The game plan was poor from the start, and disappointingly didn’t pay any heed to the Baggies’ Covid-enforced problems at the back. Performances were awry as well though. Tom Dele-Bashiru’s touch was heavy all day, Tyrell Ashcroft was interesting going forward and found himself in useful positions, but was caught out too easily and frequently at the back.
These are performances from a loan star who’s been asked to carry much of Ovie Ejaria’s missing weight in the XI and a 17-year-old though. We might expect poor performances every now and again. Where they absolutely cannot be tolerated though is in central defence, and from your captain.
And Liam Moore’s erratic display against the Baggies, despite showing no lack of effort, was emblematic of a growing issue under the captain’s tenure. Moore’s performances have been slipping for a while, and although this may be harsh, I think out of our five first-team options at CB (Moore, Michael Morrison, Scott Dann, Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre), Moore might be the worst available if all are fit.
Thanks to divided opinions on Moore though, I doubt this will be a particular unpopular opinion; that should be crazy to say about the captain, and it’s still a difficult thing to write about. Moore, despite his struggles with Reading, has been nothing but a consummate professional since external interest around him ended after the summer of 2018. His performances and fan perception though have forced him and the club into a tricky situation.
Today, let’s take a look at that situation, how it begun, and how the club and player can move forward.
Moore’s display against West Brom wasn’t good, with the second half in particular being poor. Prior to the goal, he almost let Robinson in behind easily, seemingly trying to shepherd him out wide without realising how central Robinson was. Moore failed to make a challenge on the cross coming into the box for Robinson’s eventual goal, despite knowing he was the only man who could. Shortly after, he almost put it into his own net with a wild swing that could have gone anywhere. In short: it wasn’t his finest.
To me, many of Moore’s on-pitch struggles seem to indicate a man not confident enough to impose himself on the game. It’s certainly possible that the tumult of the previous few seasons with Reading have helped him on the way to that, but it doesn’t help his case regardless. In a back four, Moore can be beaten by more mobile players who pass around his fairly static style. In a back three, he doesn’t do enough organising of his defensive partners to ensure mistakes are only made once.
Moore can also be exposed in the air, not always through his athleticism (it’d be tough to criticise Moore for that), but through his positioning. Oftentimes, I feel as though Moore is guilty of ball-watching when he should be actively picking a man and tracking him. If the ball goes wide, he often lets himself be drawn towards the ball carrier, rather than staying positionally astute. Conversely, if a ball carrier is running at him, Moore will back off and be reactively looking for the block, rather than proactively making a challenge.
The start of the season’s issues with defending set plays were obviously not all down to Moore, but if you watch the goals back in totality, Moore can be seen either losing out in the air or not being in the right place as a man goes free. Each of the goals in the 3-3 QPR game were great examples of Moore’s primary deficiencies: questionable positioning, detrimental ball watching, lack of organisation.
Many of these items have been seen before in Moore’s previous performances, but things do appear to be slipping further recently.
Moore’s performance levels, already questioned in recent seasons, have been slipping even further this year. You can determine this with the eye test, but the trend is also visible in statistics. All stats today are from WhoScored.
His tackles-per-game average is currently the lowest of his career at just 0.5. That’s split in half in just two seasons from his 1.1 high water mark in 2019/20. This speaks to what I’d noticed from the eye test in the above segment: that 2021/22 Moore is willing to ball watch and back off from an opponent rather than jump in for the tackle. The question is: is this something he’s been told to change?
One telling stat that perhaps speaks to Moore’s unsuited-ness in our system is his number of clearances. While in previous seasons Moore would often average upwards of five clearances a game, since Pauno came in, Moore has slipped to around just three. A lot of that is obviously happening because of Pauno’s insistence on his team playing out from the back regardless of the game situation.
It does make you wonder if Moore’s struggles under Paunovic speak to a man not ideally suited to playing in a passing system however. Even under Stam, another possession-focused manager, Moore was still hoofing the ball clear more than twice as much as he does under Pauno. Forcing him to play out under pressure is clearly one way in which Moore’s shortcomings will come to the fore, and for me, it’s a reason why Holmes should always start over Moore.
So, whether it’s through system or individual performance level, something isn’t working for Moore this year. In my opinion, it’s tough to say he would have deservedly kept his place without the injuries to Morrison and McIntyre.
The men he’s up against
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that each of the four centre backs Moore is competing with at Reading have demonstrated a higher level of ability than Moore over the past year. You could perhaps argue that Holmes and McIntyre haven’t risen to his level yet, but I think the ground upon which that opinion stands is getting shaky.
Holmes can have shaky games and is clearly not yet a fully savvy Championship operator. If consistency arrives however he should be banging on the door to replace Moore almost permanently, especially as he’s far more adept at Pauno’s system of playing the ball out from the back. McIntyre is of course still a great unknown given his injury this year, but signs last year indicated that he could be the pick of the bunch if given time to reach his ceiling.
Additionally, and more damning for Moore, in his capacity as captain, both Dann and most notably Morrison have shown more ability and desire to organise and coordinate the players around them - typically a captain’s responsibility.
This is perhaps unsurprising. Morrison and Dann have both been captains in recent seasons, and missing the experience of the relegation-threatened years likely allowed those players to ignore the atmosphere at the club and import their own discipline into the defence. The issue for Moore is that those players are also steady, and have given better performances this year. If Reading do move on, they won’t need to search far for a new captain.
The man as a captain and what he’s endured
It’s easy now to forget that Moore’s first appearances as captain came in the 2018/19 season, a campaign in which he missed the first two matches due to speculation over his future at the club. Entirely speculatively, it seems to me that the idea of giving him the full captaincy from the 2019/20 season on was partly to sell fans on Moore again now that the interest had dried up, and partly to give Moore a greater sense of purpose at Reading to assuage his own disappointment.
I want to make it clear that I have a lot of respect for Moore’s attitude. This summer he barely had a break: playing with his country in Japan and then North America either side of the Euro tournament, before returning to Bearwood less than a week after Jamaica’s elimination from the Gold Cup. I was impressed at the time by his commitment and I’m still impressed now. Say what you want about Moore, but he’s always demonstrated that he takes being captain seriously.
That said, I was also concerned at the time about the lack of a rest, and I remain no less concerned that Moore’s decision to take essentially no summer break was a poor one. It seems that choice may have contributed directly to his spells on the sideline this year, but who knows when it comes to Reading’s injury luck?
Moore has been through a lot while captaining Reading, seeing several managers come and go during his time with the armband. I often wonder if it’s not a position that suits him, and more one that he’s been forced into for the above reasons. However, four managers have now seen fit to have him either as club captain, or a co-captain in the final season of McShane. Surely that means they’ve spotted something captain-like in Liam?
The club appears to as well. They’ve previously asked Moore to be the face of their organisation at times of managerial transition. I remember countless interviews from Moore in the days between Bowen and Paunovic. He did all of this despite the fact that he was being looked at for a move at the same time, but unfortunately, toeing the party line hasn’t always endeared him to the fanbase.
There is a feeling that Moore has created a reputation as somebody who says all of the right things, but seems to come up short with his actions on the pitch. Moore knows what a captain should do and say off the pitch but on it, he’s both quiet and prone to mistakes.
This has led to Moore having to deal with a divided Reading fan-base, culminating in the ugly and abhorrent incident when Moore deleted his online social presence at the tail end of last season due to infantile and completely unacceptable racist comments. Whatever you think about Liam Moore, we should be able to agree there’s no place for that in the world, let alone football.
So, Moore has always been a player that splits opinions, especially since the period of interest from Brighton, now well in the rear-view mirror, that appeared to turn his head. It’s tough to imagine the environment in which that interest took place now, with Moore’s performances and thus value, slipping considerably in recent seasons.
This is what makes the situation even more difficult. Moore is one of the few first-team players whose contract doesn’t end at the conclusion of the current season. That would suggest he’s one of our few saleable assets that could return a reasonable price, but it’s difficult to see who would be a buyer for Moore at this stage of his career.
Per Transfermarkt (so, grain of salt implied), Moore’s value has plummeted since the pandemic pause at the end of March 2020. He entered March 2020 valued at 7.7 million. Just 21 months later, his value has split in half, to just 3.8 million. He’s also 28 and, given his recent commitment to playing for Jamaica, is a player who will be jet-setting away from any team he plays for several times a year for the foreseeable future.
Moore’s wages, as has been discussed countless times in recent years, are reportedly astronomical as well. That means he will either need to be bought by a team that can pay him a realistic portion of that salary for his agents to consider a move, or he’ll be hanging around at the Madejski.
And thus, we’re stuck in this awkward middle-ground with Moore. It would probably be best for both the player and the club if an amicable parting of the ways were to take place, but realistically, that doesn’t seem likely until the summer.
But what do we do in the meantime? Continue to play Moore ahead of Holmes and McIntyre, even though that’s taking minutes away from potential development time for those young players? Do we play him ahead of Dann or Morrison when fit, even though those players have shown greater aptitude for both organising a defence and being part of it?
There’s no easy answer to any of this. That is of course, unless Moore’s performances start to improve, or what he’s being asked to do is simplified. Here’s hoping…