When Ovie Ejaria signed for Reading from Liverpool, Royals fans couldn’t believe their luck. Here we were under the impression that the club was operating under an embargo all the way back in summer 2020, and yet the club was able to dislodge the limber midfielder from the Reds. Moreover, they managed to do it for just £3 million: a snip considering what Reading fans had seen from the player during his 1.5 loan seasons in Berkshire.
Over that initial loan time, Ejaria looked like one of the silkiest players ever to grace the Madejski Stadium. His proficiency for beating his man, not through pace but through fast and precise drags and dangles, regularly had us in raptures.
To put it bluntly: the man had serious tekkers.
A season and a bit into the four-year deal that Ovie signed though, he appears to be going through his first dry spell in form. Ejaria was anonymous against Sheffield United, and whether truly through injury or just being given a rest, missed the 3-2 win against Swansea City. With Tom Dele-Bashiru providing steadiness and adventure down Ovie’s usual side, it’s tough to say Ejaria was missed. Ejaria will have time to return to form, and I’ve no doubt he will, but it’s worth spending some time looking at what’s going on with his slow start to the season.
The stats tell a similar story. In Ejaria’s two full seasons for Reading, 2019/20 and 2020/21, he’s been remarkably consistent, scoring three goals and picking up five assists in both. That gave him a G+A/90 of 0.23 in both years. This season though, his two strikes against Fulham, fantastic though they were, have been his only goal involvements at all across 14 appearances - all of them starts.
That’s given him a G+A/90 of 0.14, and despite it being a reduction of 0.09 G+A/90, it still feels like it flatters Ejaria’s performances in 2021/22 a bit, given that it came in just one day.
This is understandably disappointing and it only gets worse when you drill past goals. His shots per game are also down. In fact, in his 14 appearances they’ve been split in half, from 1.2 last year to 0.6 this year. His pass-success percentage is also down, but more concerning for a player so good with his feet, his attempted dribbles per game have halved since the 2019/20 season, from 3.1 to 2.7 last season, and then a steep drop to 1.5 this year.
As Reading fans we might have expected Ejaria to press on this season, but right now he’s regressing. As we needed Ejaria to make more of an attacking contribution, he’s instead shied away, taking fewer shots and attempting fewer dribbles. Clearly, he has talent up there with the best in the league to affect the game offensively at this level, but something isn’t clicking for him right now, so what could it be?
Ejaria missed the start of the season and was deputised by first Ethan Bristow and then a mix of TDB and Junior Hoillett, returning for the 3-3 draw with QPR. He hit the ground running just a week later with his brace against Fulham, but has struggled to affect games since. It’s worth noting though that, until he missed the Swansea game with a knock, he had played all but 17 minutes of 14 games in a row since he returned. That’s a staggering workload in a league where many teams boast offensive depth: an unfortunate consequence of Reading’s somewhat easing injury crisis.
It could be argued then that any downturn this year is due to a player not at 100% being pushed to play more than his capacity would normally allow. That can’t account for all of the issues at play though.
Lack of end product?
Beyond tiredness though, Ovie has for a while demonstrated an unfortunate lack of end product. While he’s more comfortable with the ball at his feet than perhaps any of his teammates, Ovie rarely combines that with looking for a quick through ball or shot opportunity. He will instead often choose to try to beat his man one on one, and then another... and another if needed.
His tricky style is part of what endeared him to Reading fans in the first place and can still be magic when it comes off. As has been more common of late though, those attempts to hold the ball can mean him holding it too long, and he can be caught on the ball after trying just one or two drag-back too many. That’s led to his dribbling figures taking a significant step back this season.
The frustrating thing is that when Ovie finds himself as the furthest man forward, he’s demonstrated with impressive goals against Fulham and Barnsley that he can be a clinical finisher: often finding the bottom corner! So why isn’t he taking chances more often?
Ejaria is admittedly an odd fish. He doesn’t celebrate goals with the fervent passion of some of his teammates, and certainly appears to be one of the quieter members of the dressing room, rarely appearing in interviews unless he’s scored for his side. Could it be then that Ovie is a confidence player, somewhat akin to Joao?
At his current rate of return, it wouldn’t be surprising to me to see Ejaria slip behind Hoilett in the pecking order upon that player’s return. While I can’t imagine that would help Ejaria’s confidence at all, Pauno has shown himself to be a competent man manager who can look after a player’s confidence and motivation. Given that Ovie is one of the few players almost guaranteed to be with the Royals next year, I’d like to see Pauno work his magic sooner rather than later!
Another option may be to switch him to a different position on the pitch.
Player or system?
I think you can make a convincing argument that Ovie has rarely, if ever, been played in his preferred position with the Royals, and certainly not while under Paunovic. I would even argue that there is no real best position for Ejaria with our usual systems: 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1. It might be nice to see Ejaria closer to Swift in the middle of the park, but do we shift Laurent or Drinkwater out of the team to accommodate that? Is Dele Bashiru a consistently better option on the left if so?
Therefore to me, the real question with Ejaria is whether his recent downturn in form is due to something going on with his own qualities, or to being asked to do something that doesn’t best suit his talents. Ejaria has been used on the left for Reading throughout his time in Berkshire. At no point though have I felt I could call him a natural wide player: he lacks the pace and affinity for the touchline to be a traditional winger, and doesn’t have the direct urge to shoot of an inverted winger.
In fact, Ejaria reminds me somewhat of the conversation around Pogba, who has had trouble finding a consistent place within the Manchester United lineup, but looks a different player for France. The question is then: where is Ejaria best placed on the field? What position and set of responsibilities would best utilise his significant skills in ball-carrying and (usually) retention?
That question doesn’t have an easy answer, but if Ovie continues to spurn opportunities to shoot or carry the ball forward, he may find himself behind more effective players in the rotation once the injury crisis subsides. That would be a shame, but points are paramount until relegation fears are abated, and perhaps Hoillett or Femi Azeez give us a better chance of taking home all three on any given Saturday.
I love watching Ejaria and I’m excited that his future will be with the Royals. But for now, perhaps a spell on the sidelines could be just the ticket for a player who looks as though he needs time to rebuild his form.