Every now and again we ask for you to rate Reading’s manager and owners. Halfway through the season and just after the close of the January transfer window, it feels like a good time to do that again.
It’s the second approval rating for Paunovic, who you gave a very impressive average score of 4.51/5 back in mid-October. That’s the second-highest we’ve ever had in our series of manager polls, going all the way back to February 2015. The highest went to Jaap Stam shortly after he guided Reading to a play-off final against Huddersfield Town in May 2017.
There are a few similarities between Paunovic in 2020/21 and Stam in 2016/17. Both are charismatic, young managers who made a surprisingly quick start to management in England after little previous experience in the dugout but a commendable playing career. 26 games into the season, Stam’s Reading was fifth on 46 points, while Paunovic’s Reading is now fourth on 47.
Since that poll in October, Reading’s form has been good enough to establish them in the top six, but not quite consistent enough to push into the top two. From 21 games in that period, the Royals have won 10, drawn four and lost seven (the only Championship defeats of the campaign overall). Based on that time frame alone, Reading would be sixth, above Barnsley on goal difference, but with a game in hand that could take us up to fourth.
However, Paunovic has had to deal with more than his fair share of injuries in the last few months. Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite, John Swift and Liam Moore are among those to have missed significant amounts of game time, and that certainly held the Royals’ league form back somewhat across November and December.
Paunovic has also had some work to do in managing young players. Primarily that’s Michael Olise, whose minutes he’s often restricted in an apparent effort to prevent the playmaker from getting burn-out. Olise’s form has been consistent across the season and, unlike almost most attacking players in Reading’s squad, he’s yet to be sidelined by injury for any extended period. In addition, Pauno’s handed out some more academy debuts in the last few months: Jayden Onen, Oliver Pendlebury, Mamadi Camara and Conor Lawless
On the flipside, I was a bit frustrated in December when Pauno failed to come up with a convincing tactical alternative to Joao. The frontman’s absence - in addition to that of Meite and George Puscas - meant Reading lacked a target man, so a different system was required. Although there was some promise in the 4-3-3 used at Brentford, Reading generally looked pretty toothless going forwards in mid-to-late December - although it didn’t result in a drop down the table.
Last time out, things didn’t look too good for the Dais. Having got an impressive 3.93 in March 2020, their score dropped to 2.92 in July.
The last few months have been quiet behind the scenes at Reading. On one level that’s frustrating: the Royals didn’t sign any players in January and are yet to agree any new contracts with key players. Omar Richards, Tom McIntyre and Michael Morrison are among those due to leave the club in the summer, while tying Olise down to a longer-term deal would be a big boost amid uncertainty over his future - albeit a tough ask.
The contracts situation has got pretty worrying more broadly. Reading are due to start next season with the following senior squad (players in bold are also contracted for the season after next): Rafael, Yiadom, Moore, Holmes, Rinomhota, Laurent, Araruna, Meite, Swift, Olise, Ejaria, Joao, Puscas, McNulty.
Dealing with all of that is a vital task for the owners, and one that’s been left unattended for too long. Although that may well be due to a lack of money available to devote to contract renewals, that’s still their responsibility.
On the other hand though, they’ve done well to keep the squad intact. Reading retained all their key players in January, despite heavy speculation linking Olise to a move away, and that group is still in a strong position to push for promotion this season.
I’d also argue that the owners’ long-term management of the squad has been good for the academy. There’s been significant long-term investment in Reading’s youth set-up and training facilities at Bearwood, the consistent appointment of managers who are willing to give academy prospects a shot in the first team, and the clearing-out of fringe players who’d block the pathway.
This season that’s resulted in some impressive stats for youth development. A total of 10 youngsters have been given their debut this season - three of them in the youth-heavy Reading side that lost 1-0 to Luton Town in the FA Cup a few weeks ago. We’re also now at a stage where 50% of the Royals’ squad (those who’ve played in the Championship, League Cup or FA Cup) has come through the academy. Ultimately, the Dais deserve praise for their part in this.
Let us know what you think of Pauno and the owners in the polls below. Grade them from 1-5 (one is lowest, five is highest). If the polls don’t display on your device, please use this link.