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Puscas And João: How To Play Them Together

Why a prolific partnership could reignite our season.

Photos by Steve Parsons/John Walton; PA Images via Getty Images

Last Saturday’s game against Middlesbrough felt like a classic reminder of what it is to be a Championship team. Reading have looked scintillating going forward at times this season. In the second half against Middlesbrough though, a steady defence and classic Championship aggression made us look perpetually miles away from scoring.

Against Wycombe Wanderers, some combination of the team sheet, the uninspired substitutions and Lucas João unfortunately being unable to keep his head at a key moment cost us. João has already done, and will again, win us games by himself this year, and so while some criticism of his last two performances is valid, it’s more than likely we’ll be back to singing his praises in the near future.

Regardless, thanks to the start we had, getting into the play-offs this year is still very much in our hands, and we’ve bounced back before. The question will just be whether we can stop the bleeding at home (yet again!) and whether our squad depth can weather the storm of games coming our way as the campaign draws to a speedy conclusion.

With the workload high, and not abating any time soon, this Reading side will have to show more ability to change their offensive lineup regularly without losing a step.

George Puscas’ return from a hamstring injury could therefore provide a hugely important boost in depth to the squad. With João being defended more and more tightly every week, adding a dangerous second striker such as Puscas could be an enticing way to pull the attention of defenders away from João. Whether that option interests Paunovic is anybody’s guess, but something is needed to freshen up the attack.

A partnership between the two could bring out the best in both players. Much of last season, Reading fans lamented that Mark Bowen was unwilling to give Puscas a striking partner, as he hustled and bustled but struggled to make an impact for large swathes of the season as a lone striker. Puscas was capable of finishing 50% of the chances created for him, but often struggled to create his own until the end of the season (and excusing that run and score against Cardiff). Meanwhile on João’s side, having a buddy near him to do some of his running should help to keep Lucas fit, and also let him focus on drifting into undefended spaces ready for a shot.

It seems to me then that there would be much benefit in trying to ignite our play-off run-in by giving João and Puscas a go together. With the need to rotate obviously apparent, it’s even likely that we’ll see it at some point in the coming weeks. Here’s a few ways in which we could utilise the two players to bring out the best in both.

The usual formation: João behind Puscas

This familiar line-up would mean Puscas leading the line, and João sitting as the middle option in the attacking three. This could seem counter-intuitive: I don’t want to limit anything João has been doing this year. That said, he’s not the most willing chaser in the press, and I’d argue that Puscas was a better harrier of defenders last year than João this year. What Puscas can’t necessarily do is create his own chances, and thus I feel this formation would work better with Puscas poaching chances from up top, and João bringing the ball forward.

João is good with the ball at his feet moving forward quickly, and dropping him deeper would give him a chance to collect goal kicks and move forward with an option ahead of him in the form of Puscas. Reading have been a team that have (perhaps obviously) been at their most dangerous when they move the ball forward quickly, and I think that sitting one of our better dribblers of the ball deeper would add another spoke to that wheel.

A criticism of this set-up could be that it could limit our creativity in attack by taking a playmaker out of the attacking three. João however isn’t an uncreative player and certainly a more creative option in the attacking three than Alfa Semedo or even Sone Aluko. João has been one of our most clinical passers in the offensive third, and is tied with Ovie Ejaria on five assists this year: good for second place in the squad.

Moreover, a criticism of Reading’s offence this year has been their unwillingness to shoot. Bringing in a second goal-minded striker could add a killer instinct to a Reading offence that occasionally tries to hold onto the ball just that second or two too long in the box.

It’s also likely that we’ll see João rested a few times before the end of the season, and with Lucas on the sidelines, Puscas should be able to link up well with Olise coming down the middle. Speaking of Olise down the middle, let’s discuss ways to get João, Puscas, and Olise clicking together in the middle of the park using some recently seen RG3 formations.

Two men up front - previously used options that could suit João and Puscas

Unfortunately, as I recently wrote about Swift’s importance to the promotion push, it looks as though we won’t be able to count on John until April. My ideas for formations that include two up top then are looking to do one thing in particular that the current formation cannot if we want to accommodate João and Puscas: keep Olise in the middle of the park. Olise’s performance against Bristol City and his lead at the top of the assists chart is enough for me to conclude that, without Swift in the team, Olise should be centering the attacking midfielders and operating as our main creative passer between the lines.

Formations that involve two strikers are fairly rare these days, and Paunovic has seemed committed to a lone striker role. After the Middlesbrough disappointment however, Pauno clearly signalled a willingness to try new options when asked if he’d consider a partnership between João and Puscas, stating: “Why not? They’ve played like that in the past and also this season when fit so that’s a possibility.”

Here’s a pair of options that we’ve seen before then could foster a traditional partnership between João and Puscas, while also allowing Olise his central roles.

Midfield diamond

The immediate issue with the midfield diamond (and indeed in my opinion the reason we haven’t seen it much this year) is that it implies breaking up the holding bank of Josh Laurent and Andy Rinomhota. That would seem like an instant reason to abandon this plan in favor of defensive rigidity. As astutely noted on The Tilehurst End Podcast this week however, Reading haven’t been entirely defensively sound recently, and the diamond allows players who can put in a shift on both sides of the field (such as Ejaria or Andy Yiadom) to adapt to what the game situation calls for.

The prime period of success with the midfield diamond, the Christmas 2019 run which was previously featured in this column, is long gone now, but we saw then how lethal it can be on the counter attack, and this speedy lineup could prove ruthless. Perhaps then, sacrificing some defence for offence could push us past more defensively limited sides a la the early season Blackburn victory. This formation suggests switching out Rinomhota or Meite based upon the offensive qualities of the team we’re facing, and the need for physicality.

I think Puscas and João could play either as a flat two up front, or indeed João could drop deeper to contest goal kicks, and charge forward from deeper as suggested previously. In any case though, this formation does a great job of getting Olise high up the pitch and creating with our two goal threats, and supplements that with three versatile midfield players capable of bringing the ball out of our half and contributing to the attack.

Three at the back

Some of you will have shuddered and scrolled right by as soon as you saw the phrase “three at the back”. Jaap Stam’s favoured formation certainly ground out results in his first season in charge, but the moment other teams worked out how to counter it, Reading looked fresh out of ideas going forward.

Reading are going to need to grind some results this year however, and while Stam’s 17/18 team was footballing Night Nurse, Reading didn’t concede more than two goals in a league game that season until a month before Stam was sacked. That highlights the three at the back’s ability to tighten things up, and generally do to other teams what Boro did to us in the second half recently. So with that said, let’s rehash some nightmares!

This could work as a second-half formation for seeing out leads. Dropping one of the Championship’s best holding midfield duos in front of three excellent central defenders should provide an almost impassable block down the middle. Depending on the game situation, Richards and Yiadom would have license to push forward and keep opposing full backs humble, while also being able to drop back and add some serious defensive chops to an already strong backline.

I’m not saying we’d be looking forward to 90 minutes of Jogo Bonito if Reading employed this formation, but it’d take an awful lot of firepower to push through.

Conclusion

So now that I’ve performed a passable role as Puscas’ agent by imploring his immediate return to the first team squad, I look forward to him heading straight back to the physio’s table next week, just as my curse banished Swift earlier this month. If Puscas can stay fit though, I’d be excited to see our explosive magician Lucas and last season’s trooper George come together.

Because if you can’t put together a traditional English two-striker attack with a Portuguese Santa cosplayer and a Romanian international, well perhaps you just can’t do it in this day and age...