Whew, who doesn’t love John Swift? He surged forward again and again from deep against Bournemouth to stitch the defence and attack together. He slipped the ball to Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise in dangerous positions. His fluid movement allowed Andy Rinomhota to barrel further forward, and his interplay with the cultured but more ergonomic Josh Laurent is a real fire-and-ice situation in the middle of the park. Swift is a man who not only contributes to results: he makes everyone around him play better as well.
In my opinion, Swift has quietly put together one of the best individual Reading FC careers of any Royal in the century so far. Aston Villa’s interest in the summer certainly speaks to that. Regardless of who’s playing around him, regardless of the position of the team in the table, Swift has been consistently capable of pulling out a performance good enough to drag Reading to three points. I’m not the first on this site to note that when Swift plays well, Reading play well.
Our midfield has been the strength of the team this year: Olise is an exciting prospect and his ceiling may be higher than Swift’s. Ejaria’s quick feet are from a toolbox Swift rarely opens. Rino and Josh have been peerless in the middle of the park. And. Yet. And yet Swift’s re-entrance into the team has felt significant. He fully embodies Pauno’s early statement that “we don’t need to worry about formations” as he drifts productively from the deeper areas and arrives late in the box with equal commonality.
As I sat down to write about him this week, I made it 30 minutes into the research before stumbling across this new post from the club, and more evidence of just how long Swift has been key was presented to me. While this squad looked very different four years ago, this was yet another night when Swift proved to be the difference between the teams. That little extra bit of quality to squeeze a goal out of a mediocre encounter has saved us countless times over his five years with the club.
Considering that though, it’s interesting to note that many Reading fans have said Swift isn’t always a clinical finisher. It may be a blessing in disguise, as if only that could improve, Swift might’ve been in the Premier League years ago. If anything was missing from his showing against Bournemouth though, it was the aforementioned finishing, with two chances missing the target. The first eking across the goal off his left foot as a horrified Olise watched on. The academy kid need never fear though, as we all know though: Swift only scores screamers.
Or of course, he hands the goals out
Swift recorded 10 assists last year in the Championship, his highest total since his loan season with Brentford. Now imagine what he can do with a reinvigorated Lucas Joao in front of him, and with a newly dangerous gamut of set-play routines under Pauno.
Part of what makes Swift adept at assisting is his lack of hesitation. For this goal at home to Hull City last season, as soon as he sees Jordan Obita make his run, he channels his inner quarterback, and protects Obita by immediately passing the ball in his stride but away from the defence. Obita does well to get the ball under the ‘keeper, but it’s likely made easier by the fact that he’s still scrambling to move across his goal. Away to Cardiff City, Swift moved quickly to take the ball into the box and then deliver a deft chip for Meite to head home before Cardiff’s holding midfielders woke up. Swift does things accurately, but more importantly, he does them quickly.
His delivery from free-kicks also led to assists last season, notably against Birmingham City. With Paunovic adding new set-piece routines this year, some of them featuring initial deliveries designed for returning across goal, accurate delivery is more crucial than ever. Of course, that’s not all Swift can do with free kicks...
Ok, so this highlight is an odd one that I mainly chose to spread this fun flashback (what on earth is the goalkeeper doing here?) Still, while Olise has been deputising well on set plays, it’s undeniable that at this point in time, and therefore likely for the remainder of the season, Swift is far more dangerous on free kicks. Olise has the curve, but struggles to get the power behind his set plays sometimes. The elephant in the room here is Olise’s free-kick assist on Tom McIntyre’s rebound goal against Bournemouth, but I feel that one mainly went in thanks to Asmir Begovic’s error than Olise’s strike.
More importantly though, Swift has previous at set plays that can’t be denied. His recent belter at the Madejski against Coventry City was when we all knew Swift was back. It was that trademark combination of something we’ve come to expect from the midfielder, while also being utterly stunning. Here we also see that all-important power as well. The Coventry goalkeeper makes a mistake and takes a step in the wrong direction. Still, even though he’s on the right side of the goal when the ball arrives, the absolute rocket Swift has served up doesn’t give the keeper time to correct his mistake.
Swift coming back into the team objectively improves us on free kicks. When your star player can beat the goalkeeper with a dead ball from 30 yards, that might make opposition defences think twice about making a challenge in a dangerous area outside of the box. When players do back off from making a challenge, that leaves more room for:
The aforementioned screamers
I think that Swift’s penchant for a thunderbastard comes for the same reason he always seems to be “showing for the ball”: confidence. It doesn’t matter whether the ball just arrived with him and is sitting up on the turf nicely or if Swift carried it up the pitch himself; he’s always willing to test the goalkeeper from range.
So then to summarise: Swift’s ability to score from distance, to pass you to death, or to capitalise on a free kick provides opposition defences with a sickly trio of regrettable options. His return to the team and subsequent return to form has the potential to be hugely influential for the rest of the season, hopefully in front of the net!
Picture being a Championship defender. When Swift comes barreling over the halfway line toward your box, you can a) come forward to challenge for it and risk leaving space for Ejaria, Joao, or Olise to nip behind, b) back off a little, risking Swift taking a speculative but not unlikely shot at goal, or c) challenge Swift, and risk giving away a free-kick from which he’s capable of scoring.
It’s not a choose-your-own-adventure book that I’d want to read...