How good is Ovie Ejaria?
Going by the most recent evidence - a dazzling individual display at home to Queens Park Rangers that really should have ended in two assists for him and three points for Reading - the answer is obvious: he’s brilliant. Few other players in the Royals’ recent history can match Ejaria’s close control, balletic balance and general ability to inspire fear in an opposition defence. Ejaria put all those traits on glorious display against QPR.
He even seems capable of surprising himself, let alone those watching on. You’ll sometimes see Ejaria apparently lose balance or run into a cul-de-sac before abruptly dancing his way out of trouble - and then past a defender. Or two. Or three. His involvement in Michael Olise’s glorious first-half chance demonstrated that:
There are a few points in that move when I felt certain that Ejaria had run out of steam: when the first defender appears to win the ball, when Ovie’s balance slips on the edge of the box, and then when he’s being shepherded to the byline. His vision to spot Olise and then find him with a cute pull-back is a great example of how Ejaria is so often one step ahead of those trying to stop him.
Not content with pulling a rabbit out of a hat once, he did so again in the build-up to Liam Moore’s disallowed equaliser. Here, he ducks and weaves his way through a handful of defenders as if they weren’t there.
And then there was his defence-splitting pass to Lucas Joao, who really should have made it 2-1 to Reading. The accuracy, weight and timing of this assist are superb; Ejaria takes the defender just in front of Joao out of the game, leaves the goalkeeper stranded rather than letting him gather the ball, and finds Joao’s run at just the right point so he doesn’t lose his momentum. This pass looks simple, but executing it so well is the difference between a difficult sight of goal and a golden opportunity.
Sublime dribbling - check.
Pinpoint passing - check.
Two other players in Reading’s squad surpass Ejaria for the second of those two qualities: Michael Olise and John Swift. That’s not to talk Ejaria down of course - Olise and Swift are the Royals’ leading assisters for this season and last respectively, the former is arguably the best talent this club’s academy has ever produced and the latter is - for me at least - the squad’s best attacking player (when he’s fit).
But neither of them can match Ejaria’s dribbling ability. Well, few in the division can - Ejaria’s stat of 2.7 successful dribbles per game (according to WhoScored) is second only to Bright Osayi-Samuel’s 2.8, and he left QPR for Fenerbahçe midway through the campaign. Ejaria is now well clear of the closest competition, which - for context - has a couple of players on 2 and 1.9.
Mixing close control and the ability to pick a pass is what makes Ejaria so special. His talent is clear to see. But, in truth, knowing he has that talent makes his inconsistency all the more frustrating. Ejaria has managed just two goals and five assists from his 31 league appearances so far this season. That’s not awful, and puts him fourth for goal contributions behind Lucas Joao (25), Michael Olise (15) and Yakou Meite (10), but it’s not what you’d expect from someone with his ability.
However, his stats come out worse when you refine them according to the time he’s spent on the pitch. Here’s how Ejaria stacks up against his fellow Reading attackers this season (I included Semedo due to the amount of time he’s spent as a number 10):
For someone who’s spent so much time on the pitch (only seven players in the squad have more league minutes this season while eight have more league appearances), you’d expect more product in the final third. The fact that Ejaria takes more time to contribute a goal or assist than bench-warmer Sone Aluko reinforces his lack of output. Strikingly, defender/midfielder Tom McIntyre isn’t too far behind Ejaria on 388.
So what’s gone wrong for Ejaria?
To answer this we need to start by going back to last season, when Ejaria was still very much a raw talent. He was only 21 at the beginning of 2019/20, which was his first full campaign at a single club, given that Ejaria had previously spent time in Liverpool’s academy and then on loan at Sunderland, Rangers and of course Reading in the back half of 2018/19.
In that light, a season of inconsistency shouldn’t be all too surprising. Ejaria started off excellently, winning our player of the month award in August, October and November, but had a much weaker second half of the campaign. That’s demonstrated in our player ratings, which you can see below. Note how the six-match rolling average (blue) trends down as the season progresses.
You can see the drop-off in his end product too. Having contributed three goals and two assists by the end of matchday 15 - the 3-0 win at home to Luton Town - Ejaria would manage just three more assists in the second half of the campaign: for Charlie Adam at Fulham on New Year’s Day, then for Yakou Meite at Sheffield Wednesday and Luton Town. More on these last two assists later.
To be fair to Ejaria, factors outside his control made consistency difficult. There was a change in management in October 2019, and the injury of Lucas Joao on New Year’s Day 2020 both denied Ejaria a competent target man to play off and significantly contributed to weaker performances from those around him.
The biggest problem came in how he was deployed. An ongoing tactical subplot to Reading’s 2019/20 season whether Ejaria should be played on the left of midfield or as a central number 10. The tendency of both Jose Gomes and Mark Bowen to try different formations - 4-2-3-1, 3-4-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 were among the set-ups used - only added to Ejaria’s positional inconsistency.
My view at the time was that Ejaria generally found space more often when used on the left of a 4-2-3-1 - not as an out-and-out winger, but as essentially a wide playmaker with the license to either link up with his full back or cut inside. Using him more centrally meant a bigger chance of him being crowded out.
Although he had success in that role, regularly linking up effectively with Tyler Blackett in a counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 during Reading’s four-match winning streak in late 2019 and early 2020, there was strong evidence to the contrary - that he really shone as a number 10. Some of his best displays last season - Cardiff City and Preston North End at home, West Bromwich Albion and Queens Park Rangers away - came from a central position.
So there were two key, interlinked questions for Ejaria ahead of 2020/21: could he develop the consistency that eluded him in 2019/20, and would he be able to settle in one favoured position?
In short: no and yes. Ejaria’s been frustratingly inconsistent this season - in fact, his average rating has slipped from 6.1 in 2019/20 to 5.9 in 2020/21. It’s not that bad a grade - for context, Olise and Meite are on 6.2 while Joao comes out at 6 - but regression is never a good thing.
He has however established himself in one position: on the left of a 4-2-3-1. That’s been facilitated both by Veljko Paunovic’s fondness for that formation (which Reading have used in the vast majority of matches this season) and the dearth of quality wide options in the squad - particularly on the left.
The second of those points is problematic. The lack of real competition from an established alternative left winger means Ejaria’s place in the side isn’t being challenged - thereby inviting complacency in his performances. In addition, it’s meant Ejaria has been overplayed for much of this season as resting him is a riskier prospect than Paunovic would like. The effect of it though has been that Ejaria’s been frequently tired, unable to find his best form due to sheer fatigue.
Having returned from injury after the first international break, Ejaria started 23 consecutive league matches before succumbing to a muscle injury that kept him out of the recent games against Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest. In those 23 fixtures he played at least 90 minutes 12 times, was substituted off before the 80th minute just six times, and was only brought off before the 75th minute on one occasion - when he played 73 minutes in the 0-0 draw at Swansea City.
Although Paunovic’s reticence to rest Ejaria is understandable due to the pressure of maintaining a play-off charge, he could have done more. Reading may not have another player who’s good enough to properly challenge Ejaria for his spot in the side, but they do have someone who can start a few games on the left here and there while Ejaria is rested: Sone Aluko.
In fact, after the period in December when Swift, Meite, Joao and Puscas were all injured - meaning Reading didn’t have the options to not play him - Aluko has started just twice (Huddersfield Town and Preston North End away), come off the bench eight times (generally played a quarter of an hour at most) and missed six matches.
Starting Aluko in Ejaria’s place in a few games would certainly have been a risk, but it would have meant a fresher Ejaria in other games. The irony though is that, as mentioned higher up, Aluko’s contributed goals and assists at a faster rate than Ejaria anyway.
There’s hope for the future though. The international break will be a huge boost for Ejaria who, having played so much football and missed a couple of games recently through injury, will be grateful for the rest. Ejaria will also be helped indirectly by the return of Yakou Meite who, having returned from injury, is set to play a key part in the final installment of Reading’s season - should he maintain his fitness.
For starters, it’ll mean Reading have less reliance on Ejaria’s flank. 40% of the Royals’ attacks go down the left - only six teams have a higher reliance on one wing: Huddersfield Town (43% left), Nottingham Forest (41% left), Swansea City (43% right), Sheffield Wednesday (42% right), Luton Town (41% right) and Preston North End (41% right). Bringing Meite back into the fold on the opposite side will hopefully mean there’s less pressure on Ejaria, or at least more space for him to work in, given that opposition defenders will be that bit more focused on what’s going on elsewhere.
Even if that left-wing reliance doesn’t change, Ejaria can still benefit. As dangerous as he is in dancing his way into the box past a few defenders, Ejaria’s best source of assists is in picking out a teammate who’s made a run in behind with a through ball. His pass for Joao against QPR is a good example - as are his assists at Hillsborough and Kenilworth Road last season... for Yakou Meite.
Note how similar the below through ball for Meite’s opener at Sheffield Wednesday last season is to the one for Joao against QPR. Side note: I discussed the build-up to this goal from Meite in greater depth here.
Ejaria’s registered an assist with a ball in behind a few times this season. Having set up Meite in that fashion for the opener at home to Rotherham United (admittedly it was kind of a cross), he then did similar at Bournemouth (for Aluko) and - to a lesser extent - at home to Bournemouth (for Joao). Meite though is the best player Reading have for providing a goal threat by making a run in behind an opposition defence, and his return will be a huge boost for Ejaria.
Looking further ahead, Ejaria is in a good position to kick on. Young players hoping to develop need a club that appreciates them, a manager that’s good at developing youth, and career stability. At Reading, Ejaria has all of those.
The last of those points should be cause for optimism not only for the player, but for the club too. Ejaria is one of only a handful of senior players in the squad (alongside Liam Moore, Lucas Joao, George Puscas and Yakou Meite) with a contract that runs beyond the end of next season (it’s due to expire in 2024).
In contrast to the fairly turbulent early years of his career before he signed a permanent deal at the Madejski Stadium, his contract status should give him the stability he needs to focus on improving his game - rather than wondering where he’ll be playing in a few months’ time. And from Reading’s point of view, it’s refreshing to actually have a promising talent tied down for a few years to come.
Stats are taken from WhoScored unless otherwise stated.