What on earth has happened to the Royals? Until February, even when this team wasn’t quite clicking, it appeared that they were going in the right direction. It really felt like they had beaten the mental barriers of recent seasons and they’d be able to see the season out in the playoffs. Now though, we’re miles out and need a minor miracle. I’ll be praying for it, but not expecting it.
This season is a tough one to judge, and one we likely won’t be able to judge fully for a few years. Still though, to me, there are some fairly clear lessons Reading need to learn from this year.
Good teams don’t have to make excuses
There have been plenty of excuses this season: the transfer embargo, the weak bench, the injury crisis. In many ways, these have been legitimate. Barnsley were able to bring in Daryl Dike at Christmas - a reinforcement we couldn’t add. Our bench has been full of academy players through most of the year, and you only have to look at the XIs against Swansea City and Norwich City in December to realise how bad our injury crisis got.
You’d maybe even suggest that our drop-off has been down to an age and experience thing. Reading’s squad this year has been among the youngest on average in the division, reaching a lowest age of 24.5 against Queens Park Rangers in December. Is it possible that inexperience caught up with us in the end? It’s possible, yes, but Barnsley have consistently fielded an even younger squad than us. I’ve been willing to listen to many of these excuses throughout the year, but that’s just what they seem like now that our hopes are slim: excuses.
I appreciate all the effort the boys have put in this year: they’ve restored a lot of my faith in this club, and I’m excited to see where this squad goes in the future. The long and short of it is that Reading had an eight-point cushion in the play-off places just 66 days ago, and now they’re six points off the pace. That’s a 14-point swing in 13 games and it’s just not good enough. If those 66 days aren’t viewed in the context of the great start to the season, results alone make it mid-table form, or worse.
To be fair to Paunovic, he’s a man who is honest about the flaws in his teams. He’s often bemoaned our inability to finish chances in recent weeks, and I’d prefer that he remain positive for the sake of the squad. Still, if we’re out of contention for the play-offs next year by Christmas, as our recent form would suggest, I’ll be far less willing to listen to any excuses from any source. I’m very excited that Paunovic will be getting a full pre-season to work with the squad. Despite his flaws, I believe he’s the right man to take us forward. It’s time for us to build a team and a project that can weather storms though.
Icing out members of our squad is simply not helpful
For two years in a row, it appears that managers have been coerced into not using experienced players. In 2019/20, Garath McCleary and Chris Gunter were exiled from the squad during pre-season in hopes of a move. This was already an ethically questionable move, considering the service to the club both had given. It seemed doubly questionable however when the squad struggled and Gunter deputised well during Andy Yiadom’s injury.
In 20/21, Sam Baldock and Sone Aluko have spent much of the season sitting on the bench. They’re often unused until the dying minutes of a match, well past when they could have made any meaningful difference. I’m not advocating for these kinds of players to regularly be starting games, but restricting their use to 10 minutes at the end of a match, no matter the situation, doesn’t help them or us. It doesn’t help affect a game, and it doesn’t help us manage squad fatigue.
The last two months’ drop-off in form has seemed to be defined by squad fatigue, both mental and physical, and problems in the final third. Giving players more rest during games and developing a legitimate plan B (as argued for above) using rotation players could have helped ease that.
It’s also frustrating that, two years in a row, a player that seemingly fills a desperate need in our squad has been used sparingly. McCleary in 19/20 and Aluko in 20/21 were and are past their primes, sure, but they’re both still serviceable options as legitimate wingers. Wingers, wide play, and the lack thereof have been a signature weakness of this team. Pauno signalled as much by trying to bring in Diego Rossi on transfer deadline day. Reverting then to giving Aluko no meaningful minutes in the coming months seems foolish.
I’m not saying that any of these players would have been stand-out performers, but exiling experienced personnel from the squad just seems like foolish squad management. Reading have been crying out for a plan B in their playing style over the last two months, especially as the physical fatigue has begun to catch up with the mental fatigue. Giving Aluko and Baldock extra time to gel with the team and offer something different might not have been the solution, but couldn’t have been much worse than what we’ve seen from tired legs.
Again, with a full pre-season from Pauno, I expect us to get this under control. If we’re able to make moves despite the FFP restrictions, Pauno should have a squad full of players he wants and chose. With that in mind, I expect that we’ll have more substitutes available that will suit the way in which Pauno wants to play. In any case, I just hope we don’t make the same mistake for the third year in a row.