However hard I try, I can’t stop thinking about it. Lucas Joao, with the goal at his mercy. With the chance to put Reading 2-1 ahead in their most important game of the season so far. All he has to do is pass the ball into the back of the net. He simply can’t miss.
Except he can and he does. Inexplicably.
It’s difficult to describe my immediate emotions thereafter. First, there’s the disbelief: how on earth has he missed that? Then there’s the anger: how the f*** has he missed that? Then there’s the confusion: he was scoring those in his sleep six months ago. Finally there’s the realisation: that could be our whole season right there.
I can compare it to Adam Federici’s error in the FA Cup semi-final six years ago. Here is a man who has contributed so much to Reading’s season - we simply would not be in this position without him. But now he’s had a real shocker. I shouldn’t be annoyed. I can’t be annoyed. But I really, really am.
Because let’s get one thing straight. Reading are not playoff contenders this year without Lucas Joao. The stats back that up - the striker’s 18 goals and seven assists have earned the Royals a remarkable 18 points this season. Take that away, and we sit 17th. Only Dave Kitson and Shane Long have scored more goals in a single second tier campaign for Reading this century than Joao, who still has seven games left to top them both.
At his best, he is the complete centre forward. Built like a targetman, bred like playmaker. There is no stopping an in-form Lucas Joao, which many teams have found out to their cost this season. He has embarrassed defenders and got fans applauding from their sofas.
But the cruel twist of fate is that we haven’t seen that Lucas Joao for at least two months. His horror miss on Friday was the bottom of a well which he has been falling down for 15 games since his penalty miss against Preston North End. He is a shadow of the player we worshipped in the first half of the campaign.
That is illustrated by our player ratings throughout the season. Although not scientific, we believe these to be fair and objective, and all our writers grade on the same parameters.
As you can see, Joao started off the campaign like Royston Drenthe at a hot tub party: in his element. His average rating after five games was 7.0 - his highest five-game rolling average of the whole campaign. His five-game rolling average generally stays at at least 6.0 between his 5th game (Middlesbrough A, October) and 25th game (Bristol City A, February). Even when it drops below 6.0 between games 12 and 14, coinciding with Reading’s dip in form in November, Joao recovers just as the team did.
However, since that win over Bristol City, the striker’s five-game rolling average has not been higher than 5.6 and is currently at a season-low of 5.2. If he were to receive a rating of 5 or lower in his next match, it would drop below 5.0 for the first time. As an addition to that, if Joao doesn’t score in his next appearance, then it would be his longest run of games without a goal (five) since October 2019.
Let’s take a look at the underlying stats behind Joao’s performances. Here we’re comparing his first 18 league games of the season (up to and including Coventry H) and his most recent 15 league games (since and including Preston A).
Again, firstly we’re met by something we already know - Joao’s output has significantly dropped in recent weeks. He has gone from 14 goals in 18 games to four goals in 15 games.
But browse most of the other numbers and there is not a regression to the same extent. Sure, he is shooting less (0.23 fewer shots per game), but he is still getting ample opportunities - only eight other players in the Championship average more than 2.3 shots per game this season. He is still creating chances for teammates and he is still carrying the ball with a large degree of success. It could even be said that opponents are finding it harder to play against Joao, as he is getting fouled more and dispossessed less.
But then there’s the glaring one: shot accuracy. Joao has gone from getting over half of his shots on target, to barely managing to test the goalkeeper with a quarter of his efforts. Since his goal against Sheffield Wednesday on March 6, only one of Joao’s 13 shots has been on target.
That’s not going to do any striker much good, and there have been some significant misses in there too. Namely his failure to convert penalties against Preston and Wycombe Wanderers and his open goal gaffes against Queens Park Rangers and Barnsley.
All of this feeds into one key factor that data can’t measure - confidence. That is unless you were to ask Joao to rate his mood after every game, and if he did then I imagine a graph would show an even steeper decline than Football Index share prices.
It’s no secret by now that the 27-year-old is a confidence player and is someone who needs encouragement when the going gets tough. We were warned of this very fact on the day that Joao signed for Reading, as Sheffield Wednesday fan Louis Shackshaft told us in View From The Town End:
“You could say Joao is a confidence player. When he first arrived at Hillsborough he often needed an ‘arm around him’ and reminding that he is an asset to the team.”
Current and former teammates all say the same about Joao. In terms of raw ability, he is a sensational player that is as good as anybody in the Championship. But he can be held back by his attitude when things aren’t going his way.
“He’s got absolutely everything,” Liam Moore said in a BBC Radio Berkshire podcast in February. “For me, he’s the best number nine in the league. He gets frustrated sometimes and his body language shows sometimes, but if he can get those things to a level, there’s no way he won’t go on to play at the top level.”
Joao’s Wednesday teammate Sam Hutchinson said similar after Reading beat the Owls last month: “As long as you managed him and gave him that confidence, for me he was probably the best that I’ve faced.”
Moore’s point about body language is something that has been noticed in several games this season and is one of the heaviest sticks used to beat Joao with. He is not the sort of character to brush off a missed chance, it haunts him for the rest of the game and beyond.
It would be unfair to say that Joao only performs in a team that is doing well as a collective, because as highlighted in the number of points he has earned Reading this season, the striker has often been the catalyst behind wins. Paunovic’s side have lost only three of the 17 games Joao has scored in this season. But when there is a certain pressure on him to be the hero, and that doesn’t happen, he goes into his shell.
Joao was already shot of confidence before the Barnsley game, and that miss was just the latest bullet. It was the perfect chance he needed to put one in the back of the net and get back on the horse, but now you wonder whether it may have finished him off for the campaign.
It leaves Veljko Paunovic with one of the toughest decisions of his time in charge as he decides whether to stick with Joao for Monday’s game against Derby County. From the outside, it may seem easy - Joao has one goal in nine games and is struggling for confidence - but the Serbian has a good relationship with the striker and his man-management of him has been identified as one of the main reasons for Joao having the best goal-scoring season of his career.
“It’s about support and demanding to improve that and recover as soon as possible,” Paunovic said of Joao’s miss against Barnsley. “The team needs him and everyone to be right and ready for Monday. We talk about it and I let him express it and take it out. It’s important to hear his emotions and get his feedback to see if there’s something we hadn’t seen.”
Paunovic has only dropped Joao for tactical reasons once this season - against Rotherham in October. The only other time the Portuguese has been available for selection and started on the bench was against Watford due to a slight shoulder problem.
Does the manager run the risk of denting Joao’s self-belief even more by leaving him out of Monday’s starting lineup? Or, for the good of the whole team, does he leave a struggling striker on the bench?
George Puscas is the obvious, and perhaps only, option to take his place. An out-of-form Lucas Joao is still better than an in-form Sam Baldock, and if you move Yakou Meite to centre forward then problems arise on the right wing.
Paunovic admitted that one of the main reasons Puscas didn’t feature on Friday was because he had not trained with the team at all during the week, linking up with the squad straight from the airport after returning from Romania duty. He will not have the same leg to stand on if the 24-year-old is once again on the bench against Derby.
Puscas has had a difficult season, playing second fiddle to Joao and struggling with injuries throughout the campaign. Nonetheless, he averages 0.46 goals per 90 minutes, which is not too far off Joao’s rate of 0.58 goals per 90 minutes. He deserves the opportunity given that his last three starts have yielded a goal and an assist.
Yet this is not really a debate around Puscas. It is about Joao now teetering on a cliff edge, with the choice to sink or swim. There is no doubt that he has the ability to play in the Premier League. Now he needs to show the strength of character to get Reading there.