In December 2021, it felt to all intents and purposes that Reading had finally found a striker they could rely on. It had been 10 years since Shane Long’s breakout 21-goal season, and Reading hadn’t ever truly replaced him. Now though, Lucas João was scoring goals for fun, and one over-excited writer was wondering if he might breach 25, or even 30 goals this season. Five months later, it looks as though João will end up finishing short of Long’s 21 goals in the Championship.
Does all that mean that it’s time to move on from João? Absolutely not. Given what we’ve seen him do, it should take a significant transfer bid, or a continuation of his recent form deep into the next season to see João move on from the Madejski.
That said, I think we’ve been looking in the wrong place for João’s understudy. The modus operandi for trying something different to João over the final months has mostly been either a straight swap for George Puscas or playing the two up front together. This is understandable. The club expended a lot of money to bring the Romanian to the Madejski, and giving up on him after just two middling seasons would be bad business.
Making it to the Premier League takes the guts to make harsh decisions however, and if we want to win games, I believe a more effective alternative to João has been with us all along in Yakou Meite.
In my opinion, if João can’t rediscover his form next year, then Meite should be given his chance as the man to lead the line.
Meite has put together an impressive record with Reading. He can flatter to deceive sure: within a 90-minute span, Meite often swings from sublime to maddening. That potent mix of unpredictability has now found consistency in the form of three consecutive double-digit seasons though, and it’s worth remembering that he’s done it while in a relegation battle, a mid-season finish and a playoff push. In short, there’s no situation that Meite can’t produce in.
It’s clear that the player has the desire to play down the middle too: it’s the position he came to England expecting to play, and Mark Bowen reported late last year that Meite had been asking him for more opportunities in the central position. Amusingly, that conversation apparently came a day before Meite scored four against Luton Town.
His goalscoring return this year has been even more impressive considering his injuries, with him finding the net at an almost one-in-two pace. Meite has done a good job these past few years playing on the wing, but to me, it’s clearer than ever that he’s a player who’s ready for his chance as a more conventional striker.
So the player himself is ready, but crucially, I also feel that Meite offers something different to João: something that might suit our overall style of play better. João offers more technical ability with the ball at his feet, and the ability to turn on a dime. Meite benefits from awesome strength and pace, as well as an extremely direct style of play. When everything is clicking for João, he can be unstoppable at this level. When it’s not though, it seems to me that he slows our attack down.
When transitioning through from defence to attack through the middle third, Reading often look like the best team in the league. We’re fluid, great at finding open spaces, and filled with pace and technical ability. Often however, once the ball arrives in the final third, everything stops. The striker puts his foot on the ball, or Olise goes back and forth across the top of the box looking for a pass.
João has scored some goals this year by running into space, but being realistic: he’s not that player. He’s made plenty of his own goals through his own brilliance and quick feet, but I do wonder if his desire to do it himself got in the way of the offensive scheme at times in the run-in.
Meite meanwhile is a player who thrives on fast, broken play, and games that open up for faster players to exploit spaces. His goals have often come by running onto a ball delivered from deep, or played into a hole between defenders. Put simply: he scores the kinds of goals that fit the offensive scheme and midfield that Pauno has created.
His physical style also makes him more of a threat than João from crosses which, while being phased out of the game at higher levels, are still very much key opportunities in the Championship. They’re also still being delivered by key player Andy Yiadom: often to nobody in the box.
Pauno would need to find an effective replacement for Meite on the right side of his attacking three, but he already showed that he was looking to reinforce his wings in the January window. Furthermore, the ability to bring João on from the bench for said future winger and drop Meite back into his familiar right-side spot would present a legitimate plan B for Reading: another thing the 2020/21 was sorely lacking.
Finally, if you want to make it to the Premier League, you need hunger and desire. These are buzzwords sure, but can you honestly say that João looked like he was giving his all in the final months of the season? I appreciate that he was likely exhausted, but once Championship defenders realised that he could be thrown off his game if you were willing to grapple with him, João never seemed like the same player. Calls wouldn’t go his way, and his head would drop. He’d end up walking around the pitch, barely pressing his man.
Such attitude concerns are not an issue for the Yak. Meite is a man who will blaze a shot into row ZZ one minute, and then take another shot three minutes later. Nothing seems to phase him, and it’s clear that he truly believes his natural ability will shine through if he keeps hammering away. It was completely unsurprising to me that, in the Cardiff game, after it seemed that everyone but Baldock had given up, Meite was the man who at least found an equaliser and some hope for the Royals.
Meite is also willing to chase his man diligently, and though imperfect, has learned that hard work is its own reward while plying his trade on the right wing. These are the qualities that we need in a striker if we’re going to make it next season, the qualities that will allow a striker to produce consistent performances from August to May. That Meite can combine his never-say-die attitude with actual, proven productivity is proof, at least for me, that it’s time to give Meite his shot up front alone.