At this stage it’s anyone’s guess how the summer window will end up for Reading. A lack of financial wiggle room due to FFP, Brexit-related employment rules and a distorted transfer market due to the effects of coronavirus all make canny recruitment and profitable selling that bit more difficult.
Because of those factors - and how difficult they are to properly quantify - deciding on our expectations for this summer is particularly tricky. In years gone by, the summer after a play-off push would have a clear, simple objective: maintain the squad’s strengths and address the weaknesses that were exposed last time out.
This summer, things are so up in the air that anticipating the worst is a realistic point of view. Some of us are, quite reasonably, worried that the club will be forced to cash in on its most valuable players while still being unable to properly invest in replacements or tie down current personnel to longer-term deals.
Reading have a recent record of making things work though. Think of the unexpected late-summer splurge in 2019, finding the cash to bring in Ovie Ejaria on a permanent deal in 2020, or even winter 2021 when, although signings weren’t forthcoming, key players were retained. I expect we’ll end up with something similar this summer: a pleasantly surprising, albeit not exciting, set of transfer business.
What would that actually look like in practice though? How might Reading’s summer transfer business realistically unfold in such a scenario? Below, I’ve tried to give a reasonable outline of what a ‘good’ transfer window would be for Reading. This won’t be one that sets us up to storm the league next season, but should still give Veljko Paunovic a fighting chance of securing a play-off spot in 2021/22.
To do this, I’ll go through the Royals’ squad position by position: goalkeepers, full backs, centre backs, midfielders, attacking midfielders and forwards. In each case, I’ll assess the options currently available to Reading and the transfer business required to do a solid job in sorting out that position ahead of next season.
Before all that though, a quick side note on this summer’s transfer market more broadly and what Reading’s approach to it may be.
Given how strapped for cash many clubs further down the pyramid will be, we know this market will be one that’s beneficial for buyers rather than sellers. This might make signing players from the lower leagues that bit easier than in previous years (if we get any cash to play with), but is less likely to be relevant to sales given how stubborn Dai Yongge is on that front seemingly as a matter of principle.
Indeed, I expect Reading to be particularly bullish when it comes to selling. Although Michael Olise is very likely to leave for a substantial fee, I don’t anticipate a fire sale of other first-team players.
Furthermore, besides how much Reading’s financial position could change (primarily depending on sales), the market itself may well evolve substantially over the next few months. For instance, clubs at any level of the pyramid may become increasingly desperate to cut back their wage bill, perhaps meaning players move for minimal or no transfer fee.
Similarly, what impact will Covid have on wages? If spending power is down across the Football League, wage demands from those looking for a move - for example free agents - may have to drop accordingly.
Trying to accurately predict the future of an ever-changing and capricious entity like the football transfer market is like pissing in the wind. In truth, we won’t be able to accurately assess the summer 2021 window until it slams shut on August 31.
End of side note.
What the squad looks like now
Below is an overview of the entire squad as it’s currently set to look on July 1 when all out-of-contract and loan players have officially departed. At time of writing, three players who I think could play a part in next season’s squad have been offered new contracts but are yet to sign them: Tom McIntyre, Femi Azeez and Kian Leavy. I’ve included them on the graphic below anyway.
That squad was thin last season anyway, but it’s been further trimmed back by a number of departures already. Three loan players (Lewis Gibson, Alfa Semedo and Tomas Esteves) have rejoined their parent clubs, Thierry Nevers has been sold, and another 10 have left on free transfers: Omar Richards, Sam Baldock, Sone Aluko, Sam Walker, Tennai Watson, Ryan East, Sam Smith, Conor Lawless, Oli Pendlebury and Jayden Onen,
On the face of it this position looks strong. Reading have an established first choice in Rafael, an understudy in Luke Southwood and two younger options for the long term: Jokull Andresson and Coniah Boyce-Clarke (three if James Holden signs a new deal).
That could change though. There’s been talking of Rafael leaving, supported by Southwood’s recent two-year contract, which may suggest he’ll be first choice next season. Plus, Andresson’s fine form on loan at Exeter City - combined with links to the Premier League and his contract expiring next summer - mean Reading need to make a decision on his future and may find it difficult to keep him if there’s genuine interest.
For Reading to stay on top of this department, two things are required. Firstly, regardless of who ends up being the Royals’ number one next season, the squad needs an experienced option - whether they’re first choice, competition or just a back-up. Besides being a useful alternative to a younger keeper on the pitch, their knowledge is also important for developing academy talent.
Secondly, and less easy to judge even at the end of 2021/22, the academy pathway needs to be maintained. In practice that’ll ideally mean keeping hold of Andresson and giving him loan experience, perhaps doing the same with Coniah Boyce-Clarke. We’re unlikely to sign an experienced goalkeeper on a multi-year deal, but it should still be avoided.
This is certainly the weakest department in the entire squad, so is in pressing need of a few reinforcements. Andy Yiadom is Reading’s only senior specialist full back after the departures of Omar Richards, Lewis Gibson and Tomas Esteves, although Ethan Bristow made a few appearances last season and fellow left back Imari Samuels could do the same in 2021/22.
Given Yiadom’s history of injuries and the inexperience of the other two, Reading can’t afford to rely too heavily on these options. After all, it’s an important position: if Pauno persists with a narrow 4-2-3-1 next season, all-round full backs capable of contributing at both ends of the pitch are vital tactically. Araruna, Holmes and others can fill in if needed, but shouldn’t be relied on as regular starters.
At the very least, two new signings are required: an attacking right back as cover for Yiadom, and an established left back who’s ready to start each week from the off. Even then - if 2020/21 is anything to go by - injuries may thin out those options pretty quickly, so an additional option on each side may be necessary.
In an ideal world we’d be able to plan for 2022/23 right now. The contracts of Yiadom, Bristow and Samuels are all up next summer, so renewing deals and/or bringing in a longer-term signing would prevent Reading having to completely rebuild the department in 12 months.
Michael Morrison’s new contract was a big boost and, together with the presence of Liam Moore and Tom Holmes, not to mention academy prospects Jeriel Dorsett and Nelson Abbey, this department looks pretty self-sustaining despite no new signings coming in for two years.
The big question though is over Tom McIntyre’s future. A new contract has been frustratingly elusive, and much of Reading’s transfer business hinges on it. Sort out a new deal and the Royals get a first-team-quality defender who’s versatile enough to fill in at left back or centre midfield (not to mention his brief stint as a number 10 last season).
It’s also worth keeping an eye on what happens with Moore. Although I’m not expecting him to leave, a few factors make it possible: previous links with an exit, his own likely ambitions of getting into the Premier League and the financial benefit to Reading of cashing in on a player with high wages and a resale value of a few million.
There’s a possibility of a new centre back coming in on loan, particularly if - like Gibson - they can cover another position too. It’s not a priority though, with a few academy lads ready to step up in the next year or two. Simply going into next season with the same main four as in 2020/21 would be a good outcome.
Reading have the basis of a strong centre-midfield department. There are two stand-out first-team players in Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent, while the versatile Felipe Araruna and youthful Dejan Tetek look like capable back-ups.
How well would these options do over a full campaign though? While Rinomhota and Laurent are two of the most dependable players in the squad, their current understudies are unknown quantities. Araruna looked like he was making a good impression at the start of last season, but how he reacts to long-term injury is anyone’s guess. Similarly, Tetek has shown flashes of talent in his minimal game time, but is unproven as a regular starter.
There’s also a tactical problem here that Reading would be wise to sort out. While all of those four are energetic box-to-box midfielders, none are the kind of accomplished passers who can set the tempo of a game, switch the play out wide or over the top quickly, or go through the lines incisively. Getting in a specialist in that mould would give Reading’s midfield a plan of attack that it currently lacks.
Adding that player to the squad and keeping hold of the other four (particularly Laurent who’d be hugely difficult to replace) would constitute good business. An extra defensive option who’s more similar to Laurent and Rinomhota may come in if Pauno doesn’t feel he can rely on Araruna and Tetek, but I wouldn’t have this down as a priority.
Reading don’t lack talent here, but they could certainly do with some depth and variety. John Swift, Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise are some of the best creative players in the Championship, with youngsters Mamadi Camara, Lynford Sackey and hopefully also Femi Azeez (if he signs a new deal) ones to look out for next season.
Before we get to new players though, one will probably be off: Olise. Although reports of an exit have gone quiet recently, with his deal up next summer, it’s likely a matter of when he’ll leave and how much for. Considering market conditions and the length of his contract, Reading may get around £15m for Olise, although the fee depends a lot on how stubborn the club is and how extensive the bidding war becomes.
We’ll only be able to fully judge this sale a while into the future. After all, it’s not just about one player and how he’s replaced; if Olise is sold it’ll probably be for the biggest fee Reading have ever received, so maximising that figure and investing it wisely need to fully considered. Reading might blow the money on one flop signing or put it into a few smart additions that develop well in the long run.
To take the alternative though, let’s ponder for a minute if not cashing in would constitute bad business. Perhaps bids come in but none are considered by Reading to be a fair valuation that’s worth accepting; would keeping hold of Olise in that scenario be a good idea? Dai may well prefer to retain a playmaker that could help win promotion, which would be much more beneficial financially. Again, it’s a decision that could only be judged in hindsight - one that may well age brilliantly or poorly.
Regardless of Olise’s future, getting in new bodies is a must, as is ensuring that some of those new bodies are wingers. Reading’s lack of pace, directness and ability to properly stretch the game in the final third caused issues last season, so a few specialists would be useful.
A scenario in which Reading end up with those new wingers in addition to Swift and Ejaria, and maybe also a back-up number 10, would be a good one. Reading’s attacking unit would lack sparkle without Olise, but balancing it out more effectively with width could mean it still develops nicely.
Hello and welcome to the only position in the entire squad where Reading have a spare player that needs shifting; the Royals are otherwise so short on bodies that a clearout can’t be done. That man is Marc McNulty, who’s very much been on the fringes since Jose Gomes’ arrival, and he’ll surely leave on a loan or permanent basis.
Otherwise, things look pretty rosy. Reading have two established goalscorers in Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite, while George Puscas has the potential to emulate them, but he’ll need regular game time to do that after an OK first season and injury-hit second.
Reading don’t need a player to put the ball in the net, but - stop me if you’ve heard this before - a back-up target man would come in handy. Getting that man in would mean less reliance on Joao and that bit more tactical variety in the final third. Reading are a man down in this department after Baldock’s departure, so replacing him with a more physical presence would be wise.
To sum up
If no one else leaves, Reading will need a minimum of seven players: two full backs, a central midfielder, three attacking midfielders/wingers and one centre forward. If any first-team players leave - such as Rafael, McIntyre or Olise - they’ll need to be replaced, so new signings may need to go into double figures.
On the face of it, seven new arrivals looks like an ambitious target, given that Reading signed no one in January and just five players last summer. But with the wage bill down after the departure of high earners Aluko and Baldock, the possibility of funding coming in from further exits, and opportunities on the market in the form of free transfers and loans, it can be done.