This has been a strange summer to try and categorise for Reading FC. On the face of it: a transfer embargo, injuries and departures of key players, ongoing silence from the owners and a Covid outbreak in the pre-season camp looks pretty bleak.
Despite all that, the general mood in the camp and fanbase seems fairly good. There appears to be an acceptance that, in difficult circumstances, the club may struggle to better last season’s seventh-place finish but, with everyone pulling in the same direction, it can still be a positive year. A summer fraught with uncertainty could still present an opportunity to set the club moving in the right direction for next season and the ones to come.
Arguably, for the first time since Jaap Stam’s arrival we are entering a summer with no excess baggage in the squad. The senior players we have are a good standard and all vying for a starting place in the team. Whether you think the wages of Liam Moore, George Puscas and Rafael would be better spent elsewhere is one thing, but every member of this team can and has made good contributions over the last couple of seasons.
The squad is thin, too thin, and there is work that needs to be done on the recruitment side. But get that work done right and we have an opportunity to move forward with a talented, lean squad for the first time in years.
A summer of departures and injuries have left clear gaps at left back and in the forward positions so bringing players into the club will be crucial. Equally as important, in my opinion, is that all recruitment be done with half an eye on the academy players we have coming through. Where do we have promising players? How ready are they? And realistically how many games can we expect them to play?
Between the players sold, released and leaving after a loan, we lost a significant number of minutes played from the squad this summer. Relying on so many young players to play a significant number of minutes next season would be at best too much of a gamble and at worst irresponsible to the players themselves.
Shunting them too far down the pecking order would also be a waste and we must find a way to balance the two. Maybe for the first time ever there is a clear pathway to make young, academy players the third or fourth choice in every position.
That sounds exciting, and maybe a little daunting, but how much would a third-choice player in a given position even be relied on to play? For context:
- Tomas Esteves played ~1200 minutes across 42 games last season
- Tom McIntyre (spread across left back, centre back and midfield) played ~1500mins across 26 games
- Lewis Gibson played ~750 across 13 games
- Sam Baldock played ~500 minutes across 20 games
Decent contributions from the first two but arguably Esteves was brought in as second choice following Andy Yiadom’s injury and barely featured once he shifted back to third choice. McIntyre was technically third-choice centre back but realistically second choice at left centre back. It took injuries to three other players for Baldock to get minutes last year and it took something similar for Gibson to play too. Barring multiple injuries to first-choice and cover options, these guys are unlikely to have a huge bearing on our success or failure next year.
Injuries are part and parcel of football and need to be factored in, but I think we lose more than we win by letting it dominate squad building. This season more than ever we cannot afford to bloat the squad with mediocre signings. We were over-reliant on the first-choice players last season but it seemed to have less to do with injuries elsewhere and more to do with the drop-off in quality. To me it is far more important that we bring in quality to compete at second choice in positions rather than worry too much about senior depth at third choice in positions.
So where do we need to look external for options and where can we bank on internal options? Last season’s 4-2-3-1 may not be the go-to setup next year but let’s use it as the backdrop to assess the squad
Pending any departures, it seems pretty set that Rafael and Luke Southwood will compete for the first-choice position. An experienced third goalkeeper would be good to facilitate Jokull Andrésson/Coniah Boyce-Clarke/James Holden departing on loan but that is very low on the priority list.
Clearly a first-choice LB is required. The loss of Omar Richards is a big one and will need to be addressed. That said, with Tom McIntyre deputising there last season I would personally stick to bringing in just one player this summer. In Imari Samuels and Ethan Bristow we have two young players who can compete to pick up the scraps or push to become second choice themselves.
The only position in the squad that could be described as well stocked. Barring a long-term injury during the window I see no point in adding competition to a set of four players who will all think they’ve possibly done enough to be starting most games next year.
I wrote at length about the right back position last year (here) and in Andy Yiadom I think we have one of the best in the division. I also think Tom Holmes is a capable, if different, option. That said I would personally look to add another here. Yiadom was back to somewhere close to his best when fit last season but there are nagging questions over his ability to hold up to +40 games next year.
Unlike the left back spot, I’m not sure the academy can provide cover here. Right back was a tough spot for the under-23s last year with centre backs and left backs having to play there due to a lack of natural options coming through. Lynford Sackey seems to be the right-back cover in pre-season but from what I know he’s come through more as a winger. The other reason I would rather external cover here is I think we should try to rely less on Tom Holmes at right back. Before too long this season I see him taking over from Morrison at right centre back and disrupting that by shifting him out to RB would be good to avoid.
A tricky position with only Dejan Tetek currently as cover. Gambling on Laurent and Rinomhota being available to play 40+ games next year is one worth taking given their track record. Tetek was involved throughout albeit used sparingly last season, but he’s ready to shoulder, at least, the minutes Alfa Semedo played at defensive midfield. All being well Felipe Araruna can come back to fitness and provide another option here.
There is no hiding that Michael Olise was one of the key contributors last season. His goals and assists output was only bettered by Lucas Joao. Used primarily as a central attacking midfielder (CAM) and right winger last season, we will need someone to fill the hole he leaves.
Personally, I think looking in the transfer market to replace Olise like for like would be difficult at the best of times, and with the restrictions currently in place would be a fools errand this summer. I would instead to try to replace his output and mins played by bringing in two wingers and free Ovie Ejaria, when needed, to share CAM minutes with the recovered John Swift.
Going into the season with only Ejaria and an injury-prone Swift to compete for CAM is a risk but, quite frankly, if we lose both Swift and Ovie to injury at the same time, what even is the point in trying to play football?
We know Ejaria can and likely will continue to play a significant number of minutes out wide next season, but following the injury to Yakou Meite we look very thin on the ground here. In my mind two external additions is a minimum. Even before losing Sone Aluko, Olise, Meite and Thierry Nevers this summer we lacked variety out wide.
Players capable of holding width on either side is key if we are going to be able to make in-game adjustments or to target specific weakness in an opposition. Despite this being the area needing the most work it is also an area with some really promising players coming through.
Femi Azeez, along with Tetek, looks the most likely player to make a breakthrough this season. Capable of playing as a winger, Azeez excelled for the under-23s in the tail end of 2020/21 playing in a wide-forward role in the same 4-1-2-1-2 we occasionally played last year. He looks the most likely to take advantage of Meite’s misfortune.
Meite’s unfortunate long-term injury not only robbed us of a massively important wide player but also cover through the middle. With Nahum Melvin-Lambert very young and coming back from a stop-start spell away on loan with St Pats, that only leaves Lucas Joao and Puscas as genuine options up top. Given Joao’s historic injury record it seems a big ask to expect him to play the same number of minutes as last season, and with Puscas’ mixed fortune so far, this is a position where we look thin.
I also think it is probably the most difficult to recruit for. When fit we expect Joao to play. Given the outlay, and our hopes for him, Puscas will want to push Joao for minutes, let alone expect to be first choice in his absence. What sort of forward can we expect to bring in that is both a) happy to compete with two expensive forwards expecting to play significant minutes and b) of sufficient quality to be worth bringing in? I don’t envy the club in trying to tick both boxes.
There are of course a handful of other young players that went with the first team up to Scotland. The three young centre backs - Jeriel Dorsett, Nelson Abbey and Michael Stickland - might get cup exposure but, barring an injury crisis, are unlikely to be relied on next year.
At this stage it is difficult to know how close players like Kian Leavy, Claudio Osorio, Tyrell Ashcroft and Kelvin Ehibhatioman are to the first team. I’m sure by the end of pre-season we will have a better idea where they rank in various positions.
One player I find especially interesting is Mamadi Camara. He made his debut at right wing in the tail end of last season but was used across midfield for the under-23s last year and was even spotted playing a raking long ball from deep midfield to setup the winner in our first pre-season game vs Lincoln. Positional flexibility was a bit of a trade mark for the young players that broke through last year and that ability to offer a backup option across several positions could see him involved more than others next year.
Clearly there is work to do, in difficult circumstances, to bring the standard of the squad up to a competitive level next year. That said, there are the bones of an excellent first team and a whole host of promising youth players bursting to get involved. Get the balance right this summer and we could be reaping the benefits for years to come.