Death, taxes, and a Lucas Joao injury break: the three certainties in life. Despite avoiding the punishing schedule of international tournaments this summer, and having an entire pre-season to prepare, it’s taken just two games for Lucas Joao’s achy breaky bones to… break.
After being subjected to Pauno’s wacky set-play “defence” tactics on Tuesday evening, things went from bad to worse for Reading fans. Jonathan Low confirmed Joao would be out until January. Reading’s promotion hopes cried out in terror... and were suddenly silenced. Joao’s injury record was already concerning, despite him managing over 3,000 minutes for the first time in the Championship last year. Now though, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether we’ll ever see an end to our best striker’s injury proneness.
This is obviously: a problem. Yakou Meite’s return is nowhere in sight. Nahum Melvin-Lambert is on the wrong side of the Irish Sea, somewhere close to wherever George Puscas has left his shooting boots. Jahmari Clarke looked full of the unbridled energy of youth in his Championship debut, but a kid born in 2003 is not going to save our season.
What options are left then? Where could we find a replacement to Joao in our already thin squad? As I see it, there are just three options left.
George Puscas in: Last Chance Saloon
This has to be the final chance for George Puscas right? As final chances go, minimal competition for his place until January makes this a good one. If Puscas can’t force his way into the hearts of Reading fans when the striking cupboard is this bare, he’s unlikely to ever do it. Puscas will now be relied on with the same frequency he saw in his first season with Reading. To prove his worth, and begin repaying his significant fee, he needs to score at a rate better than the 12 in 38 he got that year.
The constant issue with Puscas though is that he just doesn’t seem to fit into Pauno’s system. He simply cannot be effective as a lone striker. I earnestly believe that Puscas’ ability to hold the ball and release it has improved during his time in Reading, but he’s never been able to knit together consistent hold-up play and clinical finishing at the same time.
To get the best out of Puscas, perhaps we could see some kind of partnership develop between himself and Azeez, but in any case, it will require creativity for Pauno as well as commitment from Puscas to reawaken the Romanian’s scoring touch. That Pauno replaced him with an 18 year-old league debutant while chasing the game against Bristol City does not bode well for that happening...
The caveat to all of this Puscas talk of course is whether George will even still be with the team come September 1, given that he has reportedly turned down one potential loan move, and been the subject of another bid. Rumors have slowed, but if Puscas does move on, then the need for a new free-agent or loan striker will become paramount.
If Puscas does stay though, it seems most likely that he will see most of the game time in Joao’s absence. I hope that he does well with that responsibility, but I’ll be hoping that if he doesn’t, Pauno will be quick to put that responsibility in younger hands.
Femi Azeez gets more than he bargained for
Alright Femi Azeez. You’ve scored two goals in a week just three games into your first Championship season as a starter. You must think you’re pretty hot stuff right? How would you like to lead the line? No, really… we’re pretty desperate here.
Undoubtedly the most exciting factor of our season so far, Femi Azeez has hit the ground running in the hoops, performing an impressive amalgam of Meite’s role. His direct running has papered over our huge Yak-shaped hole in attack. His youthful decision making has occasionally led to ill-advised shots, but much like that same quality in Meite, his very willingness to shoot gives our attack more dynamism and will keep goalkeepers thinking twice about bursting off their line.
So far then, Azeez has done all that has been asked of him. In tough times though, he could be asked for more: to start as our lone striker. Through his youth career, Azeez has been capable of attacking either from the wing or directly down the middle. He’s demonstrated that he feels no pressure being the player expected to take shots, and his hunger to win the ball should make him a viable target for Rafael to hit downfield.
If Reading can bring in a winger to cover Azeez’s current position, starting Azeez as our striker will offer real hope for the future, and real goals now.
John Swift’s big shift
In a small piece of serendipity, despite no goalscoring input yet from Joao, it does not appear that Reading are having issues going forward. Six goals in three games isn’t bad! Two goals are enough to win a game of football, and our consistency in getting them suggests we’re creating chances. If we can defend better, we just need whoever starts as our striker to finish those chances.
Step forward John Swift. This may not seem an obvious solution, but thanks to FFP restrictions, we’re running a little low on those in any case. In any case, this isn’t a solution for every week: Swift’s injury record suggests that asking him to play in different positions every week could have negative consequences. However, with two clinical strikes already putting him top of the scorer’s charts this year, it’s difficult to argue that occasionally starting your early top scorer in a striking role won’t lead to more goals.
Plus, moving Swift further up the pitch creates his usual triangles of incisive passing, but does so naturally closer to the backline of the defence. That passing could be lost from the midfield, but a formation that sees Swift the furthest forward could open space for a different central midfielder to run with the ball.
With Dele-Bashiru, Laurent, and Rino all offering strong, direct running, playing Swift further up the field shouldn’t result in lost creativity. Instead, his presence further forward could present a great outlet for the aforementioned midfielders to dump the ball off at the end of their dribbles. This could be either for a give and go, or to set up Swift for a shot.
All that said, despite being a John Swift super fan, I’ve had my reservations about him as a finisher in the past, but a brief foray into the stats indicates those reservations were fraudulently held. Not counting last year, John Swift has scored above his xG in every season since he joined the Royals.
That indicates a player who is able to score more often than he is expected to with the chances he is given. It’s not proof that Swift is the clinical striker that Reading have been crying out for: he’s far too valuable elsewhere on the pitch for that. However, it is proof that in a pinch, Swift can score.
There are no perfect solutions to this situation. Without Joao or Meite until 2022 Reading will need to be creative with their own squad, and effective in the transfer market. But there is a silver lining: whoever ends up as Reading’s go-to striker this autumn isn’t likely to do any worse up top than Sam Baldock!