Junior Hoilett’s arrival on Thursday evening has had a sudden and profound impact at Reading. Not only has it been a big lift for fans after a thus-far frustrating summer transfer window and error-strewn defeat on Tuesday evening, but the make-up of the squad appears markedly and satisfyingly different too.
All of that coming from just one signing - a free transfer at that - is a sign of Reading’s desperation. Desperation for new players in general sure, but this kind of player in particular. Supporters have been crying out for an established winger for years now, and we finally have just that in Junior Hoilett.
A square peg for a square hole.
There are of course caveats to be pointed out here. Hoilett is the wrong side of 30, presumably wasn’t attracting offers from better sides given that he waited until mid-August to sign for Reading, and assuming he’ll solve all our attacking problems overnight is a tall order. Plus, as Dan Lewis pointed out in our Town End piece, Hoilett’s minutes will probably have to be managed too.
But, as I’ll outline below, Hoilett’s arrival ticks plenty of boxes. That in itself is a win, given that limits on time, spending power and presumably also the number of signings that can be made mean Reading require maximum value from every signing this summer. We need more from less.
To start with the first ticked box on the list, bringing Hoilett in on a free transfer for a one-year deal works well financially. Of course, if it didn’t work financially then the EFL would have blocked the signing, but the fact that Reading have been able to add an accomplished player like Hoilett - while working within any restrictions set down - is a win.
Signing a player with a proven track record at this level, not to mention also playing a significant number of games in the Premier League, certainly wasn’t a given. Reading had previously looked at triallists Achraf Lazaar (four appearances in four and a half years for Newcastle United), Kyle Edwards (West Bromwich Albion youngster who’s ended up at Ipswich Town) and Kadeem Harris (who last played for a struggling Sheffield Wednesday side). Even first summer signing Tom Dele-Bashiru is very much one for the future, having played only a few times at Championship level.
Hoilett may or may not be the best signing Reading could realistically have got in the circumstances, but he’s certainly in an upper bracket of feasible additions.
The proven track record I mentioned above shouldn’t be overlooked. Hoilett’s significant experience in English football, racking up hundreds of league appearances across the Championship and Premier League, will be a huge help both on the pitch and off it.
In the first case, Reading badly lacked know-how in the first team last season. The release of a number of veterans in the summer of 2020 - Chris Gunter, Garath McCleary and Charlie Adam - and the failure to replace their experience left Veljko Paunovic with a starkly young squad in 2020/21.
That was particularly evident in Reading’s attacking options. Besides Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock, neither of whom were realistic candidates for the Royals’ starting XI, no other forward players available to Pauno were what you’d describe as veterans. Having such personnel is key: think of the edge Reading got in 2011/12 from the likes of Jason Roberts and Jobi McAnuff, or even in 2016/17 from Yann Kermorgant and Garath McCleary.
There’s no substitute for extensive experience on a football pitch; knowing how to react to changing in-game scenarios under pressure comes with years of practice. It can be a great influence on less experienced youngsters who might otherwise shy away from the challenge when a game goes against them.
Think of Middlesbrough at home last season when Neil Warnock’s side went 2-0 up inside the first half an hour and, despite plenty of possession, Reading couldn’t unlock a well-drilled side. Or, even more recently, Tuesday night. The Royals managed to claw the game back to 3-2 late on, but couldn’t go that bit further to draw level in the final few minutes.
In both cases Reading needed know-how to get over the line. Hoilett will bring that know-how.
His arrival will also pay dividends behind the scenes. This is still a young squad, and Reading have to consider the development of its talent over the course of the next few years. Youth players take on a lot from senior pros in the dressing room who have been there and done it. I’m sure Femi Azeez, Mamadi Camara and others will be looking to learn lessons from Hoilett where possible.
The most overt way in which Hoilett’s arrival boosts this squad though is what he means tactically. Reading haven’t just brought in ‘someone who can play out wide’, but an actual out-and-out winger.
Side note: Jaap Stam loved such signings and brought in a few throughout his time in charge, but a subsequent reduction in wide personnel (particularly under the narrow-formation-happy Jose Gomes) means we’ve lacked wingers for an extended period. So signing someone of Hoilett’s profile is long overdue.
Bringing in an actual winger immediately adds variety to Reading’s attack. Width has usually been provided in this side by full backs bombing forward and overlapping, while those in the advanced ‘wide’ positions are at their best when cutting inside. Look at the two main options on the flanks in Reading’s 4-2-3-1 last season: Ejaria is essentially a number 10 on the left, while Meite is effectively a striker on the right.
Recruiting a specialist in the form of Hoilett gives Pauno an alternative plan of attack - literally - whether in creating a better-rounded starting XI or bringing the former Cardiff City man off the bench. The opposition will have more to think about, with less of Reading’s threat being in front of them in central areas, and more of it to the side.
Just as significant though is the tactical impact Hoilett’s arrival will have on other members of the Royals’ attack individually. I see that being particularly true in two cases: playmakers like Swift and Ejaria, and centre forward George Puscas.
The first two are Reading’s best creative outlets now that Olise has departed, and getting the best out of them requires making space for them in the final third on a consistent basis. It’s not sufficient to give them the ball in attacking positions while being crowded out, or to ask them to constantly drop deep in search of possession, and assuming they can do all the work themselves.
Hoilett providing a genuine threat high up the pitch on the left helps in this regard. It stretches the game that bit more and provides that extra amount of space in the final third, from which Swift and Ejaria can benefit. This isn’t necessarily dependent on Hoilett playing well: even on an off day, him occupying those high and wide positions can create room for others.
As for Puscas, getting consistently good service into him will be key in Lucas Joao’s absence. Puscas lacks the strength and technical ability that Joao can use to fashion opportunities himself, so how the ball comes into the Romanian is key. The more Reading can feed the ball into Puscas’ feet, finding him in space close to goal, the more he’ll score.
Reading haven’t done that enough for Puscas so far. The way to improve on that front is in stretching the play in the final third, getting in behind and around the back of defences more often, and freeing up Swift and Ejaria. And, as mentioned, Hoilett’s arrival helps with all of that.
All in all, Junior Hoilett is a logical addition for Reading, a good fit that addresses numerous problems in the side. How often in recent years have we been able to talk about a signing like that?