Reading’s defence is struggling. Nine goals have flown past Rafael in the net already, and the balance of the backline just feels off. So far this year, one of the ever-presents from last season’s defence has been seen only in fleeting glances. Despite starting 30 games last year and featuring in nine more, Tom Holmes has been limited to just 35 minutes in our four games so far.
Well of course, you may say, he’s being kept out of the team by our established centre backs, and kept out of his secondary right-back position by one of the first names on our teamsheet: Andy Yiadom. Despite some very up-and-down performances from Liam Moore and Michael Morrison though, I’m not yet convinced that ditching one of that duo is the way forward (not yet). Something needs to be done to sure up our very leaky defence though.
Today I’m going to argue for a potentially unpopular opinion, and suggest that a period of time in which we bench Yiadom in favour of the more defensively astute Holmes may benefit the Royals.
This is a difficult subject to talk about. Yiadom is a footballer who a) comes with a very good track record, and b) passes the “eye test” with flying colours. He’s also been a man of stellar attitude since joining the Royals and a fan favourite.
All of this to say: Yiadom has been a fantastic servant to the club and is a player that I deeply respect and admire. I do however feel that his current inclusion in the side may have less value than at previous times. Indeed, at times, for all of Yiadom’s bluster and willingness to be involved in play, he can flatter to deceive.
Per Transfermarkt, Yiadom’s value has halved in the last 18 months: roughly the time since coming back from an injury that kept him out of the first half of the 20/21 season. That’s a number formed in the nebulous space of the Covid-19 transfer market, sure, but it’s a clear indication that something is going on with the Ghanaian full back. To work out what that might be, let’s delve into the stats.
One reason for Yiadom’s potentially suspect usefulness to the side is his diminishing returns in the form of goal involvements. After starting his career in Berkshire with one goal involvement per every 810 minutes in 18/19, Yiadom made a huge step up in 19/20 and almost halved that number: offering a goal involvement once every 426 minutes.
Despite averaging over 77 minutes a game last year in his 21 games though, Yiadom contributed just two goal involvements: a goal and an assist each. That came out to a goal involvement every 812 minutes: just one in every nine games, and his worst return since joining the Royals.
Moreover, Yiadom is drawing fewer fouls than ever before, indicating that his offensive running ability is no longer causing defenders as many headaches, and providing us with fewer valuable set pieces. I’m sympathetic to the idea that Yiadom’s injuries in recent years have contributed to this decline, but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.
Now please note, starting Holmes would not be likely to solve offensive issues stemming from the right-back position. Last year, he contributed to goals at an even lower rate than Yiadom: one involvement for every 1369 minutes.
In defence of Holmes though, for much of the season he was finding his feet, both in the Championship and at a new position at right back. He wasn’t being expected to attack fearlessly: more to defend responsibly. Tom Holmes can be a greater threat from set plays, both as a body to knock a longer ball back into the box, or as a target in general. However, outside of being asked to attack corners, offence is not what Pauno was expecting from his young makeshift right back.
Moreover, is offence really what Reading need from their right back at this time? Reading have conceded nine goals in four games, and look incredibly unbalanced at the back. Part of that is because Tom McIntyre has been playing out of position, but putting a more similar player on his opposite side may help the back line to mesh better.
And when it comes to defensive responsibility, Holmes is a surer bet than Yiadom. Last year, Holmes committed just 0.87 fouls per 90 minutes, far lower than Yiadom’s 1.6 fouls per 90. With our defence still very much working out its duties at set pieces, conceding fewer fouls could be the difference between a win and a loss. Indeed, upon seeing these stats, my mind was instantly drawn back to the costly penalty Yiadom gave away during our crunch game against Barnsley during the playoff push last season.
Holmes also offers more tackles won and interceptions (we’d call that a takeaway in American sports, so I’ll do so moving forward) per 90 than Yiadom. That stat is closer - Holmes has 2.46 takeaways per 90 vs Yiadom’s 2.27 takeaways per 90 - but again: it suggests that Holmes offers just as much if not more than Yiadom defensively.
Now please note: I really like Yiadom as a player. He’s fantastic to watch when he builds up a head of steam. With the recent signings of Junior Hoilett and Dele-Bashiru though, and the hopefully imminent return of Ejaria to the team, Reading will not be short on men who can carry the ball forward with pace and purpose.
I therefore think that we may be better served trying to find a solution to our current issue (defence) rather than piling up options for carrying the ball. The flipside of that means I don’t think Holmes should replace Yiadom as first-choice right back: just that Reading should be more proactive and use the right back that fits their needs best.
Plus, having Yiadom available to bring on as a sub later in a game to run at tired defenders could generate some really positive results if Reading are chasing a game.
Of course, if McIntyre isn’t able to go against Huddersfield, all of this could be academic, and we may be left with the same back line we saw after his removal against Coventry. That would involve Yiadom on the left and Holmes on the right. That will leave us with no senior defenders left on the bench though, so let’s cross our fingers that McIntyre is OK!
Reading are having defensive problems and, offensively, are now better stocked with players who can offer what Yiadom offers: direct running and deliveries into the box. The need for Yiadom is thus in my eyes: lesser than it has ever been in his time at the club.
This is coinciding with a need for Holmes’ defensive capabilities, and Holmes’ own rise in form and quality. He isn’t the panacea that will resolve all of our defensive issues, but at this point, with nine goals conceded in just four games, surely it can’t hurt to try something different?