With the 2021/22 season just days away, it’s no secret that the Reading squad looks decidedly thin. Signings are still staying stubbornly on the horizon, and the budget for whatever new players may be available doesn’t fill one with much hope of top-class reinforcements arriving before September.
Still though, I can’t bring myself to be negative about this team. That’s partly because of the occasion of the season. It’s the 150th year, and I refuse to predict that an anniversary season for us ends in hopeless relegation. It’s also partly because, while I can see our issues, I see several other clubs in the division pushing larger panic buttons than the Royals.
My primary reason for positivity though is that predictions at this stage are a fool’s game. This time last year we were also decidedly negative about the state of the team, with limited signings made and our new manager not even in the country. Fast forward eight games and it seemed like we’d never lose again.
The point is: pre-season predictions are a game of chance, and in a month’s time, it’s perfectly possible that Reading could have put together another good start to the season. We don’t play a team that is a unanimous favorite for promotion until game eight against Fulham, so the team should have plenty of time to find their feet before getting a stern test.
In short then, despite the heavy presence of recent academy graduates (and it seems this year that even graduation is optional) in the pre-season matchday squads, I’m optimistic about our team’s development this year. I’m especially excited to see two academy graduates in particular.
This season’s Holmes and McIntyre
Let’s start this by talking about last year’s rookie pair: Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre. Their respective progression last year was a highlight of our season. Whereas at the start of the year we had two established centre backs and a lot of question marks after Matt Miazga’s loan ended, now CB looks like the section of our squad that’s the strongest. More progression from further rookies could really strengthen our position in a Championship that looks weak to my eyes.
Femi Azeez and Dejan Tetek, both of whom are coming off a great preseason, seem best placed to replicate the recent success of the academy Toms. Let’s talk about why:
The sudden injury to Yakou Meite was a real blow to Reading’s summer plans. The versatile Ivorian forward likely won’t be seen again in blue and white until 2022 at the earliest, meaning Reading currently look even lighter on the flanks than last season. Of last year’s crop of forwards, Sam Baldock is also gone, leaving a very light cohort of attackers.
Azeez though appears to be a bright spark, and a potential solution to both Meite and Baldock’s absences. In fact, Azeez appears almost perfectly placed to fill Meite’s role in the squad in particular. He’s bright off the flanks but can offer an option at centre forward as well. It’s not a stretch to imagine him starting in Meite’s usual position against Stoke, in the right-side attacking role in Pauno’s 4-2-3-1.
Kadeem Harris’ potential signing could end up filling that role, but even if we do have better luck with our third trialist this summer, going with a player like Azeez who’s benefited from an entire off-season of Pauno’s management and explanation of how we expects his team to play may be a better fit for at least the first games of the year.
Furthermore, there’s still a chance that George Puscas could be on his way out of Berkshire this summer, which would only give Azeez more chances to impress in a Reading shirt.
Puscas’ departure would leave only Joao left as competition up front (assuming no remarkable resurgence of Marc McNulty’s position in the squad takes place). We’re all aware of Joao’s injury history and so keeping him fresh will again be paramount. With Baldock no longer taking up a bench spot, you’d have to assume that in the event of Puscas leaving, Azeez would be the beneficiary of some serious game time through the autumn and winter.
With that time to develop, time that other academy players haven’t necessarily had in recent years, Reading should know exactly what they have in Azeez come the New Year.
Tetek, despite having played just 122 Championship minutes for the Royals so far, represents less of a mystery impact than Azeez. The teenager was seemingly ever present on the bench last year, making five brief substitute appearances. He accounted for himself well in our final away game of the season against Norwich City. Say what you will about the seriousness with which Norwich approached that game, Tetek still found room to operate in a midfield full of players bound for the Premier League (and that includes Josh Laurent!).
Tetek will turn just 19 years old in September, but already displays a confidence on the ball and an aggression off it that should make him a versatile replacement for either Andy Rinomhota or Laurent in a pinch. He makes intelligent runs too, as he did to pull a save out of the Lincoln City keeper in our first pre-season game.
Indeed, Tetek has all the makings of an all-round modern midfielder. He’s learned his craft from the defensive side of the midfield with the game in front of him, but also presses aggressively, with a good understanding of when to press the opposition. That could come in handy if Rinomhota’s nagging injury through pre-season keeps him out of games deeper in the year.
Veljko Paunovic isn’t one to keep players playing only in their preferred positions, and I can even see Tetek being rotated to fill a role getting forward on the right in cup games, akin to how he would use Rino in a forward position at times. While that isn’t a preferred solution, it does at least speak to a further way in which Tetek could find himself in the starting XI frequently over the coming months.
As with Azeez, there’s a transfer rumour doing the rounds that, if true, could have a big impact on Tetek’s season. In what’s been described as a “nightmare”, Josh Laurent has reportedly been the subject of bids from Championship rivals Nottingham Forest.
If Laurent’s transfer goes through, Tetek is the obvious option to replace him in our defensive pivot, and claim a regular starting spot. I rank the possibility of Laurent joining a Championship rival lower than I do for Puscas leaving for Italy, but Tetek at least allows that potential blow to be lessened somewhat.
Femi Azeez and Dejan Tetek are not the solution to all of Reading’s current problems. Certainly not, seeing as neither can play at left back. However, both are flexible modern players that bring hunger and intelligence to their respective positions. Regardless of how our season goes, I’ll be very interested to watch those prospects develop in what will no doubt be a tricky year.