It isn’t quite the eve of a new season without a few predictions about how everything will turn out, so that’s exactly what we’re doing now. Half a dozen of our writers have tried to work out the fortunes of Reading Football Club in 2021/22, plus who’ll end up being promoted and relegated at the end of the campaign.
Joining us today are Ben Thomas (BT), Harry Chafer (HC), Marc Mayo (MM), Olly Allen (OA), Adam Jones (AJ) and Simeon Pickup (SP).
How will Reading’s season play out, and where will we finish?
BT: Let’s do the hard bit first: we could feasibly ending up finishing anywhere outside the top six. I really don’t think we have enough to push for the top spots, but I think we have enough to stay in the league, so I’ll state what I’m hoping for and say 12th.
In terms of the overall season, it will be a ballet of emotions for all involved which will see us play some solid attacking football up to Christmas; we’ll then shut up shop around Feb/March and coast into a mid-table finish to leave everyone relieved that we are still in the division. Probably.
HC: My answer to this question revolves completely around the uncertainty surrounding our transfer activity - which i’m sure is the case for the vast majority of us. It was clear last season that we needed reinforcements, and it’s even clearer now that Omar Richards and Michael Olise - both of whom were vitally important cogs to last seasons team - have departed for pastures new.
If we manage to sort out that EFL cloud that has been following us around for far too long now and manage to get in some reinforcements and strength in depth, there is no reason why we can’t be looking towards the top six again, or at least the top 10 as the core of our squad is largely the same as it was last campaign. However, if that doesn’t happen, then we’d do very well to break into the top half and I see us ending up between 12th-16th come next May.
MM: I think Reading’s season will be something of a reverse of last season, starting poorly after failing to address the issues that led to the club’s drop from the play-offs, but with a decent finish. That may mean Veljko Paunovic is under a bit of pressure but ultimately a ninth-placed finish will suffice.
OA: I’ve seen predictions placing us as high as fourth and as low as 22nd, and I really can see either of those happening but will go for somewhere in between. I truly believe that there are few better starting XIs in the Championship when everyone in the squad is fit, but we saw last season that it sadly isn’t that simple and I suspect any promotion bid will once again be put to bed by a lack of squad depth.
Like last year, we’ll probably pull off a few fantastic results but also fail to perform several times too. That points to a midtable finish, so I’ll say 16th.
AJ: It’s a tricky one because this will heavily depend on the business Reading can do between now and the end of the window. But in their current state, I can’t see the Royals finishing any higher than 19th next season.
After making such a strong start to the last campaign, their form took a considering downturn for the rest of the year, so I can see the Royals struggling at the start of the season and this continuing to be the trend for the rest of 2021/23 unless we make at least five or six signings.
We weren’t exactly in the best shape when he went on that remarkable run, with Paunovic’s first game as Reading manager on the touchline coming in the opening league fixture against Derby County. Because of this, not all hope is lost and we still have a half-decent starting lineup. But depth is key, and this is the reason why I think we’ll finish quite low down the table.
SP: As much as there is to worry about - squad depth, lack of signings and so on - I really don’t see Reading being in a serious relegation fight this year. This is ultimately still a very talented group with a good manager, and it would take a serious amount of bad luck across the board to have us scrapping in the bottom three. We may well have relegation fears at times and the occasional flirtation with the top six, but ultimately we’ll be good value for mid-table stability. 12th.
Who’ll be the Royals’ top performer this season?
BT: At this point in time, I’d say the away kit (what a peach!). Player wise, it has to be Swift’s season, surely? New haircut, new attitude, same resilient class- just please stay fit and healthy.
HC: I think it’s hard to look past Josh Laurent really, isn’t it? We all know how important he was to our team last season, and there is nothing to suggest that he won’t go on to match those performances, or perhaps even improve them. If you asked any of the fans, and probably even any of the players, which player can we 100% not lose this summer, I’m sure a very large majority would say Laurent - and that says it all really. He is the heartbeat of this team and, if he stays, will continue to be just that again.
Anyone who’s read any one of my pieces before will also know how highly I rate John Swift too, and, if he stays fit, which is a big if, I think he’ll also be a big, big player for us this season. On his day he’s up there with the best in the division, we just need him playing every game.
MM: John Swift. Expecting another herculean run of form that Lucas Joao produced last time out is a bit hopeful and the defence will be functional if unspectacular. Swift, meanwhile, will start the season as the creator in chief in the No10 role and that may even earn him a January elevation to the Prem...
OA: If he can stay fit, John Swift. That does seem a pretty big ‘if’ based on his recent injury record, but we all know the quality the former Chelsea man possesses. With Michael Olise gone, we need a creative mastermind and Swift’s passing ability and dead-ball technique are among the best in the Championship. I just want to see him perform consistently, and he could be unstoppable if he manages to find some rhythm.
AJ: Ovie Ejaria. He may have gone missing at times last year, but he looks set to be the Royals’ most creative outlet alongside John Swift after Michael Olise’s departure. We know he has the ability to turn Championship defenders inside out with his skill set and has an eye for a defence-splitting pass. It’s just a shame we don’t get to see it more often.
But in this campaign, I back the former Liverpool man to explode into life and become a major asset for Veljko Paunovic in the next year or so. If he can, he will attract a huge amount of interest from other clubs.
SP: It’s Josh Laurent for me. He was remarkably dependable and consistent last season, and I don’t see that changing. If anything he can only get better, given that he’s still relatively young and was still getting used to the Championship in 2020/21. Expect to see him become increasingly influential in Reading’s midfield as the season progresses.
What improvement do you most want to see from Reading/Pauno/a Reading player?
BT: Aside from Swift staying fit, I’d say Pauno has to be more flexible with his formations. He is coming up against probably the strongest line up of managers this league has seen for years (probably ever) and he has to go toe to toe with them tactically, as well as continuing to get the best out of this very lean and young-ish squad.
HC: I think Pauno will be the first to admit that he made his fair share of mistakes last season, one of which was overthinking his team selection in my opinion and showing more than a few signs of tactical naivety.
The example that still stands out to me to this day is the Wycombe away game. The Chairboys were rock bottom when we visited Adams Park and we were well on our way to securing a top-six place. However, Pauno switched up his team to leave just three attacking players on the pitch and start four centre backs to combat Wycombe’s direct style of play.
We, the top-six chasers, adapted our style of play to suit the team sitting in 24th. Surely, *surely*, that should be the other way round? I still believe to this day that if we’d have started Richards, Yiadom and Aluko and played our way - we would’ve won that game. So I think Pauno needs to work on a few things, his tactical naivety being one of them.
MM: I want to see Pauno mix things up a bit. Reading got worked out in a few too many games last season and he was slow to respond - in fact, he arguably never responded. I want to see a few more bold moves, wildcard subs, tactical change-ups, to keep the opposition on their toes.
OA: I’d like to see Pauno be a bit more clever with his in-game tactics, in particularly substitutions. He seemed a bit naïve at times in this department last season and we certainly dropped a few points as a result of poor decision-making and not reacting to situations in the best way. Granted he doesn’t have a wealth of options to turn to off the bench, but back up plans are needed.
AJ: George Puscas is one player I would like to see step up to the plate next season and show why we paid £8m for his services back in 2019. The Romanian forward showed he could play up front on his own at home to Watford and in a couple of other games last season, but like Lucas Joao, seemed to go off the boil towards the latter end of 2020/21.
There are no guarantees Lucas Joao will score another 19 goals this season like he did in the last, so it really is time for Puscas to start firing and if he can, the Royals might be in for a half-decent season.
SP: A lack of squad rotation was a killer for Reading in the second half of last season, and Pauno needs to learn his lesson. Rather than using first-team players at every given opportunity, giving them rests here and there during busy periods - when possible - will allow them to recharge. I’m particularly thinking of Ovie Ejaria, but injury-prone players like John Swift, Lucas Joao and Andy Yiadom would benefit from breaks too.
What are you most worried about for this season?
BT: That the lack of progress that the EFL is allowing us to make in terms of transfers will make the owner walk quicker. There’s only so much he will be prepared to take, regardless of whose door the fault of this current situation lies at. Chuck in the current debt and a points deduction and we won’t just be looking at staying in the league, we’ll be looking to stay in football full stop.
HC: I think this is a pretty simple one: our current squad depth. Going into a season with 14 fully fit senior players is just nowhere near enough and I have a feeling that, for the first few weeks at least, Pauno is going to have to bank on a few of the under-23s being ahead in their development and able to be called upon when needed.
We need to sign some players, it’s as simple as that. Any fewer than four before the end of the window and I’ll be very worried about chances this season. We need a left back, two wingers and a centre midfielder as a minimum - and then probably a couple more after that. I know it’s easier said than done to sign players when you’re apparently under an embargo, but when (or if) that embargo lifts, we need to be getting some new faces in the building. Pronto.
MM: I’m most worried that the players who made us strong last season are either no longer at the club or about to drop off. There is no guarantee that Josh Laurent, Joao, Morrison etc will maintain their levels, stay fit, or even stay at the club. With this thin squad, that could spell trouble.
OA: As mentioned, it has to be the squad depth. It cost us last season, and with the roster only getting thinner over the summer, it will probably be a big problem again this time around. There aren’t many game-changing options to bring off the bench in matches, and any long-term injuries to key personnel would be disastrous. Hopefully a couple of signings in the last few weeks of the window will ease the issue slightly.
AJ: A severe lack of depth. Although we are lucky to have escaped any points deduction (yet), the EFL are currently punishing us in another detrimental way by not allowing us to make any signings.
Many fans highlighted a major lack of depth last season and with six departures in the summer, the squad has been depleted further. You could argue our non-existent strength in depth was detrimental to our top-six prospects last term and it could come back to punish us once again next season if we fail to bring in reinforcements before the end of August.
SP: That we end the season without much of a squad. It’s been widely discussed that Reading don’t have many players contracted beyond the summer of 2022, with the following all due to leave: John Swift, Andy Yiadom, Andy Rinomhota, Josh Laurent, Tom Holmes, Felipe Araruna, Michael Morrison. We’re likely to lose a couple of those players regardless, but Reading need to limit the damage by getting on top of the contract situation as soon as possible.
Who’ll be reakthrough star?
BT: Of the pre-season showings, you’d have to say Femi Azeez in that right-hand side role. But really, this is about Tom McIntyre continuing to show his flexibility across the back line and potentially in a defensive midfield role. He really could become the first name on the team sheet this season.
HC: I’m torn between Dejan Tetek and Femi Azeez, but i think I’ll go with the latter. Purely because Azeez, at this moment in time, has a much bigger chance of getting some proper game time and a has huge opportunity to nail himself down as an important member of the first team in the first few weeks of the season.
It looks like that, with Meite injured for the foreseeable, Azeez is going to start the season as our first choice right-winger, and off the back of an impressive season last time out with the under-23s and impressing in pre-season, I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can offer this year.
MM: Dejan Tetek is primed to feature more heavily this season and Pauno has shown he knows how to organise a midfield.
OA: If I’m being brutally honest, I don’t actually think any of the academy players are quite ready to make the step up and make a real impact in the first team, but I reckon we’ll see Femi Azeez feature the most out of necessity. There’s undoubted potential there and Pauno seems happy to rely on him based on pre-season, so hopefully he’ll grow into a more established role and is able to get a few goals and assists in the absence of any new signings.
AJ: It has to be Femi Azeez because of the number of first-team chances he’s likely to receive during the 2021/22 season. Even if the Royals make a couple of signings in the wing position, something they seemingly want to aim to do after seeing the likes of Kyle Edwards and Kadeem Harris arrive on trial, Yakou Meite’s long-term absence and the possibility of further injuries will ensure he gets plenty of senior minutes under his belt in the next 12 months.
It’s clear Reading need something different going forward and Azeez could potentially provide that with the width he brings to the team. How the young winger will adapt to Championship Football remains to be seen - but he’s shown flashes of promise and will only get better with more experience in the second tier. Because of think, I think he’ll come good at some point during the campaign and prove to be a real asset to the Royals.
SP: Femi Azeez and Dejan Tetek have rightly been talked about a fair bit in pre-season, but I’m looking towards Ethan Bristow. Like the other two he’s far from the finished article, but he’s a talent: I was pleased with his attacking runs and long-range efforts against Crystal Palace. As things stand he’s our most senior natural left back and, regardless of how well Tom McIntyre does in this position or if we sign someone else, there’ll be chances for Bristow to demonstrate his quality.
Rival team to look out for?
BT: With Mick McCarthy in the dugout and Kieffer Moore upfront, you’d have to say Cardiff. And I’m being physically sick as I type this, but QPR have a very good shot at pushing for the top spaces this season. Good recruitment, solid form at the back end of last season and with a manager that knows what he’s doing, they could be the team to watch this year.
HC: I don’t know if you could class them as a rival as such (I guess in this league any team can be your rival) but I’ve always been impressed when with Peterborough United. They’ve always been a team that has scored goals, with a good recruitment policy, and had been flirting with the prospect of promotion for a long time before they finally achieved that last season. And I think they’re going to be a fun watch this season.
They’ve made a couple of intriguing signings, such as Jorge Grant and Josh Knight (who impressed in the Championship with Wycombe last time out) and they also seem to score goals, so I’d keep an eye on them as a potential surprise team this season.
MM: QPR finished the season well and have gone back to their roots a bit, so big respect to them if they put together a play-off push but that could leave teams like Reading looking on with envy.
OA: Barnsley. I’m a huge fan of the Moneyball model and I’m really intrigued to see whether last season was just a one-off or the start of their journey towards the Premier League. There are parallels with Brentford’s gradual rise and eventual promotion, so I think the Tykes will be one to watch again. Switching managers doesn’t seem to affect them so I don’t doubt Markus Schopp’s ability to carry on Valerien Ismael’s work, but losing Alex Mowatt and Daryl Dike could hit them.
AJ: Luton Town look to be dark horses in the Championship, with the Hatters and Nathan Jones seem to be a dream pairing. Jones failed miserably at Stoke City after first leaving Bedfordshire and even under the stewardship of the talented Graeme Jones, who was namesake Nathan’s successor, Luton failed to replicate their promising League One performances in the Championship when he took charge.
Nathan Jones returned to Kenilworth Road in May last year and in his first season back at Luton manager, he managed to guide them to 12th place. After a reasonably settled summer where they were able to tie Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu to a new contract and make a few shrewd additions, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them challenge for the top six this season.
SP: Neil Warnock has had plenty of time to get up to speed at Middlesbrough, and you have to think his side will be a force this season. They may not have the outright individual quality that other teams do, but they’ll be hard to beat, and you can tell that new signing (and former Royal) Uche Ikpeazu will score against us at some point.
BT: Sheffield United, Bournemouth and WBA (although I’m not completely sold on the Baggies just yet).
HC: Fulham, Bournemouth, Sheffield United.
MM: Fulham, Forest, West Brom
OA: Fulham, Bournemouth, Queens Park Rangers
AJ: Sheffield United, Fulham, West Brom
SP: Sheffield United, QPR, Fulham
BT: Derby, Derby and probably Derby.
HC: Derby County, Blackpool, Hull City.
MM: Derby, Blackpool, Peterborough
OA: Derby County, Blackpool, Huddersfield Town
AJ: Peterborough United, Hull City, Derby County
SP: Derby, Blackpool, Preston North End