All things considered, Reading had a pretty good summer transfer window. The club have been working hard under challenging circumstances in recent months, but have managed to tick off most boxes on their to-do list. Whether you’re instinctively left pleased or underwhelmed with the last few months, we can all accept Reading’s recruitment could realistically have gone a lot worse.
The last few months have been stressful for all concerned. For a long time it looked like the squad could only get smaller: 10 released, three loanees returned to their parent clubs, Michael Olise’s release clause activated and one highly regarded young winger sold.
A heavy rebuild job was required, but a lack of clarity over what signings the club were allowed to make left the Royals in limbo for ages; seeing three triallists come and go during pre-season - Achraf Lazaar, Kyle Edwards and Kadeem Harris - only added to the sense of frustration. It took until mid-August, after the start of the season, for recruitment to kick off.
Trying to put a squad together under those conditions, not to mention tight restrictions on wages, can’t have been easy for the relevant figures at the club. But, with the dust settling on Reading’s summer transfer activity (excluding any free agents the club may be able to bring in), it looks like they did a good job with the resources at their disposal.
Six players have come in: loanees Tom Dele-Bashiru, Baba Rahman and Danny Drinkwater, in addition to free agents Junior Hoilett, Alen Halilovic and Scott Dann. Between them they cover most of the squad’s problematic areas: most importantly replacing Bayern Munich-bound Omar Richards at left back and adding creativity and width to midfield, but also beefing up the defensive-midfield and centre-back spots.
Merely having that number of fresh faces is a relief. I’d started the summer aiming for seven signings, which would have gone up further after the sale of Michael Olise and long-term injuries to Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite. Serious doubt over whether or not the EFL would give Reading any leeway in the market at all meant that, at one stage, I would have accepted three in what was very much a ‘better than nothing’ scenario.
There was certainly room for improvement. Pushing the number up to eight - primarily with another centre forward (more on this later) but also with a right back to cover for Andy Yiadom - would have rounded things off nicely. Still, half a dozen is a decent enough total.
On paper those six signings haven’t been wasted. Reading have added a mix of individual talent and know-how at Championship and Premier League level that should be able to positively impact the first team, rather than merely bulking out the squad. Plus, prior experience of English football across this contingent strongly suggests that none will find it a difficult or lengthy process to get settled in.
The end result is a squad that looks much more lean and balanced than the Royals have had in recent years. Across the pitch, excluding the injury-hit centre-forward department, Reading have enough depth to provide options while avoiding the build-up of deadwood.
After all, even last season’s notoriously small squad still included spare parts: Sone Aluko, Sam Baldock and Sam Walker chief among them, but also academy graduates like Tennai Watson and Ryan East. This time round Reading have avoided that; everyone in the squad is here because Reading are happy for them to be here. Keeping the size of the squad in check may have been a by-product of EFL limitations on signings, but it’s welcome nonetheless.
It helps that the recruitment fits the manager too, even if that’s largely because he’s had to drive it himself.
#ReadingFC have been in talks with Scott Dann for a number of days. Again, Paunovic has been key to convincing the player to come to Reading.— Eddie Wallbank (@EddieRFC7) August 30, 2021
Understand that Paunovic has done lots of the transfer heavy lifting as the CEO is inexperienced and isn’t the best English speaker. pic.twitter.com/nFT1d5Vyax
With apparently no major counter influence from a CEO, director of football (we don’t have one) or super agent, it feels like these additions are all ‘Pauno signings’. Contrast this to the summer of 2019 when some arrivals felt like they’d been driven by then-DoF Mark Bowen (Michael Morrison and Charlie Adam were distinctly poor fits for Jose Gomes’ style) and others, potentially, by Kia Joorabchian.
I’d say we are now most of the way to a ‘Paunovic squad’, and that’s more than Paul Clement, Jose Gomes or Mark Bowen got. That can only be a good thing. How long it stays together though is a matter for another time (next summer).
There are distinct problems too though.
First and foremost, the signings that have come in feel very much like gambles that could quite conceivably backfire. Well, if they weren’t, Reading probably wouldn’t have been able to get them in the first place. Excluding Hoilett, Reading’s new arrivals have generally not played regularly in recent years or settled anywhere, whether due to long-term injury, an inability to fit in or both. They’re a bunch of misfits worthy of a James Gunn movie.
On one level I’m worried, unsure of what to expect from these six signings and concerned we’ll see more misses than hits. But on another, I’d dearly love to see them come good here after their poor fortunes elsewhere and can’t wait for them to get going.
Punts such as these have gone both ways for Reading in recent years; Norwich City outcast Nelson Oliveira became a fan favourite in these parts, but the less said about Royston Drenthe the better. Predicting how things will pan out for the class of 2021 is a fool’s game.
Plus, Reading’s recruits won’t have a lot of time to get up to speed. None took part in the Royals’ pre-season, having arrived anything between one and five league matches into the new campaign, so this international break will be crucial for them and Pauno alike. The obvious parallel here is with 2019, when six new players joined after the curtain raiser at home to Sheffield Wednesday, with Lucas Boye jetting in the day before.
Ingratiating the new six into Reading’s system, building up defensive organisation among them in some cases and cohesion with fellow attacking players in others will all have to be done on match days. That’s hardly ideal at any time, let alone after the start Reading have had.
Last but not least, the biggest failing in Reading’s summer recruitment: the inability to sign a striker. While this wouldn’t have appeared a problem all that long ago, extended absences for Joao, Meite and Femi Azeez leave George Puscas - yet to get going in a Reading shirt - as the only senior centre forward.
Bringing in a target man would have spared a few headaches. While Reading need the option of such a centre forward anyway, adding competition and back-up for Puscas would have been a huge help. Instead, the Royals must not only rely on Puscas and academy graduate Jahmari Clarke to make up the numbers, but we really need both to come good and provide the goals.
A word too for outgoings - or, rather, the lack thereof. In addition to the significant number of departing loanees and released players, Reading’s first team took a big hit with the loss of Olise and Richards. We could quite conceivably have had further exits: Josh Laurent and Tom Holmes were linked with Nottingham Forest, it took a while to agree new deals with Tom McIntyre and Michael Morrison, and rival clubs may have been eyeing the possibility of snapping up John Swift.
So avoiding a raft of first-team exits shouldn’t be understated in its importance. In the currently unlikely event of a play-off push, we’ll have the retention of players to thank as much as recruitment.
Put it all together and, although there are big caveats, there’s also a lot to like about the Royals’ summer transfer business. Circumstances may have been tough, but Reading made things work.