Thankfully, it appears that Rafael will not be joining our overstuffed long-term injury list. Both Pauno and the player have confirmed that the Brazilian shot-stopper’s hand is not broken, and he should be available for selection “as soon as possible”. That’s great news. Rafael has been consistently good, and at times great in a Reading shirt.
A player that many Reading fans were desperate to see get a chance at the start of the season though was Rafael’s direct competitor for his place: Luke Southwood. During our win over Peterborough United, Royals fans finally got that chance.
Pauno was clearly a fan of Southwood’s performance, saying: “His interventions in a couple of moments in the first half, and him also being calm and composed on the ball, gave us time and a chance to build a momentum.” Pauno is right. Southwood was excellent on Tuesday evening. Peterborough weren’t great, but Southwood remained alert to turn away two stinging long shots in the first half, and could do nothing about yet more poor defending from a set play for the Posh’s goal.
Southwood’s performance forced an interesting dilemma then: if both keepers are fit, who should start on Saturday?
A) Play Southwood
He’s the future
Rafael’s contract is up this season. Given the rumblings from the player about his desire to play in a top division, and the sheer number of new contracts we’ll need to offer players in the offseason, it’s tough to see Rafael signing a new deal.
That’s genuinely a shame. I’m firmly in the pro-Rafael camp, but if the reality is he’s looking to play at a higher level (and at 32 in the offseason this may be his last chance), management need to start making some coldhearted decisions on what will be best for the club in the long term. I expect this to be especially important if Reading are comfortably avoiding relegation, but not troubling the playoffs come the dawn of 2022.
Southwood needs games while Rafael is still at the club to support and help coach him. If Southwood starts just one or two more matches this season, and then is thrown into the deep end as the number one next season, the pressure will be immense on him. Goalkeeper, alongside striker, is the position on the pitch that brings the most pressure and expectation.
Given the fickle nature of football, if Southwood starts the ‘22/23 season as our number one, and has just two or three poor games in a row, fans may start getting on his back. While that will be coming from a place of frustration, not malice, it still could disturb the development and confidence of the player. Players are online these days and I guarantee they see both the positive and negative statements shared about them.
Meanwhile, if Southwood is allowed to play games this year while Rafael can help him with his prep, I can only see his confidence growing. Further, an important year of development will not be wasted by riding pine. Moreover Southwood should keep his place when he plays well, and he played well against Peterborough! Under this logic, starting Southwood against Fulham is the right choice for his development.
He’s proved he can play
Southwood has already proved that he can play. It’s why some Reading fans were keen to see him start the season ahead of Rafael. That reputation has been primarily built on his time at Hamilton Academical. He put in some fantastic displays while playing in Scotland, and was very well liked by the Accies. His performances there included a clean sheet against a Rangers team that peppered his goal with 31 shots!
It’s even more impressive that Southwood played well and earned plaudits given the general quality of Hamilton vs their competition. Indeed, they went down the season after Southwood played with them. During his time with Hamilton, Southwood kept a very decent 72.6% save percentage. You’d expect that he saw lots of shots, given that they narrowly avoided relegation that year, however he also picked up a very respectable record of a clean sheet in 26% of his games. That’s only 5% lower than Rafael’s clean sheet percentage in a Reading shirt. Plus, Southwood is Ali Al-Habsi approved: case closed.
B) Play Rafael
It’s a game against a tough opponent
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Reading have had a very shaky start. Prior to the international break, many fans were reacting as though the sky was falling, and even after the QPR game, Reading sat in the relegation zone at this early stage. The bleeding has stemmed somewhat, but Reading are not yet in a position this season where they can play fast and loose with their lineup. They need to be focusing on picking up the points that will remove any fear of relegation.
This is especially true when playing a top-quality opponent such as Fulham. Paunovic needs to put his best possible team on the field, and right now, that best possible team starts from the back with Rafael Cabral. Southwood has done himself a lot of favours, but can we truly say he’s immediately up to Rafael’s level?
He’s currently still a better goalkeeper
Before Southwood’s excellent game on Tuesday, my overriding memory of him was from his start against Huddersfield Town at the end of last season. That day, in the 93rd minute of the game, Southwood let Edmonds-Green’s shot go straight through him, conceding a deflating equaliser in the process. That says more about me than it does about the player, and it was four months and a whole pre-season ago, but reminds us how young and inexperienced the player is.
Rafael is anything but. Before this year’s defensive calamities, which I don’t blame on him, his GA/90 was declining year over year, and his save percentage remained above 65%. Those stats aren’t perfect denominators of talent, but it’s tough to find newer, more advanced goalkeeping stats below Europe’s top five divisions. Still, making The Athletic’s 19/20 Championship team of the year (a side that included Kalvin Phillips, Ben White and Ollie Watkins) was more than enough evidence that Reading’s goalkeeper is a good one.
Over his time in Europe, he’s kept a higher clean sheet % than Southwood over a larger body of work, and if you’re wondering how good his other defences have been, just know that the majority of those games have been for Reading.
Rafael hasn’t done much wrong this season
Moreover, Rafael isn’t to blame for our defence’s shaky start to the season. To confirm this, I looked back at every goal we’ve conceded this year (yes, it was painful and yes, it took far too long). I counted three, maybe four of the 17 goals we’ve conceded as being either directly down to a mistake from Rafael or a situation where I would’ve expected better. For the most part, shambolic defence has left Rafael in a number of tricky situations. There’s no goalkeeping howlers in there, with the possible exception of Stoke’s third.
Indeed, you could even argue that he was integral in helping us win the game against Preston, making a key late save to give us all three points. His presence has certainly been a plus for the team.
I have heard the argument that Rafael deserves a little time on the sidelines in order to ensure he works on his discipline: the thought being that Rafael hurting himself by punching a whiteboard showed a lack of discipline. I don’t quite buy that for two reasons:
1) Are we really that upset that Rafael was fired up and angry about throwing away a 3-1 lead? Footballers aren’t robots, and quite frankly, I’m happy that Rafael is comfortable showing this much passion to win games for Reading.
2) Rafael hasn’t had any previous disciplinary problems, so it would seem very harsh to me that he’s made to sit because of one outburst. Sit Rafael because Southwood is better, sure. Don’t sit Rafael because he’s frustrated that his defence is hanging him out to dry.
Returning to the question of who should start against Fulham, I truly believe that Reading find themselves in the enviable position that starting either keeper is a win. Starting Rafael is starting your best possible player to chase the points. Starting Southwood will be a huge confidence boost for him and could be a massive step forward in his development. When it comes to the rest of the year though, it would be a shame to leave Southwood waiting for Rafael to depart in the summer, but more importantly: it would be a mistake. Here’s hoping Pauno can find a happy medium.