It truly is Ovie Ejaria’s world; we’re just living in it. Saturday was a glowing endorsement of just how good this lad is, and just why Reading forked out a few million quid to turn his second loan move at the club into a permanent one in the summer of 2020.
Not only did he score twice, but his all-round impact was strong: for an overtly creative player, we can sometimes overlook what he brings to the side in ball retention and protection of the left back behind him. As a fitting side note, the move for Reading’s first goal in the previous 2-1 win at Fulham - on New Year’s Day 2020 - was started off by an Ovie Ejaria interception near his own box. He’s always had that side of his game in his locker.
But really, it was his brace that stood out, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. Ovie Ejaria goals in a Reading shirt are rare. In fact, he’d only found the net seven times for the Royals before: once in 2018/19 and three times in each of 2019/20 and 2020/21. His two goals at Fulham on Saturday constitute 22% of his total Reading return.
Those stats highlight his poor return in front of goal. While we’ve always known how talented Ejaria is, translating that into consistently finding the net has been another matter. While there are various reasons for that (including positioning, who’s playing around him and fatigue last season), one key reason for me is that he’s simply lacked killer instinct to pull the trigger himself in front of goal.
He’s a creator, not a finisher, so thinks accordingly. His stats back that up: he had 1.1 shots per game in 2018/19, 1.4 in 2019/20 and 1.2 in 2020/21. For context, fellow playmaker John Swift has the record from 2016/17 to 2020/21 of 1.7, 1.3, 1.8, 1.5 and 1.3. Side note: if you want a basic explanation for Swift’s goalscoring form this season, he’s currently on 2 shots per game, distinctly above his career-long average of 1.5.
So with that context, Ejaria’s goalscoring instinct on Saturday - identifiable in both strikes albeit in different ways - looks even more promising. Let’s unpack both of them, starting with how he opened the scoring in the 19th minute.
Looks simple, doesn’t it? One touch to control, another to set himself and a third to whip the ball past Paulo Gazzaniga into the far top corner.
The fact that there isn’t obviously anything else to say about Ejaria’s execution here is noteworthy in itself. He doesn’t overcomplicate; Ovie knows exactly what he wants to do, does it succinctly and makes scoring in pretty stunning fashion look as easy as a five-yard pass. That kind of mindset is exactly what we need from Ejaria. Single-minded focus and ruthlessness separates those who find the net a few times from those who score regularly.
While it may look a little like I’m over-analysing, consider how this chance may have otherwise played out. In real life, Ejaria minimising his touches of the ball meant it never really looked like the defender had a chance of even slowing him down, let alone stopping him completely. But one more unnecessary touch, in any direction, would have allowed the defender to get that bit closer, minimise space and make the chance that bit harder.
There’s no thought in his mind of how to link up with Swift, look for an overlapping run that isn’t there or play in Alen Halilovic or Junior Hoilett. To me at least, a previous version of Ovie Ejaria - one who was that bit more shot-shy - may have allowed one of those options to creep into his thinking.
The fact that he finished so perfectly with his last touch feels academic. There’s never really been any question that he’s capable of striking the ball like that - it’s more of a case of whether or not he’ll put himself into a position to do so.
Ejaria’s second of the afternoon had some broad similarities to the first in terms of build-up. In each case Reading progress down the right through Halilovic, the ball is worked out to Ejaria on the left and he eventually scores. However, what Ejaria had to do to execute his chance was substantially different.
‘Ovie Ejaria’ and ‘getting in behind’ aren’t phrases you usually put together. This is after all a player who’s generally much more comfortable with feeding the run of someone else making a run into space (Meite’s opener at Sheffield Wednesday under Mark Bowen is just one example from various cases of the two linking up). The only real example of him scoring for Reading by getting in behind is his opener at Barnsley last season when he got on the end of a long ball from Andy Rinomhota.
So Ejaria sneaking in behind the Fulham defence was... pleasantly unusual. Watch how he did it:
What stands out for me here is just how quickly he darts in behind. Literally as soon as Ejaria releases the ball to Halilovic, who deserves huge credit for another gorgeous assist, he’s on the move. Watch the footage again with that in mind. Now watch it again, this time focusing on the defender trying his very best to keep up with Ejaria but failing miserably.
Although in this case we’re talking about a run rather than a touch (as with the first goal), the same principle applies: the chance came about because of how quickly and single-mindedly Ejaria acts. Again, he knows exactly what he wants to do and does it so quickly that the defender can’t cope.
Let’s run the same test as we did with the first goal: how would this scenario have played out if Ejaria had been that bit more slow or indecisive? Well, it probably wouldn’t have been him getting on the end of Halilovic’s pass, let alone having the room to control and finish. Those last two elements took a fair amount of skill, but - yes you can guess where I’m going with this - with a player this talented, that skill felt academic.
I’ve repeated myself a fair bit in talking about those two goals. But, well, that’s a good thing. While it’s great to see a player score once in a fashion that hadn’t previously been a strength, that player doing it a second time is even more satisfying. As a bonus, these goals only get better when you consider that neither required decisive involvement from star man John Swift, or even from a recognised centre forward. Ejaria is capable of providing the cutting edge himself.
The conclusion is obvious: this ruthless side of Ovie Ejaria is great; more of it please. I’d love to see him show sustained growth by continuing to score in such a fashion, and it looks like a good way for him to really push up the consistency of his end product.