While I loved how Ovie Ejaria scored his brace on Saturday (and wrote about it here), I felt it would be remiss of me to not mention Alen Halilovic’s part in both goals. The musings in this piece were originally meant as an addendum to the previous article, but I thought it would be worth expanding on them. I’m aware that some of the following may be drawing a lot from relatively little evidence, but, well, I really liked what I saw.
Ejaria deserves praise for showing the same trait in both of his goals, something which he’s lacked previously and I hope he shows more of: ruthlessness. But Halilovic similarly deserves a share of the limelight for a different quality that he added to Reading’s attack: directness.
When I mention that word in the context of Reading attackers, your thoughts may drift to players that fit the mould of a ‘quick orthodox winger’. Modou Barrow, Jimmy Kebe, Bobby Convey and so on; players that mixed pace with a willingness to run at defenders. While Halilovic is distinctly different to those former Royals (all of whom played on flanks corresponding with their stronger foot while left-footed Halilovic plays on the right), he’s also not.
What we saw on Saturday was a real willingness to charge at a defence. That desire was crucial in both build-ups to Reading’s goals - each time being counter-attacks that started with Reading winning the ball back in their half before breaking upfield quickly. In the first case it was Josh Laurent that regained possession, while Halilovic himself nipped in with a nifty interception for the second.
Turning counter-attacking opportunities into goalscoring opportunities though takes speed and directness; luckily for Reading, Halilovic provides both. Here’s his part in the first goal...
…and early on in the build-up for Reading’s second.
To use the technical term, Alen Halilovic really doesn’t piss about. As soon as he picks the ball up, he charges quickly and confidently into the space in front of him.
It’s one thing for Reading to create counter-attacking scenarios when such space arises, but it’s another to actually exploit that space. Running quickly into a gap between opposition players looks really simple and straightforward (because for some players it is), but that doesn’t mean we should take it for granted. All too often in the past, presented with this kind of opportunity, we’ve seen a Reading player either opt to retain possession or - when trying something more positive - lose possession through a bad touch or misplaced pass.
For each of the Royals’ goals on Saturday however, Halilovic managed to promptly dart into the space behind Fulham’s midfield, catching an exposed and back-pedalling defence off balance, thereby making it that bit easier for Ejaria to score.
Now consider the run and through ball that don’t happen in those clips. Rewatch them but keep an eye on Junior Hoilett. While he helpfully creates space centrally in the first clip by moving right and receives possession from Halilovic in the second clip, a different player in his position could have done more damage.
A quicker, more natural centre forward would have been lurking on the shoulder of the last defender, waiting for a through ball that would have created a clear one-on-one opportunity through the middle. George Puscas would have loved to be in Hoilett’s shoes in those scenarios. This isn't to do Hoilett down. It is however to highlight the fact that Halilovic's direct running could have made the kind of quality open-play chance that Puscas has been crying out for.
Halilovic’s directness felt significant. He’s a confident, positive dribbler who can move upfield with the ball quickly rather than just keeping it safe. That’s a refreshing quality when taken in the context of Reading’s other attackers. Looking at Halilovic's closest rivals for a starting spot, Ejaria and John Swift have the close control but not the pace, while Yakou Meite has the pace but not the close control. Hoilett is the closest fit, but at 31, he's not the Duracell Bunny he once was. So, adding Halilovic into Reading’s attacking arsenal contributes something distinct. Variety of options is never a bad thing.
Halilovic isn’t just a dribbler. What elevates him beyond that is his technical ability; his two assists in four appearances have demonstrated his incisive passing, and he was unlucky not to have another on his debut when Michael Morrison couldn’t convert Halilovic’s free kick.
His first-time pass for Reading’s second at Craven Cottage was perfect: played into Ejaria with just the right trajectory and pace for the ball to be controlled and slotted home. Overhit this delivery and, even if Ovie does take it into his stride, the finish has to be done from a much tighter angle.
Playing passes like that is a distinctly different skill to Halilovic’s dribbling ability, but it echoes what seems to be his playing style: operating quickly and positively. There’ll be plenty of times when things don’t come off for Halilovic, but I’m glad to see he’s trying in the first place. Given that this is coming so soon after him signing, I’m encouraged even more: Halilovic seems to have settled immediately.
There should be much more to come. Building and maintaining a rapport with Reading’s other attackers - predominantly likely starters Swift, Ejaria and Puscas - will be key if the Royals’ forward line is to reach its potential. I’m fascinated to see how well that’ll come to fruition, but from limited info thus far, I’m optimistic.