George Puscas (and to a lesser extent Jahmari Clarke and Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan)
The biggest failing of Reading’s summer recruitment - not getting a new centre forward in - leaves one obvious beneficiary. George Puscas is now the Royals’ only fit senior centre forward, leaving Veljko Paunovic with pretty much no choice but to play him regularly as the lone striker in Reading’s 4-2-3-1.
If Puscas is to come good at Reading he needs regular game time. While he got that in his debut campaign with more than 2,500 Championship minutes across 38 appearances, he managed just 840 across 21 last season due to injury and Lucas Joao’s form. Barring another injury this season, he won’t want for first-team opportunities.
That will hopefully give him the chance to build up some form in a way that has so far eluded him. Plus, the addition of a variety of creative talent behind him (playmaker Alen Halilovic on the right, winger Junior Hoilett on the left and deep-lying passer Danny Drinkwater) could provide the service he’s lacked this season. The opposite side of the coin however is that, with more game time and better service, he’ll have no excuses if he doesn’t hit the mark.
Whether Puscas stays fit or not, there should be game time for Clarke (17) and Ehibhatiomhan (18) too. Both have featured for Reading’s first team already this season, while the former’s involvement in the Championship suggests he’s higher up the pecking order. Although injuries provide them an opening, Pauno will need to ease them into senior football rather than chucking them in at the deep end.
How exactly do you get the most out of John Swift? He’s probably Reading’s best player, so getting maximum return from him will be of paramount importance this season. While the summer transfer activity isn’t perfect from Swift’s point of view, it does help in a couple of ways.
First and foremost, the increased range of personnel around him on the pitch will help. As I wrote here, Hoilett’s profile as an out-and-out winger will add variety that can help Swift - the play being stretched is an outlet and creates space centrally. But similar can be said of Danny Drinkwater too.
Getting Swift into the right areas in the first place is easier said than done. Before Drinkwater’s arrival he’d been the only expressive passer in Reading’s midfield, which often resulted in Swift dropping deep to get on the ball and pick passes. Whether that’s a specific tactical instruction or not, Reading have been over-reliant on Swift to do that, meaning he’s less free to do damage in the final third.
So adding a deep-lying playmaker in Drinkwater changes the equation for Swift, who can now stay higher up the pitch. That’ll hopefully help Swift in providing a consistent open-play threat in the final third.
Bayern Munich and Crystal Palace
What were the biggest bargains involving Reading in the summer transfer window? Omar Richards to Bayern Munich on a free transfer and Michael Olise to Crystal Palace for £8m. Those are pitifully small figures for players that certainly have the potential to play at Champions League level in their career; Richards is there now, while Olise may be snapped up by a bigger Premier League side further down the road.
Had Olise and Richards gone for fees reflecting their ability and potential, Reading could have pocketed at least £40m. While that’s a pretty empty and over-simplified hypothetical, it’s frustrating nonetheless.
How many Reading managers in recent years have achieved the holy grail of being able to build their own squad? Recent inhabitants of the Mad Stad dugout have had to make do with players left over from their predecessors, lacked the time and funds to replace them, and not necessarily had complete control over signings anyway. The end result has been a hodge-podge group of players that Clement, Gomes, Bowen and co have had to make do with.
While this certainly isn’t a finalised Veljko Paunovic squad, he’s got the outline of one: last season’s deadwood has been trimmed away and replaced by players that actually fit the need of this squad. This certainly helps Pauno who now has the tools to create a competitive side, generally without having to fit square pegs into round holes.
The flipside of this is that it increases pressure on the manager. He’s previously had the mitigating circumstance of a lack of new signings, but getting those over the line means he’s got to show a return. But us being able to have those expectations at all - because of the recruitment we’ve done - underlines the stronger position Pauno is now in.
This looked a lot like it would be Tetek’s breakthrough season. The 18-year-old central midfielder had been regularly involved with Reading’s matchday squad in 2020/21, making a few appearances off the bench and being handed a first league start at Carrow Road in May. It made sense that, in a pretty small 2021/22 squad, he’d be used far more heavily this campaign.
Reading’s summer recruitment suggests Pauno doesn’t Tetek for regular game time though - at least not yet. New signings Danny Drinkwater and Tom Dele-Bashiru are surely higher up the double-pivot pecking order than Tetek (although TDB can play higher up the pitch too), while Araruna will be in the mix too when he returns to action. All those players competing with established duo Josh Laurent and Andy Rinomhota leaves little room for Tetek.
Now, this isn’t to say the young Serb won’t get game time. First and foremost, injury-prone Araruna aside, Tetek is probably the closest stylistic match to Laurent and Rinomhota with his tenacity and energy; Drinkwater and Dele-Bashiru both seem to be more offensive options. There’s a very realistic scenario in which Laurent or Rinomhota are unavailable, meaning Paunovic turns to Tetek.
Still, Tetek will have probably eyed up 2021/22 as when he became a regular part of the first team. That’ll have to wait.
Although he played most of his football last season at right back, Tom Holmes’ future should be in the middle. Strong in the air, with challenges on the ground and in playing out from the back, he looks very much like a long-term option for the right-sided centre back spot. While Michael Morrison’s new contract meant he stayed top of the pecking order, Holmes as second choice would still be in a strong position to get game time when the opportunity arose.
Scott Dann’s introduction however puts a spanner in the works. It now appears Holmes is third choice for the right-sided centre back spot, behind two significantly more experienced options. While an opportunity may open up if Liam Moore is ruled out and Morrison or Dann shunt across, that window will close when left-footed Tom McIntyre returns from injury.
Instead, it looks like Holmes is much more likely to get his game time at right back. Reading’s inability to sign a backup for injury-prone Andy Yiadom leaves Holmes as the likely second choice - already demonstrated by Holmes playing there against Coventry City and Huddersfield Town.
While getting a decent amount of game time at right back isn’t a bad situation, it’s not what Holmes would have hoped for, and not what he needs for his long-term development.
Lewis Baker fans (myself included)
While Reading signing Drinkwater isn’t to be sniffed it, it could have been so much better. Chelsea were actively looking to find a loan club for another of their deep-lying playmakers in the closing hours of the transfer window, someone who’s already highly regarded in these parts: Lewis Baker.
The 2018/19 Reading loanee would have added much of what Drinkwater provides but without the concerns. Like the former Leicester City man Baker is capable of pinging the ball around the pitch, but he comes without the baggage of being a Premier League winner whose career has since nosedived.
Sure, his career has also stalled, but I’m sure he’d have relished the opportunity to get it back on track at Reading. He looked right at home at the Mad Stad - probably more so than his other loans in recent years.
Was a loan move on the cards at all? Perhaps, perhaps not, but I’d have loved to see it come off.