2021 was set up to be a really good year for Reading Football Club. An excellent second half of 2020 had put the Royals in the driving seat to at least secure a play-off spot, or perhaps even seal automatic promotion. Things were going smoothly until the end of January but, 11 months on, it’s hard not to conclude that the last year has been one of huge disappointment and frustration.
The disappointment of an opportunity missed has been palpable. Reading have plunged from being fourth at one stage, level on points with second, to now hovering above the relegation zone. The club’s outlook went from ‘the only way is up’ to nervously looking over its shoulder at League One.
What compounds that feeling though is the frustration of that under-performance being caused in large part (but not exclusively) by factors not relating to how the club performed in 2021 itself. Reading were severely held back last year by a mixture of short-term bad luck and longer-term issues as the club’s past caught up with it - just as much as by choices made in 2021 itself, if not more so.
Reading were more than capable of making unforced errors though. While the Royals’ 2021 was significantly affected by factors outside its control, that shouldn’t mean we overlook the areas where the club could and should have done better.
If there’s one word we’ll use to remember 2021, it’s injuries. Enforced absences - whether short-term or long-term, muscle injuries or impact injuries - were a plague on Reading throughout 2021.
It certainly had an impact on the team’s chances of getting into the play-offs in the first half of the year. Key players Yakou Meite, John Swift and Michael Morrison were among those to miss significant chunks of the second half of last season; having them available for longer would have boosted the side and could well have been enough to push Reading over the line.
If we thought Reading had it bad then, things have only got worse this season. The injury list has constantly been in double figures in recent months, necessitating the use of academy graduates to make up the numbers. These haven’t been youth players with several years’ development under their belts - we’re typically talking about players scarcely out of the under-18 squad, due to the ongoing effects of Reading releasing under-23s en masse in 2020.
It wasn’t until Andy Carroll’s arrival in November that the Royals could name a bench with more than one fully fit senior attacking player on it. Opportunities for Veljko Paunovic to rest players, adjust his line-up for tactical reasons or make in-game swaps have been severely limited.
And last month Reading were badly hit by several waves of Covid-19 which forced the postponement of three games. Although it may give some players an important rest, others have had “more severe symptoms” according to Pauno - not to mention the disruption to general training and game preparation which will inevitably come from a coronavirus outbreak at the club.
Historic mismanagement behind the scenes has also cast a long shadow over the Royals’ 2021. It’s ironic that, after Reading had started to cut back on spending by scaling down the size of the squad (beginning in the summer of 2020 and continuing throughout 2021), EFL restrictions and punishments held back the side’s potential.
The first sign of that was in January when Reading badly needed a boost via the transfer market - consider for example the lift play-off rivals Barnsley got from the arrival of Daryl Dike on loan in mid-season. Reading however were the only side in the division not to make a signing that month, failing at the 11th hour to bring in highly regarded forward Diego Rossi on a temporary basis from Los Angeles FC. At least one addition like that may have made the difference in the promotion run-in.
Reading’s pre-season preparations for 2021/22 were also significantly impacted by EFL restrictions. Clarity over the Royals’ ability to sign players after the imposition of a transfer embargo wasn’t fully resolved until August - after the start of the season. The inability to recruit players and get them settled before the curtain raiser at Stoke City would have hampered the side in any circumstances, let alone with mounting injuries in the existing squad. The Royals had only five subs on the bench for that game in Staffordshire.
The consequence of Reading’s past overspending reached a head though in November when the club was deducted six points for an FFP breach. Reading did pretty well all things considered to keep it to six points after “lengthy but amicable” talks with the EFL. Whatever your thoughts on the rights or wrongs of the penalty, or where responsibility lies for the deduction, the effect was to push the Royals from having a mid-table points tally to one barely keeping the team in the division. Take out the deduction and, after Reading’s most recent match, the Royals would have been equidistant on points (eight) from the top six and bottom three. Include it and Reading were (and still are) two points above the drop zone.
And closer to home, an inability to fully get on top of the club’s contract situation has started to bite. Omar Richards walked away on a free transfer, joining Bayern Munich at the end of May after months of speculation, while a release clause in Michael Olise’s deal allowed Crystal Palace to snap him up for £8m. Although those players’ situations were more complicated to be solved by simply unilaterally giving them new contracts (would they have even wanted to stay, for one thing?), perhaps some foresight and better squad planning in 2020 or earlier would have allowed Reading to pocket much more cash than they did.
Granted, there’s been some success on the contracts front. Luke Southwood, Tom McIntyre, Michael Morrison, Femi Azeez and Jokull Andresson were among those to extend their stays at Reading. But Reading’s squad management is still a concern - due to long-term issues - and doesn’t immediately look like getting much better in 2022.
These are all things for which Reading must ultimately take responsibility. Dai Yongge knew the rules, gambled on trying to win promotion through overspending and lost. Any inquiry about why the Royals are in this position and how they get out of it must start with self-reflection.
At the same time though, it’s still frustrating that any potential Reading had for success in 2021 was so heavily undermined by factors not relating to how the club operated in 2021: bad luck and historic errors. Dial down the severity of those factors and it’s reasonable to ponder whether we’d have got significantly closer to promotion last season than we did, and how much better this season may have gone.
This isn’t to overlook areas in which the club could and should have done better. Reading were guilty of naivety and silly mistakes in 2021, particularly on the pitch in the back half of last season. While recapping the first six months of last year for a ‘highs and lows’ feature, I was struck by how lows were avoidable errors: fluffed individual chances or losses that should have been victories.
It’s easy to rattle off a number of costly misses - not just good openings, but clear-cut opportunities that should have converted. Lucas Joao’s missed penalties against Preston North End and Wycombe Wanderers, Joao and George Puscas fluffing their lines at Nottingham Forest, Michael Olise and Joao at home to QPR, Yakou Meite and Joao in that crunch match at Barnsley. Those misses were effectively worth nine points.
I’ve mentioned the name Joao a lot there, haven’t I? As with 2020, Reading’s 2021 relied so heavily on the Royals’ main front man being fit and firing. It’s surely no coincidence that we looked at our best last season when he was on song, fell away when his form dropped off and have often struggled for goals this season in his continued absence. Joao not losing his golden touch in front of goal in the back half of 2020/21 is another of those ‘what ifs’ for us to chew over.
The team came up short collectively too though. Reading had eight games in the first half of 2021 against sides who’d finish in the bottom third of the table. We won just four of those, drawing with Forest and Huddersfield Town and losing to Wycombe Wanderers and Birmingham City. That’s 10 points right there.
That brings us to Veljko Paunovic. As highlighted above, the gaffer’s had more than his fair share of problems outside his control to deal with; put them all together and they create a uniquely difficult situation for anyone in the dugout to handle - particularly in the second half of the year.
But there are still areas of his management where Paunovic should have done better in 2021. Sometimes he was guilty of being too naive, other times of being too pragmatic when a more positive approach would have been in order. Errors are understandable for someone new to Championship management last season, but they still played their part in Reading’s under-performance.
Injuries and fatigue contributed to the Royals’ drop-off in 2020/21. While Paunovic was restricted by the size of his squad in combating those problems, he could still have made better use of the back-up options he had. Numerous first-team players, particularly Ovie Ejaria, would have benefited from a rest. Sone Aluko, Tomas Esteves and various youngsters were unavailable but underused.
Reading also needed required more tactical growth in the first half of this year if the play-off bid was to be successful.
Paunovic seemed too comfortable with ideas that been successful to a degree in the first half of the season but had to evolve in the second: 4-2-3-1, the Rino/Laurent double pivot, Alfa Semedo being used in addition to the other two defensive midfielders, and playing centre backs at full back. You can see a trend of Pauno opting for caution when the Royals would have benefited from personnel and system choices that allowed them to play more on the front foot.
A perfect example was the defeat at Adams Park, when Reading were well below par and lacked ideas despite the bottom-ranked hosts playing the last 20 minutes with 10 men. Pauno picked two centre backs at full back (Holmes and McIntyre) and three defensive midfielders (Laurent, Semedo and Rinomhota - the latter lining up on the right wing). Paunovic could and should have gone more attacking, with a few more attack-minded players available on the bench and in no need of a rest: Esteves, Aluko and Puscas.
Reading had similar problems breaking teams down at the Mad Stad, managing just five home wins from 12 in 2020/21 after New Year’s Day (having won seven in 11 before New Year’s Day). The 2-0 defeat to Middlesbrough highlighted the Royals’ inability to unlock a side that sat deep and protected a lead.
A brief return to the 4-4-2 diamond (which had been used a bit in the first half of the season in various forms) showed some promise. It allowed Puscas to partner the misfiring Joao in attack while retaining the back four and various slots for Reading’s central midfielders. However, it would only last for a few games in March before Reading reverted to 4-2-3-1.
This season’s been different on a few levels for Paunovic. The mitigating circumstances surrounding his management have increased - his hands have been tied greatly by the lack of a proper pre-season and the sheer number of injuries. He’s also shown some tactical growth, generally moving from 4-2-3-1 into a more attacking 4-1-4-1 (besides some uses of 4-2-3-1 and various other formations as circumstances have dictated).
But there’s been still room for improvement. The worrying number of goals conceded from set pieces in the opening weeks of the season (but not including corners, as Steven discussed here) contributed heavily to Reading’s struggles in August, although the issue was addressed in September. While injuries and the departure of coaches John O’Shea and Eddie Niedzwiecki didn’t help, this was still Pauno’s responsibility and it put the Royals in trouble before the first international break.
He’s also continued a tendency - evident as far back as managing Chicago Fire - of putting square pegs in round holes. Andy Yiadom had a torrid afternoon at left back against Huddersfield Town when actual left back Ethan Bristow was available, while Jahmari Clarke was used as a left winger at Coventry City before having to swap with George Puscas due to the joy the hosts were getting down that side - an odd choice from Pauno, not a failing on Clarke’s part.
In the manager’s defence there was some logic behind these choices: Yiadom is more experienced than Bristow, who’d underperformed earlier in the season at left wing back, while Clarke would have been an aerial outlet and fresh pair of legs on the flank. Reading have also had some success with square pegs in round holes - after all, the first clean sheet of the season was accomplished by a team including Dejan Tetek at right back, Josh Laurent and Andy Yiadom at centre back (when Michael Stickland was available) and Junior Hoilett as a false nine.
Hopefully such circumstances won’t arise too much in the future, although the impending loss of Yiadom and Baba Rahman to the Africa Cup of Nations presents a problem at full back. When these problems do come up though, Paunovic would be better served by trusting younger players. They can and probably will make mistakes, but they’ll be all the better for the experience.
So, given the circumstances, should Reading have done better in 2021 than they did?
It’s a question that’s bound to get very distinct conclusions from different fans, but even the most critical of us should still accept that this club has faced serious challenges (some of its making, some not) that played a huge part in how 2021 unfolded. To a far greater extent than in other years, things happened to Reading more than Reading made things happen. That must change in 2022.
For me, the factors outside the club’s immediate control (short-term bad luck and the effects of longer-term issues that predate 2021) outweigh but don’t excuse those in the club’s immediate control (Reading’s performances on the pitch and the choices it made in 2021).
But that shouldn’t be any cause for complacency. Reading can’t afford to simply say “2021 was an off-year, we’ll have more luck in 2022”. Well-run clubs make their own luck, troubleshooting problems before they arise and insulating themselves against bouts of bad fortune. Reading haven’t done that in recent years and were accordingly caught out in 2021.
Last year should act as a warning for this one on multiple fronts. A successful 2022 must include improvements on the injury front, plenty of work being done to tie players down to new contracts and squad-building through longer-term recruitment in the summer - all while staying in the division and sticking to the EFL’s business plan that runs until the end of next season. Achieving all of that will require Reading to learn from the mistakes of recent years and embrace a more long-term mindset - two things Dai Yongge has struggled to do during his stewardship of the club.
The best time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. Reading however will have to do it in the middle of a downpour.