Veljko Paunovic has been no stranger to selection issues this season. He has had to deal with a transfer embargo, positive Covid-19 tests and an unprecedented injury crisis, all of which have meant the options at his disposal have been pretty limited.
In fact, the trip to West Bromwich Albion on December 11 was the first game this campaign for which the manager was able to name a substitutes bench that included three outfield players with more than 15 professional appearances in their career.
A Covid-enforced three-week break is likely to have allowed some sidelined players to get back to match fitness and Paunovic will hope that the start of a new calendar year leads to better luck on the injury front.
But now he has a new problem to deal with: the Africa Cup of Nations. More specifically, Andy Yiadom and Baba Rahman representing Ghana at the Africa Cup of Nations. Although to describe the competition as a problem is harsh and does unfairly devalue it. Representing your country at a major tournament is a huge honour and no one should begrudge a player doing that.
Yet it is of course frustrating that AFCON takes place in January, causing disruption to the European club season. The previous edition of the tournament in 2019 took place in the summer for the first time, but “unfavourable” weather conditions in Cameroon in June and July mean the tournament has reverted back to a January slot.
Yiadom and Rahman, first choice at right-back and left-back for both Reading and Ghana, have departed for the tournament. Their group matches - against Morocco, Gabon and Comoros - will finish on January 18, meaning at the very least they will miss Reading’s fixtures against Kidderminster Harriers in the FA Cup (which they probably wouldn’t have played in anyway) and Fulham, Luton Town and Middlesbrough in the Championship.
However, the likelihood is that the Black Stars will progress. The top two teams in each group go through along with four of six third-place nations. Ghana are the second-highest FIFA-ranked country in their group (behind Morocco) and Comoros are first-time qualifiers, so there is certainly an expectation that Yiadom and Rahman will play knockout football.
Playing in the round of 16 would rule them out of the home fixture against Huddersfield Town, a quarter-final appearance would see them miss the trip to Queens Park Rangers and if they progress to the semi-finals (with either the final or third place playoff guaranteed after that) then they would be out of the home league game against Stoke City and/or an FA Cup fourth-round tie. So in total, that’s a maximum of eight Reading matches the full-back pair could be absent for. Eeek.
So how does Paunovic cope without them?
Let’s start at right-back, which is the simpler of the two selection headaches. Yiadom has played at left-back, centre-back, wing-back and right midfield this season and been absent for three games, so we know what the team can look like without him in his natural position.
If Paunovic wants to continue using a back four, he will most likely turn to Tom Holmes or Dejan Tetek at right-back. Holmes has more experience in the role, playing 22 times there last season and proving a solid if unspectacular option. As is to be expected for a player who is naturally a central defender, the 21-year-old gives you plenty of defensive acumen as a full-back but very little in terms of support going forward. That’s where the case for Tetek - naturally a midfielder - can be made as the Serbian youth international would be more of a like-for-like replacement for Yiadom. The teenager put in a man-of-the-match display at right-back against Middlesbrough in September.
17-year-old Tyrell Ashcroft has surprisingly emerged this season, making three starts this season against Millwall, West Bromwich Albion and Derby County. In the first two of those he was deployed as a right wing-back as Reading went with a back three and if Paunovic does decide to go with Ashcroft throughout January then you would expect that to be the manager’s chosen system. That’s not only due to the teenager’s lack of experience and the nervousness and caution he has shown so far, but also because of the squad’s decent number of options at centre-back. Ashcroft was forced off injured against Derby though - when he started as a right-back in a back four - but it is unclear whether he will be out for a prolonged period of time.
There are other options too, least of all forgotten man Felipe Araruna who made his first senior appearance in 464 days when he came on for Ashcroft at half time on Monday. Unsurprisingly he looked a little rusty and perhaps even slightly unconvincing, but should improve with more game time. Somewhat of a utility man, around half of his career appearances - and most of his Reading ones - have come as a right-back.
Look into the academy and Kelvin Abrefa will be ferociously putting his hand up for a first-team chance. The 18-year-old has been named on the bench for five Championship fixtures this season and caught the eye in the recent FA Youth Cup win over Bromley, getting an assist for Princewill Ehibhatiomhan’s opening goal. Fellow 18-year-old Lynford Sackey made his full first-team debut at right-back against Swansea City in the League Cup, but has not appeared for the under-23s since October due to injury.
The left-back spot is more of a conundrum as Rahman has played 90 minutes in every game since signing on loan from Chelsea in late August. Before that, Tom McIntyre took on the role in the first four matches of the campaign and it is unnerving that the 22-year-old centre-back is the most experienced option on the left. McIntyre has been sidelined since August with a foot injury and was expected to return in December but suffered a setback in his recovery; it remains unclear whether he will be fit to stand in for Rahman this month.
Next in line would be Ethan Bristow, who himself has just returned from time on the treatment table. Like McIntyre, the 20-year-old started the campaign in the starting lineup - but in a role further forward on the left flank and there would probably be some concerns if he was asked to take on more defensive duties. As with Ashcroft on the right, if Paunovic does decide to give Bristow the opportunity again, it seems likely we would see three centre-backs to provide that cover.
Younger names include Imari Samuels and Nelson Abbey (both 18), with the latter making his full first-team debut at left-back against Swansea in August opposite Sackey on the right. Abbey has recently made a return from injury, while Samuels - linked with a Premier League move in the summer - has not featured for the under-23s since the start of November. He had surgery later that month.
There has also been talk in recent days that Reading have taken former Coventry City left-back and current free agent Brandon Mason on trial [via Eddie Wallbank], so the Royals may look to offer short-term contracts to players on either side of the defence who are currently without a club.
This weekend’s FA Cup fixture against Kidderminster could tell us a lot about Paunovic’s full-back plans for the next month. The Serbian would be wise to use the match to give opportunities to the likes of Araruna and Abrefa on the right and Bristow and Abbey on the left, particularly as five substitutes are allowed in cup games this season.
Given how Pauno has frequently changed his choice of right-back in Yiadom’s absence and there is no clear understudy to Rahman on the left, both spots are certainly up for grabs and a successful audition at the Aggborough Stadium may lead to more chances in what is shaping up to be a crucial month ahead for Reading.