A couple of days ago I saw a graphic from Pete Smith, Stoke City reporter for Stoke On Trent Live. In it, he illustrated the continued absence of a few of the Potters’ key players: Tyrese Campbell, Nick Powell and others.
While the scale of the problem may legitimately count as an injury crisis and could well have had a big impact on Stoke’s season (I can’t properly tell either way, I’m not a Stoke fan), it felt relatively tame by Reading’s standards.
So, just how bad has Reading’s own injury crisis this season really been? How has that issue affected the number of players available to Pauno in practice for each league match and how much has the situation changed? I’ve looked into all of that for this article - crunching the numbers and then visualising it with some charts.
First a bit on methodology, which you can skip if you’d rather go straight to the graphics below.
- For sake of simplicity and consistency in the data I’ve excluded Reading’s one cup match so far - the League Cup defeat to Swansea City.
- A player counts as ‘available’ if they’re in the match-day squad (no senior players were left out for tactical reasons as Reading couldn’t afford to do so).
- They’re ‘unavailable’ if they’ve been left out due to injury, lack of match fitness (remember when we were wondering why it was taking so long for Scott Dann to make his debut?) or something to do with Covid (eg Andy Yiadom missing the Millwall defeat). Or for punching a whiteboard. Not to name any names.
- There’s an unavoidable minor complication with all seven signings joining the squad at different times. It’s something to bear in mind but don’t give it too much weight.
As for the players themselves, I’ve only included ones established at senior level. That’s somewhat arbitrary, so for avoidance of doubt here are the 24 players covered:
Rafael, Luke Southwood
Andy Yiadom, Felipe Araruna, Michael Morrison, Liam Moore, Scott Dann, Tom Holmes, Tom McIntyre, Baba Rahman
Josh Laurent, Andy Rinomhota, Danny Drinkwater, Dejan Tetek,
John Swift, Tom Dele-Bashiru, Junior Hoilett, Ovie Ejaria, Yakou Meite, Alen Halilovic
Andy Carroll, Lucas Joao, George Puscas, Femi Azeez
I’ve tried to draw a line between ‘senior’ and ‘academy’ based on whether or not a player is generally a member of the under-23s’ starting XI.
That means more experienced youngsters such as Tetek, Azeez and Southwood are included, but there are some notable absences. Jahmari Clarke, Mamadi Camara, Michael Stickland, Tyrell Ashcroft and Ethan Bristow have all appeared in the league (the latter two have started three times each), but none of those five are senior players - rather, they’re rookies who’ve had to be used by Pauno due to injuries. There’s an unavoidable inconsistency as Ashcroft and Bristow have started more games this season than Joao, Meite and Araruna.
The following have played for the first team in the League Cup but are still very much at academy level in their development: Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, Claudio Osorio, Kian Leavy, Lynford Sackey and Nelson Abbey. All but Abbey have appeared on the bench in the Championship.
Focusing solely on senior players means we’re only assessing the established options available to Veljko Paunovic, thereby getting a better understanding of the impact suffered by injuries. It’s also better for data reliability as injury info at academy level is much harder to come by.
With that out of the way, here’s the data in fancy interactive form: league games along the bottom, number of players along the side. If it doesn’t display on your device you can find a version at this link right here.
I’ve added a grey area to show the period when Reading’s first six signings were incorporated into the match-day squad (from Dele-Bashiru being an unused sub against Preston North End to Dann coming off the bench at Derby County). There’s also a line at the top to tally up overall squad size from the points additions come into the squad - not when they make their debuts.
Regardless of injuries and signings, in practice Reading have had 14 or 15 senior players available for the vast majority of this season’s league matches (70.83% to be precise). Availability has dipped below that level six times (25%) and risen above it just once.
In other words, Reading are halfway through the season but are yet to have an entire match-day squad’s worth of available players for any game. Even the absolute high point, a distinct outlier when Reading had 17 senior players fit for the Sheffield United loss, fell short by one.
It’s also worth bearing in mind here that - with the exception of the Peterborough United and Fulham games (matches 7 and 8) - those figures include two senior goalkeepers. So for Pauno it’s generally been a case of having two, maybe three, senior outfielders on the bench.
Absences may not look too bad for the first few games of the season, but they were chipping away at a squad which was at that point even smaller than it is now. Reading went into the season opener at Stoke with 14 senior players, no signings made and just five players on the bench.
New faces did gradually come in, making their first appearances in a match-day squad over the course of games 2 through 10. However, the explosion of injuries after the first international break (game 6 onwards) not only cancelled out the impact of signings - it meant squad availability started to actively creep down.
Looking at the 18 games since that first international break, Reading have had at least 8 players absent on all but one occasion - when 7 missed the Sheffield United loss. During that 18-game period the absentee list has totalled 9 or 10 players on 14 occasions and been even worse twice: 12 were out at Millwall, 11 at Birmingham City. Slightly ironically, the player who made the difference between those two totals (Andy Yiadom) had a match-winning impact when he returned to the team at St Andrew’s.
How this all breaks down on a player-by-player basis
Despite the Royals using a total of 28 players in the league this season (24 seniors plus 5 youth minus Meite), the vast majority of the squad has been susceptible to some kind of absence. In total, 18 of the 24 (75%) have missed at least one match through enforced absence - the other six being Southwood, Carroll, Dele-Bashiru, Rahman, Laurent and Puscas.
The outcome of all this isn’t just the accumulation of a lot of short-term absences. Reading’s 24 senior squad members have each had an average of 7.95 absences so far this season (excluding games missed due to a player having not signed for the club at that point). That works out to each senior player being sidelined for an average of 34.6% of their respective league seasons.
Those figures haven’t been in any way distorted by long-term absentees such as Araruna, Joao (who have both been available for two games) and Meite. If anything they’re mitigated by players staying fit. That trio is after all outnumbered by long-term ever-presents Southwood, Dele-Bashiru, Laurent, Puscas (no enforced absences), Rafael (two) and Swift (one).
As you can see in the list below, a significant number of Reading’s senior players have had a substantial lay-off. Again, I’ve excluded matches missed due to the player having not signed for the club - hence, for example, Carroll being on 0.
23: Yakou Meite
21: Felipe Araruna, Lucas Joao
19: Tom McIntyre
18: Andy Rinomhota
15: Michael Morrison
12: Femi Azeez
10: Junior Hoilett
9: Dejan Tetek, Ovie Ejaria
8: Alen Halilovic
6: Liam Moore, Danny Drinkwater
4: Scott Dann, Tom Holmes
3: Andy Yiadom
1: John Swift
0: Luke Southwood, Baba Rahman, Josh Laurent, Tom Dele-Bashiru, Andy Carroll, George Puscas
Or if you prefer a dramatic green light/red light visualisation (green is available, red is unavailable, grey means they weren’t at the club at that point)...
There’s a lot of red in that image, isn’t there.
The long and the short of all this is that Reading’s injury situation across the entirety of this season has been seriously bad - not just a minor or middling factor that’s made things a bit worse, but a huge problem. It’s not let up, regardless of how many false dawns we’ve had.
Really, it should be a source of some relief that Reading managed the seven signings they did (three of whom are yet to be injured, praise the Lord) and previously injury-prone key players (Swift and Yiadom) have barely been absent. Otherwise Reading would have been in an even worse situation... if you can imagine such a thing.
And it’s worth remembering that all of the above is merely what can be reliably quantified. Just as big an issue as absences themselves is the knock-on effect of fatigue: players generally under-performing or making more specific mistakes because they’ve been over-played, not rested and therefore gotten seriously tired - mentally and physically.
There’s no objective way of visualising fatigue, not least because every player’s fitness level is different. However, we can and should consider the cumulative effect that comes from the ‘player availability’ line stubbornly sticking in the 13-15 range, especially when that number includes a completely or almost ever-present core of Southwood, Rafael, Yiadom, Rahman, Laurent, Dele-Bashiru, Swift, Puscas and more recently Carroll.
The amount of weight you give to this problem, and where your opinion falls on the spectrum below, is entirely up to you. For the record I’d probably put myself 60% or so to the right, near the word ‘and’ on the bottom line, although my position may change according to mood and results (I’d have gone much farther to the left immediately after the Derby game for example).
But whatever your position, it’s undeniable that Reading’s injury problem has been a full-on, sustained crisis across the entirety of the season. While that may be room for optimism (results should improve when the crisis abates), the prolonged nature of this problem makes me worry it’s more a matter of if the crisis will abate at all.