Whisper it quietly, but after 13 games, Reading look remarkably… competitive, right? Good, even!
Sure, it’s easy to say Reading are simply nullifying opposition teams and haven’t fully got going on attack. But as current European champion coach Carlo Ancelotti said recently, “playing good football is also about defending well.”
Don’t let fans of parachute-padded clubs tell you that the only way to play football is with pressing and passing attacking intent. That’s a way to play football made far easier by the prevalence of excellent technical players in abundance at higher levels.
More exciting though is that Reading’s bench against Norwich City was, for the first time in what feels like two years, strong. That the Royals were able to leave one of their goalscorers from the Huddersfield Town game on the bench, even after making three solid substitutions, speaks to that. Ovie Ejaria and Lucas Joao were guaranteed starters 12 months ago, and now face a battle to make their way back into this high-tempo team.
With other players who doubtless also have first-team ambitions out, such as Naby Sarr, Shane Long, Baba Rahman, Sam Hutchinson and Femi Azeez, it begs the question as to what Reading’s best XI actually is.
Reading look relatively strong in every position perhaps other than central defence, and even that situation is exacerbated by endless injuries, deadweight contracts (Scott Dann and Liam Moore), and Reading’s use of three centre backs each game.
Reading’s team currently plays in a 3-5-2 with Tom Ince dropping deeper in defence when used in the attack rather than the midfield. We’ve occasionally used a 3-4-3, but having three in central midfield certainly seems to have been the way to get the best out of our crop of midfielders. With that in mind, this XI will play in a 3-5-2. Let’s get started by discussing the first names on the teamsheet!
The “must starts”
Holmes and Yiadom, as captain and vice captain respectively, are the first names on the teamsheet. Holmes has been sturdy this season and is maturing nicely into a defender who looks more than comfortable at this level. 86 games into his Reading career already despite being born this side of the millennium is an impressive stat and it’s unsurprising that two managers have found him to be dependable.
Yiadom meanwhile slots into a right-wing-back spot that allows him to get forward and provide searching cutbacks into the box. His experience, ability to earn fouls and leadership on the pitch would see him in Reading’s best side as a centre back as well, but his running is wasted in the backline.
Joe Lumley must be installed as Reading’s number one goalkeeper. Arguably, we haven’t seen enough of Dean Bouzanis to know if he can truly challenge the Middlesbrough loanee, but that’s because Lumley has kept any sniff of a debate out of the noses of Reading fans. Outside of his horror show in Rotherham, and perhaps more remarkably because of it, Lumley has been a huge part of Reading’s mental reformation. His presence in the box calms defenders and the occasional great save has made him perhaps the most unlikely fan favourite of the season so far.
Recent returnee Andy Carroll meanwhile seems like another obvious name at the moment. He may not be as threatening as Joao in the box (although that’s up for debate), but his style of play works better for the way Reading are looking to play under Paul Ince. Until a team works out how to stop him from winning every header he jumps for, Carroll also provides us with a way to disrupt the rhythm of the more possession-happy teams at the top end of the Championship.
Closing out the obvious names for Reading’s best XI are the pacey pair of Tom Ince and Junior Hoilett. Ince’s work rate, quality and passion for the game have made him the likeliest candidate for player of the season so far. To fit him into Reading’s best XI, I’d like to assume Reading are playing on the front foot, and thus I’d play him as the furthest forward of the midfield three. From that position, Ince’s running and work rate add attacking and defensive impact.
All of that said, Junior Hoilett has possibly been Reading’s best player this season. Asked to play as a wing back on either side and just as effective on both, Hoilett hasn’t let the side down once. Considering his age, the fits he puts opposing wing backs through are remarkable to watch. Clearly fired up by the impending World Cup he’ll be looking to secure his place at, Hoilett’s late-career resurgence in blue and white hoops has been one of the most exciting stories of the season.
So that gives us this:
The selection headaches begin...
The final two spots in central defence are up for grabs between Tom McIntyre, Sam Hutchinson and Naby Sarr. Sarr has given us a tantalising taste of what’s to come before Reading’s injury curse claimed him as its latest prisoner. Therefore, despite his excellent performance against Millwall, I’ll plump for McIntyre and Hutchinson as Reading’s best compliments to Holmes in the back three.
McIntyre’s creativity and capable execution in the passing game makes his occasional defensive mistakes more than forgivable in the current Reading team. With experience, and the kind of game time Tom Holmes has had in the past three seasons, McIntyre should mature into a capable and cultured defender.
Hutchinson meanwhile has been a reliable and versatile presence, turning in good shifts in Reading’s backline and midfield. His confidence, as advertised by his brightly coloured bonce, has been a huge factor in the mental turnaround of this Reading team. The speed with which he’s settled back into the Championship though after a year in League One has been impressive.
So Reading’s best back three right now is likely McIntyre, Hutchinson, and Holmes.
Further up the pitch, central midfield is starting to look like a logjam as well. With the return of Ejaria in midweek, Paul Ince now has a headache to fit in all of his central midfielders, in a competition for places that’s heating up nicely.
In all honesty, it would be possible to pick any two from the midfield quarter of Hendrick, Loum, Fornah, and Ejaria, and make a case for them to be the best two available midfielders, but here I’ll make the case for Ejaria and Loum.
After a slower start, it’s become really tough not to pick Hendrick. Especially after his goal and generally improved performance against Norwich. It just seems at this time though, Hendrick is still a passenger in matches more than he is a key participant. His performance against QPR improved with the team in the second half, but was nothing like the showing he put in just 72 hours prior against Norwich. Until he shows more consistency, I’d have one or two others slightly ahead of him.
Fornah has been a pleasant surprise since joining on loan from Forest, and perhaps settled in earliest of any of the new central midfielders. His ability to turn out of trouble has helped Reading to actually build spells of possession in games, but his lightweight frame has stopped him from fully establishing himself in midfield so far. Fornah is an excellent option off the bench and for rotation, but my best possible Reading XI uses Ejaria and Loum as the midfield pivot.
Ejaria and Loum would provide an exciting blend of attack and defence that’s tough to ignore. As athletes, they seem to be a step above the competition, and while a little more erratic, the highs we’ve seen have so far been higher.
Ejaria in this side would provide more creativity in the middle of the park to compliment Tom Ince’s hard running. Prior to the QPR game and his sloppy penalty, my logic in building this team was that Loum would be a necessary partner to Ovie though to provide defensive stability. That’s of course now a little more under question after his needless penalty concession at Loftus Road! But fully fit and rested, Loum is still a powerful presence in the heart of midfield and I fully expect him to end the season as our best defensive midfielder.
Rounding out this selection is the striker… controversy? That feels too strong of a word, and to spoil the surprise, I’ve got Lucas Joao into this best possible current Reading team.
But with Joao not making the starting lineup for Norwich, and his suitability for this current team’s style of play under some question, his number one status is probably more under threat than is has been for years. Meite, mostly used as a striker since Ince’s arrival, surely represents solid competition to Joao. That’s notwithstanding competition from the currently ill Shane Long, who has looked rusty but full of intent in his appearances so far this season.
Undoubtedly, Joao has had the highest recent highs of any of our available strikers. His talent for scoring has never been in doubt previously and his brace against Stoke shows that it’s not gone dormant. Now though, just as he faces some decent competition, he appears to be struggling to find a way to make his mark in our current setup.
Changed from the collection of 4-5-1 various that Reading used through countless recent seasons, their new three at the back, two up top system has been a successful shakeup for seemingly everyone at the club not named Lucas. Meite meanwhile seems perfect for this team, especially while Andy Carroll is towering over it. His runs into the channels should be easy target for Carroll given what we’ve seen so far.
That said, against QPR we did see a return to the quick feet that earned him so many plaudits during his scoring run in 2020/21. His penalty win was classic Joao, sending a defender one way as he danced the other way. That particular quality doesn’t exist in any of our other striking options, and it’s lethal when Joao is feeling it.
For now then, Joao would still creep into this best possible Reading XI over Meite. But ask me in a month…
All of that gives us this:
It might not be your best Reading XI though, and that’s kind of the point here! We have options! Multiple options! For the first time in years: there is no obvious answer to who should play when everyone is fit. Lucky then that there’s no chance of that happening!