Against all the odds, Reading have put together a solid first half of the season and given themselves a great chance to stay up with 23 games left.
Most departments on the pitch have been solid. The backline has given up a lot of goals, yes, but they’ve done so often in gluts, conceding four goals twice, and three goals three times. This Reading side appears to be built to play with a lead, so it’s not altogether too surprising that, when forced to open up, cracks begin to appear in the defensive formation. When they’ve had control of the game state, Reading have been defensively solid, as shown by the fact that they’ve already kept seven clean sheets - two more than from all of last season.
Elsewhere, a good crop of wingers and attackers has come together to provide Reading with the ability to finish their chances WHEN they make them.
And that’s the primary issue. Too often Reading have failed to kill off games this year by scoring a third goal. My sense is that this is down to a failing further back on the pitch, rather than with the attackers themselves. Service has been lacking.
Indeed, the main weakness of the team right now though appears to be playmaking in central midfield. Reading are often forced to go around teams in the middle and hope that crosses into the box find their targets instead of bulky Championship defenders.
Indeed, Tom Ince has been excellent, but is more of a dribbling forward than a playmaker. His strengths as a footballer are on show in full force in transitional moments, but he often struggles to create in tight spaces.
Tyrese Fornah has had moments but isn’t quite the finished attacking article yet. Paul Ince clearly also doesn’t fancy him as an every-match player given his game time. Mamadou Loum is clearly a defensive midfielder and Jeff Hendrick... well, Hendrick is also being paid by Reading FC.
Moreover, while our squad is currently at the max size allowed by the EFL, there could still be an opportunity to replace a player.
Ovie Ejaria’s current absence from the team could become semi-permanent if the manager doesn’t feel he’s earned his place in the squad. In any case, he may be one of the players Ince is willing to let go of in January to bring in a more effective and committed operator.
Paul Ince seems to have plans to be with Reading for a while (and believes he can do so under Dai Yongge). That doesn’t bode well for Ejaria, who will still have a year on his contract at the end of the season. A loan move to get Ejaria a new environment and playing time, plus value added to his potential transfer fee in the upcoming summer, might be best for all involved.
If Ejaria leaves, Reading should look to finally replace John Swift.
While Mark Bowen and his recruitment team did well in their first summer to provide quality (at a budget!) around the pitch, our current options in the middle of the park are lacking in the departments that Swift excelled in.
Swift’s sense of when to make key passes and how to adjust the tempo to catch defenders out is missing from this Reading team. Swift could admittedly go missing for long periods of a season, but when he was feeling it, Reading didn’t have to do much more to score other than get players around Swift for him to play the ball off as he glided through.
Paul Ince probably brought Jeff Hendrick into the team in the summer thinking that he’d be able to replicate at least some of the creative feats of player of the 2021/22 Swift, but that clearly hasn’t worked out. Hendrick has provided just one assist and one goal. His underlying numbers give him an xA (expected assists) of just 2.0 and xG (expected goals) of 2.3, meaning you could argue he’s been unlucky - but not in a way that would have changed much.
Even Swift, who has only started impressing West Brom fans with recent performances, sits well ahead of Hendrick on the majority of creative statistics including xA and shot-creating actions.
Hendrick has picked up just a quarter of Ince Jr’s shot-creating actions this season, highlighting his relative lack of contribution compared to his own teammates.
While Ince Sr clearly sees something in Hendrick that the rest of us here at The Tilehurst End can’t, given the midseason reviews, it would be hard to argue that Reading don’t have a need for some serious competition for that role.
Even with a creative midfielder joining, Reading won’t have the firepower needed to challenge for the playoffs this season. The squad is too thin for that and injuries have already wreaked havoc on defensive consistency. But a few extra chances created each game will give the Royals every chance they need to safely steer themselves clear of the relegation zone before the sun really starts to come out again.
So if we pick up anyone in January, and Ince has indicated a desire to do so, please let it be in the attacking-midfield department. Partly to provide Reading with the chance to put more games to bed and partly just to stop us having to watch Jeff Hendrick quite so much!