We’re now onto part three of our mid-season squad review. This time we’re examining the centre halves who have (and haven’t) made it onto the pitch for Reading in 2022/23, having previously looked at the ‘keepers and wing-backs.
Befitting a side that’s much better defensively than offensively, our centre-back grades make for mostly positive reading. However, that’s not without exception as a few have really struggled with injury, which I’ve incorporated into the grades.
A quick recap on how we’ve done the grades, which go from A to E: very good (A), good (B), OK (C), bad (D), very bad (E). They’re based on how the season’s gone for these players overall, so factors such as playing time and expectations are factored in - not just performances.
I’ve been really impressed with how Tom Holmes has stepped up this season. The continued absence of Sam Hutchinson has given him the opportunity to play as Reading’s middle centre half - a crucial role at the heart of the back three - and he’s fulfilled that part adeptly. Only three players in the squad have higher average ratings than him.
He’s not quite the finished article, making a few errors here and there. Holmes is also prone to a weaker performance when played out of position - he had a rough night at Vicarage Road when deployed as a left-sided centre back in a four - and still benefits from having an experience player next to him.
I’m quibbling though. No defender is the finished product at 22, but Holmes is playing beyond his years. He’s still a dependable, key member of the first team who’ll only improve further with more experience.
Similar to Holmes, McIntyre needed consistent game time in a position favourable to him if he were to kick on this season. That’s exactly what he got with Reading’s switch to a back three, allowing McIntyre to fill in on the left side of the trio - although he’s also popped up as a left-wing-back, central defender in a three and as a central midfielder.
While I think he’s probably slightly behind Holmes and has further development to come defensively, McIntyre is still a dependable part of Reading’s 3-5-2. He’s also under-appreciated as an attacking outlet; we take his distribution, ball-carrying and balance (as a left footer on the left side) for granted.
When Sam Hutchinson is actually able to play he’s one of the more reliable players in the squad; you can tell he’s an experienced and mature player at this level. He’s also versatile, having filled in as Reading’s middle centre half, right-sided centre half and defensive midfielder.
If only he weren’t so injury-prone though. Hutchinson’s managed a mere 10 appearances, including just one in the 10 games before Christmas. That’s majorly held his season back and - frustratingly - denied Reading an influential defensive player.
Hutchinson’s in a similar position to Nesta Guinness-Walker: he’s good when he plays but he hasn’t played enough. I’ve put his grade a bit higher than Guinness-Walker’s though as Hutchinson’s been that bit better for Reading when he has made it onto the pitch.
From late-arrival triallist to dependable first-team player, Amadou Mbengue’s 2022/23 has been an impressive breakout season so far. Expectations for this relatively unknown player were modest when he arrived in September on a short-term basis, but he’s easily surpassed them.
He’s not perfect, making some errors here and there, such as in the 3-2 defeat at Birmingham City. But he’s still on the whole been a consistent and solid defender in a variety of roles, even rising to tough occasions such as the trip to Burnley when Reading held out for so long.
As you’ll see below, for the sake of consistency we’ll be giving first-team players whose seasons have been entirely written off by injury an E. So what to give a player who’s just about managed a few appearances, with those appearances including very different performances?
Naby Sarr proved to be an asset on his debut, powering home the winner at Millwall before helping secure the clean sheet. In his most recent outing though he looked much rustier and rashly gave away a first-half penalty as Birmingham City went 2-0 up. Clearly he’s a talented player, but Huddersfield Town fan Matt Shaw was spot on in saying Sarr has a “rash streak”.
This season’s been a write-off for Liam Moore, who’s yet to get on the pitch at all due to long-term injury. At time of writing, a return doesn’t appear to be imminent. That’s a big problem not only for the player (obviously), but also for the club, given that Reading will be keen to engineer an exit in January if at all possible.
Scott Dann is in a very similar situation to Moore, having failed to play for the first team at all so far. That’s a real shame as he’d looked like Reading’s best centre half last season before frustrating ongoing injury problems which wrecked his 2022.
However, I’ll add the caveat that the outlook for Dann looks more positive than it does for Moore. He’s currently back fit and played the bulk of two recent matches for the under-21s, so will hopefully be available for the first team’s next game - the visit of Swansea City - even if he doesn’t start.
Jeriel Dorsett will have been hoping for plenty of first-team football on loan at Kilmarnock this season, but unfortunately he’s been restricted to just four league appearances. Hopefully he can break into their XI on a regular basis before long, as otherwise he could struggle to make the case for game time at Reading in 2023/24.
A couple of other academy graduates have made it onto the pitch briefly for Reading at centre half though. Louie Holzman got 90 minutes in the League Cup defeat to Stevenage and was an unused substitute twice in the Championship, while Nelson Abbey got his first Championship appearance with a cameo in the 2-0 win over Bristol City.
While I’ve not seen either extensively, both have struck me as talented young defenders who we should keep an eye on in the years to come. Holzman and Abbey could well get further first-team appearances off the bench this season, but first-team experience out on loan would be more beneficial.