Reading's midfield underwent heavy reconstruction during the summer, with three loanees arriving and another rejoining on a free transfer. They've fared very differently so far; one has shone and is a real contender to win 2022/23's player of the season award, while the others are yet to consistently impress.
As before, the midseason grades (A-E) we've done for the midfielders are based on how the season's gone for them overall. I've factored in playing time, expectations and other factors - not just performances on the pitch. Broadly speaking, A equates to very good, B to good, C to OK, D to bad and E to very bad. The latter is usually the de facto grade for players who've not played at all, but it makes another appearance in this article...
We’re halfway through the season but I’m still not sure what kind of midfielder Jeff Hendrick actually is. Games consistently pass him by, regardless of whether he’s lining up as a box-to-box midfielder or as the holding player. With the exception of an equaliser at home to Norwich City, it’s hard to remember him doing much of note.
Game time certainly isn’t an issue: Hendrick has more league minutes than anyone else in the squad (2,053). In light of his bland performances that’s frustrating - at the very least you’d expect him to be subbed off regularly to give others an opportunity to impress in his place, but he’s only failed to get to 90 minutes once (playing 73 minutes at Rotherham United).
The other side of the coin though is that Hendrick is at least consistently available - not to be taken for granted when injuries have been such a problem this season. He’s also clearly trusted by the gaffer, hence being used so extensively. When multiple midfielders have been available, he’s tended to get the nod ahead of Tyrese Fornah as a more advanced player or ahead of Mamadou Loum as the holding player.
While Mamadou Loum’s quality is undoubted, his consistency is frustrating. He’s the epitome of a hot and cold player: capable of standout and below-par performances, and both quality moments and silly errors in an individual game.
He actually started off well, showing his class in his first few matches and taking a couple of MOTM awards in his first three appearances. He faded after the first international break though and, having previously been an almost ever-present, lost his defensive midfield role a couple of times to different players.
Sam Hutchinson took Loum’s spot for the 1-0 win at Wigan Athletic (after Loum had been subbed at half time in the Sunderland defeat) and a few other games, while Jeff Hendrick has played the holding role at various points during November. I get the feeling that although Loum’s ability is held in high regard, Paul Ince doesn’t fully trust him, so sometimes prefers to put in a more experienced head.
Tyrese Fornah’s done pretty well so far without really standing out just yet. He’s almost exclusively played as one of the two more advanced midfielders in Reading’s 3-5-2, ahead of the deepest-lying player but not high up enough to be a 10. In that role he’s shown decent technical ability and good work rate, but his attacking side is limited and it rarely feels as if he can take charge of a game.
He’s certainly had good moments, not least in the Middlesbrough game when he powered home a first-half winner from range and took our MOTM award. Fornah also made Lucas Joao’s goal in the Blackburn Rovers win, pressing high to regain possession and play in the centre forward.
Those examples are exceptions rather than the rule though. Fornah is tidy and reliable but not often much more than that. To be fair that’s probably a positional thing: we know from his time at Shrewsbury Town that Fornah is distinctly better as a deep-lying playmaker, but for whatever reason, Paul Ince has been reluctant to do that with the loanee at Reading.
At this point it’s hard to see anyone other than Tom Ince winning Reading’s player of the season award. The 30-year-old has been excellent all season, showing commendable work rate out of possession and coming up with some vitally important attacking contributions, such as a long-range winner at home to Cardiff City and the free-kick at Wigan Athletic.
He epitomises the mentality of this over-achieving side, tends to perform well even when the rest of the team is having an off day and has shown his versatility too. Despite naturally being a right winger, he’s adapted to playing as an attacking central midfielder and striker in Reading’s 3-5-2.
The stats are glowing too. Ince’s average player rating is the highest of anyone to have started a league game, he has the most man of the match (5) and player of the month (3) awards, and he leads the way for goals (5, joint with Lucas Joao) and assists (3).
Realistically he couldn’t be doing much better. Snapping him up on a free transfer is one of Reading’s best bits of business in recent years.
This has been a pretty terrible season for Ovie Ejaria who, for reasons both inside and outside his control, has failed to take a really big opportunity to kick on and develop. Reading's loss of John Swift and difficulty in replacing him left Ejaria with little competition as the squad's main playmaker, while the shift to 3-5-2 looked ideal for getting the most out of Ejaria in a central area.
The reality has been hugely disappointing. He’s started just five times, with injury badly affecting the spell of games before the first international break and then recurring during the World Cup. When he has made it onto the pitch he’s been poor, looking like a shadow of his former self. This is now an Ejaria who ambles through games rather than lighting them up with his dazzling footwork as he once did.
The real nadir of his campaign was being publicly rebuked by Paul Ince for a disciplinary breach. Although Ince didn’t go into specifics, he confirmed that Ejaria was deliberately left out of the mid-season training trip to Tenerife.
I really feel for Dejan Tetek - another player whose season has been entirely written off by injury so far, bar the Stoke City match when he made it onto the bench. It’s an eerie repeat of last season when the youngster only managed a handful of appearances, and it must be a tough experience for him to go through.
At 20, time is still on his side, but his luck needs to change for the better as soon as possible. He could use as much first-team experience as possible, so hopefully he can get back on track with a loan spell in the New Year.
A few youngsters have appeared in Reading’s midfield at points this season, but not extensively. All would have probably featured in the Royals’ matchday squad much more frequently if the injury situation were quite as bad as it was last season, but a fitter squad has meant less room for academy players on the bench.
Hats off to Mamadi Camara who’s the only player to win one of our MOTM awards as a substitute. He was excellent as a 10 in that game - the 2-1 League Cup defeat to Stevenage - when he set up Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan’s equaliser and could have had a few more assists besides. That was unfortunately one of just two appearances for him this season, with the other coming off the bench at Rotherham United in the following game.
Since then he’s not been in first-team contention, instead spending his season with the under-21s. Just shy of his 19th birthday, there’s no immediate rush to get him up to senior football.
Michael Craig holds the unfortunate record of coming off the bench in three separate defeats - obviously through no fault of his own. Those included heavy defeats to Sheffield United and Sunderland. A few tastes of first-team football will have been useful experience for him, but as with Camara, properly making the step up won’t come until some point down the line.
And finally, Kian Leavy has managed just the one start, forming part of Reading’s midfield trio in the League Cup defeat to Stevenage. Otherwise he’s not been involved at first-team level. He’s been on the fringes of the senior squad for a couple of years now, and he could probably use a loan spell for senior experience.