For its first 30 days, the January 2022 transfer window was a non-event for Reading. The chance to bring in new players in the middle of any season, let alone halfway through one as crucial as this, is usually the focus of most fans’ attention, but instead, Reading’s struggles on the pitch and existential worries off it made transfers seem an irrelevance.
Few were surprised when Rafael’s eventual exit to Cruzeiro on a free transfer went through. The subsequent loan arrival of Karl Hein as Cabral’s replacement was greeted with at best a shrug or at worst derision (many supporters bemused by the club signing a young back-up ‘keeper when we potentially had a couple of our own). Perhaps sensing the mood, the club took the rare decision not to release a teaser video in advance of announcing the signing on Twitter. Anyway, snapping up an unknown quantity who wasn’t an obvious solution for the first team’s problems provided little excitement.
Otherwise, Andy Carroll’s long-anticipated but drawn-out exit came to pass. Veljko Paunovic raised hopes (maybe realistic, maybe not) after the centre forward’s short-term contract expired in January that the Royals would be able to keep him. Regardless, Carroll joined West Bromwich Albion on January 28.
And Reading recalled two goal young ‘keepers: Jokull Andresson (from Morecambe) and James Holden (from Maidenhead) will get the chance to impress the manager over the next few months. The former didn’t manage to secure another EFL loan before Monday’s deadline but the latter may yet get a temporary non-league move.
So far, so incidental to the bigger issue: the quality and quantity of players available to Pauno is determined much more heavily by the injury list - not the transfer window. It certainly felt as if the biggest reactions were reserved for returning stars: when Lucas Joao posted on his Instagram that he was involved in the matchday squad for the Middlesbrough game, and when Yakou Meite was unexpectedly included in the under-23s’ starting line-up at Aston Villa.
Post from Lucas João on his insta story... pic.twitter.com/W077HMJVVF— The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd) January 14, 2022
And then the final 24 hours happened.
What were we expecting going into deadline day? I’d have said primarily a young defender on loan. Reading had been linked with a temporary move for Liverpool’s Rhys Williams; a transfer such as that would have fitted the bill amid a glut of goals conceded recently, lasting injury issues and Liam Moore’s continued absence.
Otherwise, George Puscas had been increasingly linked with a loan exit to Pisa, but that still felt tenuous. After all, letting go of a striker is one thing but finding a replacement at the 11th hour was another. Perhaps it would happen if Reading could find another striker, and a new defensive midfielder was always a possibility given doubts over the form of Danny Drinkwater and Josh Laurent.
We certainly weren’t expecting Puscas to leave without being replaced, let alone in a potentially lucrative agreement that has the possibility of netting the club more than £4m in the summer if Pisa are promoted. Losing a second striker in the same month is a bold move, and one that relies heavily on Joao and Meite staying fit for the rest of the campaign. Reading have other options (Jahmari Clarke, Junior Hoilett and Femi Azeez have all played up top this season), but they’re not proven centre forwards.
And if I’d said to you that Reading would not only get Moore off the books but we’d also exchange him for Tom Ince, you’d have said... “yeh that sounds about right. This is a weird season after all”.
I’d assumed that the Royals would be lumbered with Moore. We didn’t want him - how likely really was it that another club would be interested? Or for the finances of a deal to be feasible? The messy, public nature of him losing the captaincy meant he could at best no longer be a reliable first-team asset, and at worst would be a disruptive presence. In that light the club have done really well to shift him. We don’t know the financial benefits of this deal, but there’s a clear win of snuffing out a potentially big problem that the team simply didn’t need.
Perhaps swapping our spare part for someone else’s was the only way to make an exit work, but either way Reading have ended up with Ince. “Ended up with” is a somewhat harsh way of describing the arrival of an experienced Championship player, but it still feels apt given the greater significance of Moore’s exit.
Winger Ince isn’t a player Reading were desperate for; a centre back, full back, defensive midfielder or striker would have all been higher up the priority list. Still, in its own right this is a decent enough addition. The Royals have been particularly badly hit by injuries out wide this season; Hoilett, Azeez and Alen Halilovic have shown promise but are still yet to properly get going.
It makes further sense in the context of Puscas leaving - hardly a hit in tactical significance or goal return. Reading have essentially swapped that misfit attacking player for someone of greater use, rebalancing their options to better fit the sole-striker systems we more often use. Look at all this through the lens of the Royals playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 and it’s more logical to have Ince around than Puscas.
As with the summer, the closure of this transfer window isn’t the end of the story. Reading will once again look for reinforcements in the free-agent market - surely another defender is top of the bill and an additional centre forward won’t be far behind. Going into February without those reinforcements is a blow, but it’s also another reminder of the challenging restrictions under which the club is operating. Still, fail to recruit those extra bodies and Reading will be heavily reliant on getting better luck on the injury front.
There’s a bigger issue at play here though: Reading’s long-term financial position. The EFL’s business plan requires the Royals to reduce their wage bill from a cap of £21.1m this season to £16m next season. Achieving that while retaining enough wiggle room to build and maintain a competitive squad won’t be easy, but Reading’s January transfer window made a real difference.
Rafael, Moore and Puscas are believed to have collectively been worth around 30% of the Royals’ wage bill. While Rafael is now completely off the books, we don’t have details on how much Stoke City and Pisa will be contributing to their loanees’ wages or Reading to Ince’s.
While the squad is even more bare, Puscas, Moore and Rafa covered around 30% of #ReadingFC’s weekly wages.— Eddie Wallbank (@EddieRFC7) January 31, 2022
When you consider Swift will leave in the summer, assuming Puscas and Moore leave, that’s 45%.
The kind of major deduction in spending vital for financial survival.
Still, Reading will have reduced their wage bill by a not-insignificant amount. In the short term that provides some wiggle room for the club to bring in free agents and potentially hammer out new contracts for current players.
Looking further ahead, the Royals have also made it significantly more likely that Moore and Puscas will be shifted permanently in the summer. Under the terms agreed, Puscas will head to Pisa permanently if I Nerazzurri are promoted to Serie A. Even if they don’t go up (Pisa are second in the table as things stand), the striker will be a much more sellable asset after a mini fresh start and half a season in the shop window. The same can be said for Moore at Stoke.
Although Reading lost four pretty high-profile players in January (Rafael, Carroll, Puscas and Moore), the squad doesn’t feel a huge amount weaker. It’s certainly not as strong as it was in December, but you’d think the team can - in theory - compensate for each of these losses. All things being well, we may be able to look back on this period as Hein replacing Rafael, Joao replacing Carroll, Ince replacing Puscas and Tom McInyre (now back in training after missing the vast majority of the season through injury) replacing Moore.
‘Not a huge amount weaker’ might not cut it though. The Royals really could have used a boost from this transfer window - whether numerical, psychological, tactical or otherwise. That may still come in the free-agent market but we can’t take it for granted. Repeating the ‘Andy Carroll trick’ of snapping up a good player and experienced character with the capacity to reliably improve the first team will be easier said than done.
On a brighter note, for the first time in a while I feel positive about the Royals’ management of finances. In theory, the outgoing transfers Reading negotiated in January set the club up nicely for an easier time next season - although any progress made will be made redundant if the team can’t beat the drop.