The Veljko Paunovic era is over. While it ended in the most bizarre of circumstances, with many of us still not entirely sure who knew what and when about his impending departure, the fact is it remains the correct decision.
Whether hiring Paul Ince after eight years out of management will turn out to be the correct decision is decidedly less clear. While he likely isn’t the long-term answer at Reading, he does have an opportunity to correct glaring managerial errors that Paunovic was making in nearly every game.
I don’t necessarily think wholesale change to our style is needed. That said, there’s a reason that Pauno is no longer the manager, and there are certainly ways in which this squad should now be able to make quick and positive changes.
Make better use of substitutions
Paunovic’s substitutions were odd from the get-go.
In his first season, it wasn’t rare for us to see Paunovic employ Tom McIntyre off the bench in just about any position on the pitch. This experience of seeing players out of position off the bench wasn’t isolated to McIntyre either, with the gangly and workmanlike Alfa Semedo often ending up furthest forward.
In his second season, Pauno began making the mistake of constantly hauling the wrong player off: most recently seeing us repeatedly take off Rinomhota and then “coincidentally” watch us lose control of the midfield shortly after. Stubbornness was an innate feature of Pauno’s management, and it was immensely frustrating watching him try the same failing strategy repeatedly with substitutes.
The largest issue with Pauno’s substitutions though was always his hesitance to make them. New signing Brandon Barker arriving on the field with 30 seconds to go at the weekend was a great example of this: a final parting gift to Royals fans. There’s logic in holding onto your last sub if you’re going to use it tactically, but given that Reading have consistently faded in the last half hour of games this year, it regularly seemed inconceivable that Pauno couldn’t see the need for changes earlier in the game.
Ince then has an opportunity to instantly improve here. He can solve these issues easily by making substitutes that actually appear to reflect both the reality on the field and an earnest attempt to affect it. That means making the right substitutions, but also making them at the right time: not giving attacking players just 10 or 15 minutes to affect a game, but instead bringing them on in the 60th minute to bed into the match and have the greatest effect in the closing stages.
It also means reacting to the reality of the game and not leaving players on the field just because they were part of the original game plan. If Danny Drinkwater can’t keep up with his man any more, don’t leave him on to pick up an inevitable yellow and give away costly set pieces. Replace him. This goes for the big names too. If John Swift has run out of energy and begins giving the balling away, replace him. If Lucas Joao doesn’t want to run and Jahmari Clarke is ready to go off the bench, replace him.
These are all subjective ideas, but the reality is that any improvement made in the substitutions department could have a huge effect on the performance of this team in the crucial later stages of games. In any case, it would be hard to go backwards in the substitutions department.
Stop playing defensively with leads
Reading cannot consistently sit back and defend leads. It is not currently in their locker. It was very encouraging to hear Paul Ince immediately identify the defence as the primary cause for concern during his first interview with the club.
Reading have shipped 62 goals this season - more than in either of the previous two seasons despite there still being 14 games left. That’s a staggering downturn for a unit that seemed generally solid two years ago under Mark Bowen, and even in the early days of Paunovic it did an excellent job of keeping shots to outside of the box.
Defence is an area that needs serious attention then, and while I expect improvement, I don’t think our ability to defend one-goal leads is something we can expect to see vastly improve in the remaining 10 weeks of the season.
Instead, Reading should play to their strengths and stop being afraid to chase further goals to extend leads. Too often after taking the lead, Reading have let themselves get pinned back after choosing to sit back in games. We saw this happen against Derby County in January, and also against Coventry City, Blackpool and Middlesbrough.
If effort or fitness is an issue then it simply needs working on. In the meantime, I would be less hesitant to substitute star players if they stop pressing. Reading have sat back in too many games and it has cost them countless leads. They need to realise that their strengths are in their attacking play and continue playing in games.
In full flow with a stretched game, the Royals can hurt teams with pace and clinical finishing. Why then do we insist on playing in half the field, our half, when leading? We need to ignore the scoreline and instead play like it’s 0-0.
Reading’s backline features talented individuals, sure, but has been endlessly leaky this year. It’s tough to see that changing immediately, so instead we should choose to put the game in the hands of our more talented attacking corps.
Reshuffling the first 11
The most recent game gave us a starting lineup that wasn’t far off Reading’s best 11. A fully fit Yakou Meite should probably start, and Josh Laurent walks into the team when fit. Outside of those two obvious switches though, you can make a fairly strong case for the rest of the starting 11 keeping their places with everybody fit.
That said, now that we have McIntyre back from injury, one change that could do us a world of good is giving Holmes a rest while we get McIntyre going - should Baba Rahman be fit. Holmes has been under a lot of pressure this season as the most consistently available of the centre backs at the club. He’s started 23 games, which gives him six more than the next centre back (Liam Moore) “at” the club. For the most part, he’s done well and shown he can play in this league, but you do start to worry the number of games is beginning to wear the academy product down.
You can never fault Holmes’ effort: the childhood Royals fan gives everything for the club and lays his body on the line often. Mistakes that seem borne of tiredness, both mental and physical, have worked their way into his game recently though, culminating in the chance given away to Preston North End at the weekend. Luckily for us it was blazed over by Scott Sinclair. It is out of no ill will that I’m hoping Holmes will be dropped/rested for a few games - more out of a desire to put freshness back in his legs.
Higher up the lineup, Ince could improve this team by bringing Tom Dele-Bashiru back to challenge Drinkwater. Drinkwater started his season with the Royals fairly well, and it’s clear that certain elements of his game could come from a higher level than the Championship. For weeks now though, he’s been miles off the pace, constantly having to make up for the shortcomings of his fitness. In 2022 so far, it’s been as common to see Drinkwater lose his man in midfield or misplace a pass as it is to see him engage in useful progressive play.
With that in mind, it’s amazing that Dele-Bashiru has gotten as little time as he has in recent weeks. Ince should place the Watford loanee above Drinkwater in his thinking, or at the very least be willing to replace Drinkwater in the lineup if he’s having a bad game.
Dele-Bashiru hasn’t been perfect this year by any means but provides energy and endeavor enough surely to merit inclusion in the team ahead of Drinkwater. Perhaps Drinkwater’s contract contains stipulations that entitle him to more games than Dele-Bashiru. We can’t be sure. Still, my patience for making personnel decisions for contract reasons is somewhat strained given the club’s perilous situation.
The situation that Ince walks into isn’t simple. Far from it. Still, thanks in part to the duration of time Paunovic was given after the wheels had begun to fall off, there’s ample evidence on tape of issues that could be solved without weeks of training. If Ince can make improvements on Pauno’s fundamental errors in areas of substitutions, playing style, and to a smaller extent in the starting 11, he has a great chance to help the club begin generating some much needed momentum.