FIFA is not real life. This goes without saying: it’s a video game. Still, it’s a passable representation of global football’s brands, stands as the chosen football simulator of the masses, and also as a valuable entry point and teacher for new fans. If you’ve been following the franchise through the past few years, and playing as our beloved Royals, you’ll know that Ovie Ejaria has consistently been listed primarily as a CM.
A look around the internet at the usual stat sites also suggests the profile of a player who, while able to play on the left, is entered into competitions as a central midfielder.
If you’re a Reading fan who doesn’t frequent stats sites, or one who has never played a game of FIFA in your life though, you probably conceive of Ejaria as a left-sided player. He’s a little less shot-happy than a true winger such as Junior Hoilett, and not a power forward when out wide like Yakou Meite, but certainly a player who does his best work out on the left.
Or is that just what we’ve been taught to believe? Four Reading managers (Jose Gomes, Mark Bowen, Veljko Paunovic and Paul Ince) have had to navigate the issue of having next to no true wingers on the team over the last few years. Mostly, they’ve solved the issue by playing Ejaria on the left-hand side. In fact, in the last three seasons, it’s difficult to remember him playing elsewhere than as the left-sided midfielder in an attacking three behind the striker.
I’d like to argue though that Ejaria deserves an opportunity he hasn’t been presented with since the early days of Bowen’s reign. I think Ejaria deserves a go in the middle of the park, whether that be as part of the pivot or as the 10.
Positions are changing all the time, and especially now, in this area of heightened tactical awareness and innovation in football. Players now are assessed as much against “roles” they can fill on the pitch as they are against suitability for a position group, regardless of positional training.
Ejaria likely ended up on the wing in the first place because his particular talents - close-quarters dribbling, problem-solving, supplying assists (ie the things that inform his role in the team) - suit that position. Ejaria is unusually two-footed though, happy providing cut-backs and collecting the ball with his left foot, but usually more comfortable striking the ball with his right foot, as seen in this finish against Barnsley last year.
That suggests to me that he shouldn’t struggle at all if given more of the pitch to roam in a central role.
When John Swift is fit, the number 10 role should be his. Swift can go missing for weeks at a time, yes, but he’s Reading’s best player by a mile on his day. When he came back into the team mid-match against Blackburn Rovers, the impact on the players around him was palpable, and Swift almost immediately provided the creative outlet Reading were lacking by providing an inch-perfect cross for Lucas Joao.
Due to Swift’s illness-related absence over the past few weeks though, Ince has had to improvise to find an alternative, preferring against Blackburn and Bournemouth to start with Josh Laurent in the 10 role behind the striker. As always, Josh has given his absolute best, but it’s clearly not the position for which he is most suited. Ejaria would appear to me to be the other obvious fit for this role (who doesn’t share a last name with the manager).
The obvious reason to do this would be to bring his considerable dribbling quality to the middle of the park. Reading have had some trouble getting the ball out of the midfield this year. That’s led to goals conceded when caught in transition, one of which led to Bournemouth’s second in the fixture at the SCL Stadium earlier this season.
If playing in the pivot, Ejaria’s ability to both wriggle free of challenges and progress the ball vertically could help Reading to spend less time in their own half and to move faster up the pitch. When playing further up the pitch, opportunities to have Ejaria run at defences from an advanced central position would give us a chance to benefit from his dribbling in situations such as the one that led to this assist against Millwall.
Sam Baldock (of all people) obviously does a lot here, but Ejaria’s suitability for the 10 position is obvious when here we get to see him pick up the ball centrally as the third-most-advanced player. His instinct is then exciting, pushing him to immediately head for the centre of the attacking third, from which teams can be at their most creative.
The other way in which Ejaria can unlock a defence is through incisive assists. He’s been doing it since his second game in Reading colours, but in truth, it’s been a while since we’ve seen it. Ejaria is so far missing an assist this season, but he picked up five in each of the previous two campaigns and two in his first half-season on loan. When watching through these assists, there are naturally a few to pick from that come from wide areas. For instance, he picked up a classic dropped shoulder and cutback assist from the wing in our famous win against Fulham in 2020.
Regardless, when the assists are watched in totality, a pattern emerges of an impressive ability to find his man, while avoiding defenders in close proximity. In short, he has a knack for putting the ball in the only place it can go.
He can do it from deep, as he did against QPR
He can do it when in an advanced position, like he did during our high point of 2021.
But as you can see, he has an impressive habit of doing it from a central position regardless of his vertical position on the pitch.
So we have a player who can pick a pass with the best of them and wriggle his way out of near any situation with his dribbling ability. Sometimes it all comes together, as it did in this glorious assist against Sheffield Wednesday, in which Ejaria backs defenders up with his legs before threading an inch-perfect pass.
It’s still hard to argue that Swift shouldn’t start every game in which he’s fit as the 10, but there are ways to get Ejaria on the pitch centrally without removing Swift. Danny Drinkwater is a player who, while improving somewhat last week, has made himself more than droppable with his performances this year. It would be a shame to break up Laurent and Andy Rinomhota to accommodate Ejaria, but even when they’ve been together this year, their partnership has not been as strong as it was early in Paunovic’s reign.
Earlier this year I wrote that Ejaria seemed out of sorts. Perhaps so much time playing in a less preferred position was starting to grate. Using Ejaria in the centre is not going to solve all of our problems or his, but now we finally have multiple players available who can fill in on the left in the form of Hoilett, Brandon Barker and maybe even Ince, Ejaria’s skills aren’t needed to paper over cracks in our squad building.
Ejaria hasn’t had a run in the team in a central position since 2019, but perhaps it’s time for that to change. If Swift can’t go during any of our final eight games though, I know who I want replacing him.