“I felt a great disturbance in the fanbase, as if thousands of Reading fans suddenly cried out “oh for f**k’s sake” in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
Tuesday afternoon’s news that Reading will now be without Andy Rinomhota and Yakou Meite for the rest of the season went down like... well, like a player who’s suddenly picked up a serious injury. Paul Ince told the media that the duo picked up ankle and knee injuries respectively in the win over Blackburn Rovers and will each be sidelined for at least six weeks.
The Royals have therefore lost two of their most important players before one of the most crucial runs of matches in the club’s recent history. It’s now an eight-game shoot-out to determine what division we’ll be in and Reading needed every bit of available ammunition. The timing of these injuries couldn’t be any worse.
It’s not just that they’re quality players, but they’re two of the more dependable guys in the squad. You know what you get with Rinomhota (a Duracell-bunny-like ball-winner who takes the game by the scruff of the neck in the midfield) and Meite (a proven goalscorer). Unlike more mercurial talents who blow hot and cold, Rino and Yaks can be relied upon consistently.
I’d been particularly impressed with Rinomhota in recent months. Having quickly got up to speed after long-term injury, he was the only player to come out of a nightmarish January with any credit, and went on to prove his importance with a series of committed performances. The better Rinomhota got, the better Reading got. And, true to form, when he had to be shunted to right back at Blackpool, the drop-off in Reading’s midfield performance was immediately evident.
After all, there’s no like-for-like replacement in the squad for Rinomhota’s skill set: a barrel-load of energy, strength and tenacity. The closest Reading can call on is Josh Laurent, but although he’s got a great engine and physical presence, he’s not got that level of sheer intensity we see in Rino’s game. He strikes me as (stylistically) the calmer of the two; when playing as a defensive midfielder he’s more about reading the game from a deeper position, rather than charging upfield to get stuck in.
Meite’s importance is about output rather than style. Reading have better options in the squad for holding the ball up in the final third, stretching the play out wide or creating goal-scoring opportunities. But if there’s anyone in the squad I want a chance in the area to fall to, it’s Meite. He has a proven, instinctive knack for sticking the ball in the net - not only when it matters, but also when Reading aren’t necessarily playing that well.
While he’s yet to score or otherwise really stand out in any of his nine Championship appearances so far this season, you’d have been foolish to bet against him coming up with the goods in the run-in. After all, he’s done it before.
Cause for optimism
Rinomhota and Meite are uniquely important to this side and they’ll certainly be missed, given what they specifically bring to the table. There’s no ignoring that. However, as frustrating as them being injured is, there’s also cause for optimism: Reading’s squad is in a far better position to deal with their absences than it was earlier in the season.
For most of the campaign, Reading’s injury problem has been pretty nightmarish. As I wrote in early January (between the Derby County and Kidderminster Harriers games), the Royals had been restricted to just 15 senior players (including two goalkeepers) for almost every matchday squad, while each player had been out on average for more than a third of the season (34.6%).
The situation would only get worse later on in January (this month is shaded grey in the chart below), with Reading having more players unavailable for the Luton Town defeat than available. From that point on though, we’ve seen significant, sustained improvement in squad availability.
Before the international break, Reading’s squad was the strongest it had been all season. Having more than 15 senior players available was a rare exception in the first half of the campaign, but recently it’s been the norm. In the 10 games since January, the Royals have had 16 or more senior players available eight times. In fact, the Blackburn match was the first time all season that Reading were able to put out a matchday squad consisting only of senior players.
Going forward, we know Rinomhota and Meite will be unavailable for the rest of the season, while Alen Halilovic may or may not be joining them on the sidelines. That situation is a little murky though as he’s dropped in and out of contention despite apparently declaring himself fit a couple of weeks ago (I decided to include him as being available since the Blackpool game on the chart).
On the flipside, Baba Rahman, Femi Azeez and new arrival Terell Thomas are at least in training. If they’re not ready for Barnsley, they won’t be far off. So, even with two/three players dropping out, the squad is still staying healthy.
As it happens, before the news about Rinomhota and Meite getting injured, my original title for this piece was ‘Reading’s Squad Is Getting Healthier Just At The Right Time’. Now, while this week’s developments forced a half-rewrite, the broader point is still true. The squad has indeed been getting healthier - and that’s come at a good time to cushion Reading from the blow of losing Rinomhota and Meite.
After all, Paul Ince doesn’t lack cover. Replacing Meite is easy enough as Tom Ince and Lucas Joao have been starting on the right wing and up top respectively anyway. After that, Junior Hoilett and Brandon Barker can play out wide, and although Joao getting injured would leave a big gap in the striking department, Azeez’s return helps.
As for Rinomhota, the obvious fix is to simply do the same change that happened in the first half against Blackburn when the injury occurred: Rino out, John Swift in. You can then make a balanced midfield three out of Swift, Laurent and Danny Drinkwater. After that, Tom Dele-Bashiru is a more attacking option, while Tom McIntyre can play as a holding midfielder if needed, as he did pretty well in the second half of last season.
None of this is to say that these fixes are ideal - Rinomhota and Meite are uniquely important to this side so Reading won’t get the same output from Ince as a right winger or Laurent as a ball-winner. But Reading can cope with their absences as there are direct, established replacements waiting in the wings.