Although players’ positions are generally set in stone, there’s occasionally room for reinvention. Think of Jordan Obita’s evolution from winger to full back under Nigel Adkins, Paul Clement developing Yakou Meite as a centre forward (when the Ivorian had previously been considered very much only a wide player), and Mark Bowen deploying advanced playmaker John Swift as a sole quarterback in front of the defence.
We may well be seeing the same thing happen now. While Paul Ince hasn’t drastically reinvented Reading tactically overall, he has brought a new take on how to use Josh Laurent: as a number 10. Ince made his view on this clear after the 1-1 at Barnsley - a game in which Laurent, soon after being pushed upfield in an in-game tweak, scored a crucial equaliser.
“Laurent’s not a holding midfielder so to keep holding him back is hard.”
That’s interesting given that Laurent is very much known at Reading as being some kind of defensive midfielder, having burst onto the scene early in September 2020 as the deeper of the two in Veljko Paunovic’s double pivot. Although his role has changed over time - increasingly being let off the leash to push forwards in matches last season, sometimes being used as the ‘1’ in front of the back four in a 4-1-4-1 this season and as a box-to-box in that formation at other points - it’s fair to say we regard him as more defensive than offensive. To underline that, he’s even filled in well at points as a centre back when required.
So, in respect to Laurent’s Reading career, Ince deploying him as an out-and-out number 10 is innovative. I say Reading career as, to be fair, Laurent has experience as a more advanced midfielder from his Shrewsbury Town days, as Salopcast told us when he signed:
“Laurent is a versatile midfielder who can play a number of roles: box to box, attacking midfield and right/left in a front three. I think his best role would be playing in a midfield three, with an emphasis on getting into and around the box.”
Side note: There’s an interesting ‘what if’ relating to Laurent, who actually joined as part of a project that never took off: the Mark Bowen rebuild. Laurent was a long-term target for Bowen specifically, and was recruited in an attempt to construct a “young vibrant side that is full of running, full of energy”.
Who knows how different Laurent would have looked for Reading had Bowen at least been in the dugout for a significant chunk of last season. Going by some pre-season evidence, Laurent could have been one of the deeper two midfielders (alongside Swift) in some kind of possession-based 3-5-1-1. You can read more about that here.
Laurent being used as Reading’s number 10 has felt fresh. However, it’s not been for lack of circumstance (the need for someone to be brought into the 10 role) or good reason (to justify Laurent specifically being the one to do so).
A space in the starting XI arose when Swift was ruled out of the trip to Nottingham Forest, although Laurent appeared to be playing as more of a box-to-box midfielder on that occasion. However, he would then be used as an out-and-out 10 from the off against Bournemouth and Blackburn Rovers, although Andy Rinomhota’s injury in the latter of those games necessitated him to be brought deeper in the second half. Still, moving Laurent to 10 and pushing Swift to the left wing became an in-game switch and has been rolled out against Barnsley, Stoke City and Cardiff City.
So why Laurent specifically? After all, on the face of it, there are numerous better-suited candidates for the 10 role. The obvious choice is Ovie Ejaria, who’s been the subject of widespread calls for a long time from Royals fans to be moved centrally. Ross discussed that recently here. Doing so could revitalise a player who needs reinvigorating.
Alen Halilovic also impressed as a number 10 in the 1-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, although it’s not clear whether he’s unfit to play or Paul Ince just doesn’t fancy him. Tom Ince has a nice mix of close control and creativity (although his end product must be more consistent), while Tom Dele-Bashiru and Junior Hoilett have been used as 10s this season but are more about direct running than cute passing.
Still, despite their respective shortcomings, I’d argue that all - on paper - offer more than Laurent as attacking threats. He’s neither goalscorer nor creator, lacking the guile or dynamism to unlock a defence in tight spaces as 10s are generally required to do. His biggest attacking asset is his driving runs, but they tend to be more effective in deeper positions where he has more space to work in, and where he can put Reading onto the front foot.
Where he really comes into his own as a 10 is off-the-ball work. Putting Laurent into that role brings more energy higher up the pitch, making it easier for Reading to win back possession in more threatening areas. Examine the number-10 shortlist through this lens and Laurent is a clear winner.
Side note: A manager going out of their way to deploy a more defensive player in the 10 role isn’t without precedent at Reading.
Jose Gomes and Mark Bowen both used Andy Rinomhota in this way during the 2019/20 campaign - at Bristol City (Gomes’ final match) and Leeds United respectively. The most obvious (and to me grating) example though came from Veljko Paunovic, who dearly loved playing holding midfielder Alfa Semedo there, even at the expense of Michael Olise. True to form as someone with scant regard for putting square pegs in square holes, Pauno also fleetingly used Dejan Tetek and Tom McIntyre in the 10 role.
How’s Laurent done in practice?
Assessing this isn’t completely straightforward - Laurent’s only played 90 minutes in the 10 role once (at Bournemouth), in addition to smaller chunks of games against Blackburn (first half), Barnsley, Stoke and Cardiff (second half). The evidence has also been mixed: Laurent scored from the 10 role at Barnsley but had little impact when moved there against Stoke and Cardiff.
But there have certainly been signs of all-round promise which go beyond the headline moment of that equaliser at Oakwell. Laurent’s energy higher up the pitch had a real effect in the second half at Bournemouth, as Ross wrote in his player ratings...
“Came out with fire in his belly in the second half and was a menace for Bournemouth’s back four, athletically and tenaciously leading the press from the front that helped Reading to a strong opening 20 minutes.”
...and he also played well at home to Blackburn. Reading looked significantly better all round in the first half and, for me, it’s no coincidence that the team performance dropped off when Laurent was brought deeper after the break, even though he’d score the winner from range in the second half.
On the whole, there’s enough there to show Laurent can be an effective number 10, particularly when part of a team display that’s more energetic and proactive. Think of how Reading really pushed for an equaliser at Bournemouth: Laurent didn’t bring creativity in the same way Swift would have done, but he did contribute significantly to the team’s overall intensity.
He had little effect from the 10 role in the last two games however - home matches against Stoke and Cardiff in which the team generally were too passive. This is less a criticism of anything Laurent’s done and more a recognition of the fact that he can’t change the game from the 10 role on his own, particularly if the side as a whole sits too deep.
As things stand, we know Rinomhota and Swift will both be out for the Sheffield United game on Good Friday, although the latter’s situation “might not be as serious as first feared” so hopefully won’t be out for too long. The combination of those two absences (Reading haven’t had them at the same time under Ince so far) raises the question of where Laurent will play.
It’s no coincidence that his game time in the 10 role has dropped off since Rinomhota’s injury in the Blackburn match. Someone needs to help out Danny Drinkwater further back and, in Rino’s absence, the next man up for that ball-winning role is Laurent. Hence, when he has gone to 10 in the last three games, it’s been part of an in-game switch.
Alternatively, Dele-Bashiru has partnered Drinkwater in the starting XI once under Ince (at Blackpool - it didn’t go well) and three times when brought off the bench recently. However, starting games with that pretty open double pivot for the purpose of pushing Laurent upfield may be too risky a move for a generally quite cautious manager.
Then again, for four reasons that individually are a bit tentative but could add up to a more substantial argument, Ince may well decide that starting Dele-Bashiru deep and playing Laurent as a 10 makes sense:
- First and foremost, we know Ince is a fan of Laurent playing as a 10 (“Laurent’s not a holding midfielder”)
- Alternative number 10 Ejaria isn’t in Ince’s good books (Ejaria played poorly against Stoke and then three similiarish players came on against Cardiff instead of him - Femi Azeez, Dele-Bashiru and Brandon Barker
- Dele-Bashiru has actually played pretty well recently (particularly against Stoke when Reading were under pressure), so may well be in Ince’s good books
- The value of pressing higher up the pitch
Reading’s next two games are against sides that like to control the ball: Sheffield United and Swansea City are fourth and first respectively for average possession this season. Considering that, plus Ince’s displeasure at his side’s approach in the last two matches (“we can’t then just defend deeper and deeper”), he may favour a more proactive set-up off the ball. And if he does that, using Laurent as a 10 to allow Reading to win the ball higher makes a lot of sense.
Should Ince use Laurent as a 10, whether for the whole game or as a plan B, I’d like to see more attacking threat from Laurent to compensate for Swift’s absence. This could be achieved by Laurent getting into more dangerous positions. The best way to illustrate this is to use his touch map from the Bournemouth match (with Reading shooting from right to left), as it’s the only time Laurent’s got 90 minutes as a 10.
While he registered plenty of touches (his 53 were ahead of Ejaria’s 44 and Rinomhota’s 49 while not being far off Ince’s 60), only three came inside the box and none were around the D - the most dangerous area on the pitch for unlocking a defence. Instead, Laurent’s touches were typically in deeper and wider positions, particularly on the right. As he’s not a strong crosser, he can’t really cause danger from these areas.
Expecting too much too quickly from Laurent as a creative number 10 would be unfair, and that’s not really why he’s been chosen for this role anyway. However, given Reading’s paucity of open-play goals under Paul Ince (no more than one in any game), if Laurent is used as a 10, the manager should find a way of ensuring Laurent is part of the solution to that problem. Getting in and around the box, and closely supporting Lucas Joao, would be a good step.
An alternative or additional solution would be for, effectively, someone else to provide the central creativity. There’s scope for a wide player (particularly Ince and/or Ejaria) to drift infield and act as a 10 at some points. However, the onus would then be on the relevant full back to aggressively push high to provide the width, and that’s more likely to be provided by Andy Yiadom on the right than Tom McIntyre on the left.
Really though, this is a quandary with a short shelf life. Reading have just five matches of the season left, and Swift will hopefully be back for some of them. After that, Laurent is one of many players out of contract, so we have no idea if he’ll be here in 2022/23, let alone Reading’s league or manager.
There is though a realistic scenario in which Reading stay up, Paul Ince extends his spell as manager and Laurent agrees a new contract. At that point, Laurent’s positional future would again be in contention, and it would be interesting to see how he would fit into the side after a summer rebuild.