Blessedly, since he returned to the team in January, there has not been a significant injury scare for the imperious Lucas Joao. The team struggled mightily to replace his influence in the first half of the year, and his sumptuous goal against Sheffield United showed just how irreplaceable he is to this team. It’d be hard to argue he’s fully returned to the form of early 2020/21, but if we were still having to make do without him, Reading’s occasionally shaky “charge” to safety could have been on even shakier ground.
Next year though, we cannot at all be sure that Joao will still be with the team. He is actually one of the few people signed past June, but the club seemed to declare the manner in which it will treat high earners in January. That window, well-paid players Rafael, Liam Moore and George Puscas left either permanently or on loan - moves that, while made possible by their lessening need in the team, did seem implicitly designed to clear wage space.
The club could, and perhaps should decide to hold onto Joao this summer, allowing one high earner to help with next season’s likely second consecutive relegation fight. Arguably if they were to keep one high earner, Joao would be that one as he has consistently been our best attacking option for three seasons now and guarantees goals. That said, his price-tag is ballooning and the extra year on the contract means Reading don’t have to take a weak offer. If they can get £10m+ for Joao, that money could go a very long way to helping with a summer of serious retooling for the squad.
That doesn’t end the debate as to whether the club should sell Lucas Joao, but it does show that there is at least a debate to be had. Regardless of whether he’s sold or not, Joao is yet to complete a whole season for Reading without getting a reasonably significant injury, and so eyes should turn to his backup options.
The existing options
The obvious option to replace Joao is Yakou Meite. A proven goalscorer with 10+ goals in three Championship seasons, he’s also crucially one of the few other established players whose contract goes beyond June. This has been undoubtedly a frustrating season and a half of injuries for Meite - a pause in what was shaping up to be a very promising career at Championship level - but he has shown fantastic dedication to return ahead of schedule.
But despite Meite’s impressive goalscoring record, you’d be hard pressed to argue that Yaks has proved himself as a traditional centre forward. Certainly, within the lone-striker systems that Reading have employed over the last few seasons, Meite has not yet shown that his hold-up play is at the necessary level. He boasts a similarly large frame to Joao, but the two are entirely different players: Joao capable of nifty flicks and touches while holding off a man, Meite capable of intense bursts of pace and a sprinting shoulder barge that would sink the Titanic all over again.
For that reason, while I’m sure he’ll argue for his chance, Meite isn’t quite the obvious solution if Joao leaves that he initially appears to be.
The other possibility is that a reinvigorated George Puscas returns from Pisa with a much-improved goal-scoring record than he’s had over the past few seasons. Georgi has had a much better time since joining the Serie B side, netting five times in 14 games against reasonably good competition. Pisa have an obligation to purchase Puscas for €5m if they get promoted this season. That’s look shaky but possible: Pisa sit three points behind the automatic promotion places (first and second), and are likely to qualify for Serie B’s odd playoff structure if they miss out.
If Pisa fail to get promoted though, Puscas would likely be coming back our way, and while he’d almost certainly be immediately sold on elsewhere if Joao stays, with Joao the club may be tempted to give the mercurial Romanian one more shot.
If either of these options are going to be Joao’s backup, or replacement in the event of him leaving, the club must find a way to adapt their formation and style of play to suit the players they have.
The academy options
If the goal with Jahmari Clarke was to fill him with confidence and then let it slowly be wasted as the season went on, mission accomplished. Even cooler heads might have expected that Clarke’s performance against Birmingham City would have bought him more of a chance in the starting XI (especially as his only competition at the time was Puscas), or even just on the pitch.
Regardless, Clarke has been stuck on the bench or not present since that brace, despite maintaining a reasonable goal record at under-23 level of five goals in 12 games. He certainly wasn’t the finished package when he did get chances in the team under Pauno, but he’s an 18 year old: that is to be expected. The club should be doing more to progress the development of their academy forwards and look to avoid a repeat of Danny Loader’s disappointing fizzling-out of his Reading career.
Moreover, if Reading are going to insist on playing a lone-striker system, Clarke has the physicality to make that work. He should only get stronger over the next few seasons as his body matures, and if he can learn to hold the ball up and bring others in, he could be a very valuable option either off the bench or starting.
It would be a great shame to see Clarke leave in the summer. A good preseason should set him up for the kind of opportunities that Femi Azeez has been able to get in the team this year.
Elsewhere in the academy, the options are less appealing. Nahum Melvin-Lambert’s loan spell in Ireland wasn’t particularly successful from a goalscoring perspective, and so it’s hard to see him making an impact at Championship level. Azeez is full of potential and will hopefully be fitter next year, but he seems to be better placed as a wide forward than an out-and-out central forward.
If there is a ready option in the academy, it’s likely Jahmari Clarke, but his lack of game time this season makes you wonder about how much longer he’ll have to break into the first team.
Somewhat surprisingly given the financial situation we find ourselves in, Reading have been mentioned as one of the clubs in the hunt for various players in the Championship rumour mill. Take any gossip that suggests your club is “in the hunt” for a player with a whopping pinch of salt, but there are good options in a place we’d all like Reading to be hunting for players: the lower leagues.
Kabongo Tshimanga - Chesterfield
Before a horrid injury in February, the marvelously named Kabongo Tshimanga had blown past his previous goal records to score 24 in 27 for Chesterfield in the National League. He’s scored 19 or more in his past three seasons and proved himself to have a potent finishing touch in non-league football. There’s always the question of whether a player like that can step up, but that’s part of why you don’t have to pay as much for players who have fallen further down the pyramid.
Tshimanga will be hard to get: he was already generating interest from clubs in the Football League before moving to Chesterfield in the summer, and he signed a three-year deal. Depending on our division, Chesterfield will presumably be looking to recoup multiple times what they paid for him, but if Joao is sold, that expense would likely be less than half of Joao’s fee. What’s more, his significant injury may add some hesitation from clubs with bigger budgets, and lead to Reading being part of a smaller chasing pack.
If Reading have funds to make a purchase this summer, and we want to get back to our previously successful transfer strategy of poaching star players from the lower leagues, Tshimanga would be the dream transfer this summer.
Brandon Thomas-Asante - Salford City
Interestingly, both Thomas-Asante and Tshimanga were at MK Dons at the same time, but both failed to make the cut at that point. Thomas-Asante was another of the players Reading were reportedly interested in in recent weeks, again among a slew of other clubs. This seems more speculative to me. Thomas-Asante can be deployed as a central forward, but has played on and off the right wing this year.
Thomas-Asante has scored 10 in 35 appearances this year - around a goal in a quarter of his appearances. That’s a good record for mid-table Salford City.
As we all likely know though, Salford City are well-moneyed and will not need to sell any player they don’t want to. That for me, as well as him seeming to fit a similar profile to Meite, means Thomas-Asante would be behind any player who has played entirely as a centre forward primarily in recent seasons.
Andy Carroll - West Brom
A hopeful one certainly, but is Carroll likely to get a new contract with the Baggies? The second half of the season has been a complete disaster for the Midlands club, and Ron Gourlay’s presence means you can guarantee they’ll be haphazardly active in the transfer market.
You’d expect that, in the summer, Carroll will be behind new signing Daryl Dike in West Brom’s estimations when assessing striking options as well as anybody Gourlay brings in. That could make him available again for another Championship club. We’d obviously need to pay him more than the £1,000/week he was on with us earlier in the year, but if the price is right, Carroll’s clear affection for the club might make us an attractive prospect if he’s looking for games.
At the end of the day, replacing Joao as a lone striker is going to be very hard for Reading to do, but Carroll would immediately slot into the team and do almost as good of a job. If available, Reading should do everything in their power to secure a return.