So is anybody looking a little harder at “Tom” as a baby name than they were last week? In our team of terrific Toms, McIntyre stood tall above the rest over the weekend. He was just in the nick of time twice with a pair of goals which helped earn four crucial points that have all but buried the bottom three.
But you know all of that. What none of us can say with certainty however is where he can expect to see extended game time next season.
McIntyre has become such a staple in Paul Ince’s XI since returning from a lengthy injury delay that it’s easy to forget he’s been able to feature in just 16 games this season, starting all but one. Since he came back, Reading have recorded five wins, three draws and just four losses. In the last month, it’s three wins, two draws, and one loss.
Can there be another player in the team with a positive record this year? Obviously, other factors have combined to allow McIntyre’s return to the team to be an effective one, but there is a reason Ince kept picking him long after Baba Rahman seemed ready to go.
McIntyre’s infectious attitude is a huge boon for the players around him. That he is a true fan is important: he’s seen everything that we have watched happen to the club in the last few years and has stayed doggedly committed, seemingly desperate to be part of the solution that turns us back into a successful outfit. Every club could benefit from having a few boyhood fans in their ranks.
McIntyre’s qualities as a football player are obvious: he is positionally sound, always looking to move the ball forward and committed to a fault, willing to throw himself in harm’s way for the team. What sets him apart from some of his defensive colleagues though is an ability to read the game at a very high level.
It is not a coincidence that McIntyre was in the exact perfect spot for knock-downs two games in a row. Both were great finishes from the defender, but he made it easier for himself with his football IQ. Over his time at left back, he went from being overwhelmed by the pace and trickery of wingers to adjusting his position to concede less dangerous ground and keep the play in front of himself.
Thanks to that football IQ, despite his height, last year McIntyre was able to dominate both in the air and with ground interceptions. His passing range is also excellent, and means he regularly attempts lofted passes from deep to wingers and full backs in dangerous positions. He was particularly adept at finding an onrushing Andy Yiadom with these passes in recent weeks.
Those qualities and his versatility mean McIntyre has been tried in countless different positions, but probably indicates that he’s best suited either in his professed position, centre back, or perhaps screening the back four as we saw against Sheffield United. Let’s explore those options and one other as possibilities for his primary source of playing time next year.
Centre back in a four
While centre back is where McIntyre played primarily through his youth career, it’s not a position he’s been able to hold down since graduating from the academy. Still, it’s clear that McIntyre’s potential as a defender is huge given his statistical performance last season, and I know many Reading fans would like to see him get a proper run in the team at centre back next season.
Don’t let anybody tell you he can’t do it either. While his chances at his native position have been limited in this campaign, last season he started in the position 14 times from November to March. In that run, his back line helped to keep five clean sheets and conceded just 10 goals. Bearing in mind last year was not Rafael’s finest work in a Reading shirt, and considering this year’s defence, that’s a very impressive track record.
There is then a huge temptation to throw caution to the wind, re-sign Tom Holmes and start next season with the duo at centre back. That may not fill you with confidence, but Reading have conceded by far the most goals this season in the Championship. Unless we bring in a guaranteed starter at centre back, what is our current slate of experienced defenders offering as an alternative?
The potential downside is that, after 10 games, it’s clearly not working and Scott Dann (or a re-signed Michael Morrison) comes back into the team to shore it up. The potential upside is that Reading play well with the Toms as centre backs and save themselves a huge recruitment issue.
They would have a solid and young pair of centre backs who are 110% committed to the club and the cause, and whose value will only continue to rise as they play together. The risk of a shaky defensive start to the season is one I’m willing to take in what is realistically going to be another season of fighting relegation given our EFL business plan.
Holmes and McIntyre have a great understanding, having played together for upwards of a decade. Yes, it’s not hard to imagine that there may be teething problems with this system as the players continue to develop, but both players have had two seasons to develop now; it’s time to see if they can play together as a pair.
However, while both have developed well this year, neither yet appears to have the ability to be a leader and organiser of a defence while on the field. That to me is a large reason as to why Dann has already been signed up for next season: to ensure there is one experienced head in the backline. Either of the Toms could step up, but a change in formation may also solve this problem.
Left-sided centre back in a three
If we are going to give McIntyre a chance to play primarily at centre back next season, and Holmes can be convinced to stay, switching to a back three to accommodate a more experienced head alongside them could be the way forward.
The likelihood of Paul Ince playing a back three seems low. Judging from what we’ve seen so far of his footballing mind, he may not even be aware that it’s a legal formation. If a new manager with more tactical flexibility comes in though, putting McIntyre on the left side of a three would allow him to build on the improvements he made while playing as a left back. It would also shield him more from pacey wingers who could expose his middling pace.
From the left side of a three, McIntyre would have countless options for passes, be able to hit a rushing wing back on either side, or play simple passes through the midfield. Playing either side of a cooler experienced head, McIntyre and Holmes would both have opportunities to make incisive forward passes and beat the first lines of attack.
With the large number of players out of contract, it’s difficult to predict lineups, but with a little leeway for hope on new contracts, something like the below could be successful:
Azeez -Joao - Meite
LWB - Laurent - Rinomhota - Yiadom
McIntyre - Dann - Holmes
This would allow Reading to put up a low defensive block when needed. After all, this is close to the 3-4-3 formation England used to great success in the summer when playing better teams. It would also free up Reading to be expansive in transition and stretch the field with runs being made by wing backs. McIntyre has the perfect skill set to utilise those and make us a potent team in transition. Still, the important thing to remember about McIntyre is that he doesn’t need to stay in defence to be effective.
You can’t help but feel McIntyre’s skills are somewhat wasted at centre back. Players often change positions as they transition from youth to full pro football, and at 23, this is probably McIntyre’s last chance to do so. Defenders that can bring the ball out are incredibly valuable in the modern game, and McIntyre is one of those. However, as mentioned, Holmes can also make line-breaking passes, and Reading like to drop a midfielder deep to help with spraying passes around.
Next year our team will likely be less skillful and more workmanlike. That’s not necessarily a problem. We were certainly helped to our four points at the weekend by deft touches from Lucas Joao and Tom Ince, but commitment, intensity and fitness seemed to me to be bigger factors. Paul Ince’s change in style has directly led to that, and if he stays, you’d have to assume he’ll continue to favour functional players over flash or luxury ones (see Alen Halilovic). Shifting McIntyre into midfield as one of the deep-lying midfielders could be a great way to inject some of that workmanlike commitment into midfield.
Ovie Ejaria’s difficultly in reintegrating in the past few months has nicely illuminated the shift in style: Ince has changed Reading in attack from a team that would prioritise possession to a side that wants to get the ball forward quickly and force the opposition’s defence to make decisions. If the team is going to play like that, less close control is required in lieu of attacking intent. In theory then, McIntyre shouldn’t have trouble adapting to the position.
McIntyre played in this role against Sheffield United and did a reasonable job. While his role in the Blades’ goal was unfortunate, we shouldn’t forget that he did an excellent job of showing Sheffield’s attackers wide for the vast majority of the second half. He picked up his highest match rating of the season in that game according to WhoScored.
Moreover, with neither Josh Laurent nor Andy Rinomhota confirmed for next season, plus Danny Drinkwater and Tom Dele-Bashiru’s loans ending, a change in position for McIntyre could help Reading’s squad-building concerns next season, lessening the need for four replacements. Within options we’ll have available, Mamadi Camara could be a perfect foil to McIntyre as the two midfielders in a pivot: Camara providing forward running and drawing fouls; McIntyre providing tackling, reading the opposition’s patterns, and passing from deep.
It’s not guaranteed to work, but if we want to get McIntyre on the pitch, here’s another handy position in which the versatile McIntyre has proved his worth.
However it’s done, McIntyre should play when fit next year. He’s consistently proved himself to be one of the most committed performers in a Reading shirt, and backed it up with statistical acumen. It remains to be seen where on the field the versatile academy product will end up, but any of these three suggestions could be the golden ticket.