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Musings: Previewing Reading’s Summer Recruitment

With a seemingly better recruitment hierarchy in place, where on the pitch, and in the world, should Reading be looking for reinforcement this summer?

Reading v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

In a way that was near impossible to predict at the end of the season, Reading have listened to the fans and moved to make significant improvements to the football side of operations. The arrival of Mark Bowen and Brian Carey will hopefully lead to a more consistent and considered approach to recruitment, putting the travails of the previous more scattershot era well and truly behind us.

So now Reading have the pieces in place, what might that more considered recruitment look like? What are the key areas in which reinforcements are needed, and where should Reading look for talent?

The retained list

Reading v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

The tempting thing to say first is: everywhere. Reading’s retained list last week was more hopeful than confirmed, and depending on who does/doesn’t sign a contact, it seems likely a lot of holes will pop up on the team.

Naturally, given that next season will be our final year under the EFL’s business plan, free-agent and loan signings will still need to be made in force in order to paper over the cracks in squad-building created by a lack of funds. That said, now we have a recruitment team in place, there’s no reason we can’t be looking for certain types of loan/free-agent candidates who may end up being good fits for the squad: a la Ejaria.

Let’s look at that retained list, and make a reasonable assumption for those who will stay.

New contracts offered: Tom Holmes, Josh Laurent, Andy Rinomhota, Femi Azeez and Andy Yiadom.

I’d say the club is likely to keep Holmes, Azeez and Yiadom. Holmes and Azeez need to be careful to stay in environments in which their careers are progressing currently, so it would seem smart for them to stay put.

Yiadom appears to be next in line for the captaincy and while he should get enticing offers, creative contract structuring could sway him to stay even if the first year of his deal is under his value. Rinomhota seems more likely to stay than Laurent, given his academy ties, but realistically both could be lost to rivals this summer.

Reading v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

No contract has been offered to Junior Hoilett or Michael Morrison, while John Swift has now officially joined West Bromwich Albion. However, dialogue between the first two and the club is ongoing and they could be convinced to stay if the deal is right. Hoilett has been good but not outstanding this season. It would be nice to see him back but his impact should be replaceable (especially if Tom Ince returns). Morrison has found a second home in Reading and I’d hope a deal can be hammered out to have him retire in Berkshire.

So in total, I think it’s reasonable to assume that four or five of the eight players we want to retain will stay. The likely list of those remaining will leave a new burning hole in the squad, to go with the ones that already existed…

How transfers will be made this summer

Judging by the difficulty in last summer’s transfer window, it may admittedly still be hard this summer to convince more established players to sign for more than a year. It would seem that our business plan has allowed us only a very low ceiling for contract offers, and in such a cut-throat industry as football, you couldn’t blame any player who would want to pick up a contract with us for just a year to see what they could earn with a second contract once those restrictions are lifted.

That actually may be to our advantage. If we can find players willing to “prove it” in their first year for a bigger reward later, that will only benefit us in the short term. Further, if we do find players who want to stay longer, then depending on the terms of our business plan, contract creativity could help get deals across the line for longer than a year.

If contracts can be “back-loaded” - forgoing some salary in the first year to gain a higher salary in subsequent years - Reading should absolutely start doing that this summer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tom Ince get a similar deal this summer, and it may be the perfect way for him to prove he is back on track.

Reading v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

It may also be the case that those kinds of players don’t become available until after the season has already started, and they have failed to pick up deals elsewhere. Baba Rahman, Danny Drinkwater and Alen Halilovic likely all had offers from elsewhere throughout last summer, but ended up with us late in the window. This showed that players firmly in the “good enough” category will be available for the patient deep into August. We may well need to be the patient type.

Still, the effects of Covid are still ravaging football, and it seems more free agents and released players are available than ever before. One of Carey’s first jobs as director of recruitment must be to identify which of the currently available Championship-level free agents are worth pursuing. Once he’s done that, he’ll need to act fast to try to tie down deals before preseason, but crucially then stay in contact with those who don’t find teams before the season begins.

Where are reinforcements needed?

Central midfield

Reading v Luton Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The first area in which we’ll need reinforcement is central midfield. This seems almost inconceivable given the glut of midfield maestros we’ve featured over the past few seasons, but if Laurent and Rino both leave (or even if one does), we’ll be looking remarkably bare in that department. Drinkwater and Tom Dele-Bashiru will be gone, in addition to Swift, and that will leave just Dejan Tetek as a true central midfielder. Promising as he may be, I don’t think he can do it all himself.

So then, with even one of Laurent and Rino leaving, we’ll be rebuilding our central midfield corps. Adding loan midfielders that can immediately compete at this level will be a necessity, not just a bonus, and the club will need different types of loanee again this season. On top of adding fresh legs and youthful hunger, we’ll need to replace some of the experience that came from Swift and Drinkwater.

It would be nice to see Dele-Bashiru back at Reading next season, even if only for half of it. Indeed, Watford’s relegation may have negatively impacted our chances to get TDB back for another season. Now in the Championship, Watford may be tempted to try to play TDB into their team in the early stages of the next campaign. If he won’t be tried, or will be mostly riding the bench however, I’d love to see him return, easily crossing off one missing piece on our list.

Hopefully at least one of Laurent and Rinomhota will stay. If they both do then this position will be far less of a worry than it would be otherwise. Still, recruits will be needed to fully shore up the position.

Left back

Reading v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

Elsewhere, it’s finally time to solve the left-back issue. It was great to see the smile on Omar’s face as he hoisted the Bundesliga trophy, but it served as a reminder that we’re yet to replace him. It seems ludicrous that, only two seasons removed from having the options of Jordan Obita, Tyler Blackett, and Richards available, we’re down to no senior left backs, but such is following Reading over the past few years.

Rahman deputised well in his loan spell with Reading, but it seems unlikely we’ll be able to convince him to come back now that his Chelsea contract has ended. His experience was valuable last year, and his attacking movement and final ball was often good, but it would be good to get a more well-rounded left back this year. Rahman had the pace to recover if he made defensive mistakes, but I often found he was using that recovery pace more often than making the correct defensive decision the first time.

With Ethan Bristow released, it looks like the academy won’t be ready to step in to plug the gap any time soon, so prioritising finding a younger player who can grow into his role will be key. If there is any position where Reading should be looking for a player not just for next season, it should in my mind be left back.

Where to look for talent

The lower leagues

Most Reading fans would agree that if Bowen wants a blueprint for the kind of signing we’d like to see, he should look no further than his own final signing for the club. That signing, Josh Laurent, is the epitome of everything a Reading signing should be: young, hungry for success and overlooked at higher levels.

As I stated earlier this season, if we end up needing to replace Lucas Joao (or pick up another forward in general) this summer, my heavy preference for a replacement will be Chesterfield’s Kabongo Tshimanga: a prolific lower-league striker. His career to date reminds one of our legendary Alfie. That may be too much to hope for, but in general, Reading would do well to re-familiarise themselves with the process of fighting for hot lower-league commodities this summer.

Premier League free agents

For more established players in the short term, Reading should be looking to re-home more Championship top-end and Premier League free agents. We’re yet to fully know how well Scott Dann’s transfer will turn out in the long run, but to me, that should be the benchmark here. We need a few players who can start around 20 games a season and make an outsized contribution when they do start.

Dann struggled to regain his fitness in the back half of 2021/22, but Reading did pick up positive results in 50% of the matches he started - a difficult record to sustain last season. His experience in the dressing room for players like Holmes, Tom McIntyre and next season Jeriel Dorsett must be a huge help to their development as well.

That experience is what Reading should be looking for in the free-agent market this summer. Well that and perhaps an out-of-contract Shane Long…

The MLS

In further-flung places, the MLS has made huge strides in the last five to 10 years and English clubs should absolutely be taking notice. After all, the fact that a league full of young, developing players has emerged in the English-speaking world should absolutely be on the radar if we’re looking for players who could make an easier transition to the Championship.

While in the past the MLS has carried a rep for being the holiday home of soon-to-retire European stars, US football has made numerous changes over the past decade that have fundamentally altered the makeup of teams in its league. As a result, the USA is now developing a large crop of exciting players and enjoying a youthful appearance in its national side.

These players often share qualities that play well in other American sports: they’re athletic, hard-working individuals who earn what they lack in technical quality through bluster and intent. That, and the lesser risk of punishment in the MLS for mistakes, has developed a tendency towards quick, attacking, wide full backs who could find success in the fast-paced Championship.

One who could be a fantastic get for Reading in the left-back position is the New England Revolution’s DeJuan Jones.

Jones, who was just recently called into a US camp for the first time, is a lightning-fast wing back with no hesitations when it comes to attacking deep into the opposition’s half. He’d make a fantastic compliment to Yiadom’s running on the right flank, but provides more of a contribution with his crossing - something that Reading will need to supply more of now that Swift has left. Jones sits in the top-15th percentile in his league for shot-creating actions - something that Reading need to improve from the left side of the field.

The designated players, previously high earners’ spots filled by expiring stars, are also a little different now. They’re now used to roster emerging international talents in their mid-20s whose financial demands don’t fit into the MLS’ Americanised contract structuring. Reading could do worse than enquire about loan or permanent switches for a number of the designated players currently playing in midfield for technically minded MLS teams, such as Nicolás Lodeiro, Carles Gil, or Emanuel Reynoso.