It feels a bit odd to be focusing on a striker after Reading have been second best all over the pitch and thrashed 4-0, but here we are. Much of the post-Sheffield United discussion has centered on Lucas Joao - namely, the extent to which he’s “lazy”. Although it’s certainly not the case that all of the debate around Tuesday’s night game has been about Joao, he’s been the individual picked out more than anyone else - to a disproportionately large degree, in my view.
The bigger picture is that Reading weren’t good enough on numerous fronts at Bramall Lane. The Royals didn’t perform to their established standards individually, weren’t good enough tactically, and were going up against an excellent side anyway. Sheffield United were after all collectively impressive, and can call upon far better talent than we can.
How does Joao fit into that? Well, as is the case for pretty much any striker who’s been on the pitch for most of a heavy away defeat, he was a side note. For much of the game, Reading couldn’t get any kind of grip on the contest, let alone build proper attacks. Accordingly, Joao was isolated and lacking in service - hardly the kind of conditions for any striker to thrive in.
Joao certainly still has a part to play in matches such as these though. You need your frontman to hold the ball up, put in work out of possession and just generally provide some kind of presence. Joao didn’t do any of those things and his hold-up play - usually one of his strengths - was uncharacteristically poor.
So: a bad night in bad circumstances.
If there’s anyone in this squad with enough of a reputation at Reading for us to overlook a bad night, it’s surely Joao. His individual ability has been clear throughout his time in Berkshire, his goal-scoring record (39 in 87) is impressive, and he’s elevated sides in which he’s played. Without Joao, Reading would have been further from the play-offs in 2020/21 and closer to relegation in 2021/22, if not outright relegated.
At the same time as that, his work-rate out of possession has always been a source of frustration. Even when he’s been at his very best for Reading, similar thoughts to those widely raised after Tuesday’s game have been there in the background. How accurate really are they though?
Personally, I’m reluctant to over-analyse the mentality of a player I’ve never met. You wouldn’t necessarily even get a fully accurate and nuanced view from someone who knows him well, let alone from a fan in the stands. While we can get some clues from body language, what’s actually going on in his noggin’ is known to one man and one man only.
So from what we can tell, is he lazy?
Calling him that word on the basis that he doesn’t overtly work hard makes perfect sense on the face of it: he doesn’t put himself about enough when out of possession, ergo he can’t be bothered - a negative character trait. For me though it’s an oversimplification. Does he neglect that side of his game because he’s actively hostile to the idea, or because he just doesn’t enjoy it? It’s an important distinction - a manager can work with one of those states far better than they can work with the other.
And anyway, there are other factors with which to judge his mentality. After all, over the course of multiple seasons, we’ve seen him stay at the club and deliver the goods in terms of goals and match-winning performances. There’s surely been significant interest in him from clubs in better situations, but there’s been no evidence of him wanting to force a move and accordingly throwing his toys out of the pram when he hasn’t got his way.
My read on him (again: take with a pinch of salt as I’ve never met him) is that he’s a good guy who cares about the club but doesn’t enjoy off-the-ball work. He seemingly struggles to motivate himself for that, but does relish the opportunity to show what he can do when he’s got the ball at his feet.
The emphasis should therefore be on what he enjoys doing, not what he can be bothered to do. Of course, an excellent player will enjoy every task thrown at them, but then again, this explains why Joao isn’t playing at a higher level.
Whatever the reality, any player’s mentality is complex and requires nuanced discussion. We’d want the same if any of us were in the spotlight in a personal or professional capacity. Reducing this subject matter to whether Joao is “lazy” is an oversimplification. You could even call it lazy analysis.
Why are we talking about all of this in the first place though? While Joao is still widely respected, criticism of his work rate seems to have intensified in recent weeks. If you’re looking solely at the player himself, that doesn’t immediately make sense. After all, none of this is new - this is the same Joao we’ve known for years.
What has changed however is the team around him. As demonstrated particularly in the 3-0 win over Blackburn Rovers, but also in 1-0s over Middlesbrough and Millwall, this is a Reading side that now relies to a greater degree on work rate and energy out of possession to get points. Gone are the days when the Royals could be carried by individual creative ability.
That shift has been encapsulated by Reading effectively replacing playmaker-in-chief John Swift with Tom Ince in a broadly equivalent role. There's a clear drop-off in individual ability, but Ince's never-say-die mindset is constantly clear to see and brings value to the side, albeit a different kind to Swift’s.
In that context, João's own shortcomings are more exposed. He's being shown up by those around him - particularly Ince, but also Shane Long. The arrival of the latter is important as it has given Reading a viable alternative to Joao (one whose work rate stands out), which the club hadn’t previously had for quite some time.
So what’s the way forward?
Reading don’t actually need to come up with a set solution right now. Even before any possible further additions, the Royals can go one or two up top, calling on Joao, Long, Ince, Yakou Meite, Femi Azeez, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan and Jahmari Clarke. It’s not a wealth of individual ability, but it does allow Paul Ince a bit of rotation for fitness or tactical reasons.
In that light, if Reading really want to go all in on pressing and off-the-ball energy, benching Joao for Long and Ince is a valid plan of attack. It worked a treat against Blackburn and I’d be keen to see it again.
But for the most part, Joao’s quality in the final third and goal record are too good to overlook. Paul Ince needs to find a balance between ‘Shane Long Reading’ and ‘Lucas Joao Reading’. In practice that could mean setting the Royals up to win the ball back that bit deeper and giving any pressing duties higher up the pitch to Joao’s partner - whether that’s Long or Ince.
In most cases you wouldn’t be thinking of adjusting the system for the sake of one player and one player alone. But Joao is an exception.