Considering Reading offloaded both a striker and their most expensive signing ever in George Puscas’ move to Genoa this summer, some Championship fans may have thought Reading would be suffering from a dearth of striking options in 2022/23.
Instead, Mark Bowen and his team have worked well with Paul Ince to provide a reasonable crop of striking options. Indeed, any team that started its season just aiming to stay in the Championship should be happy to list four strikers with international experience who have all scored 10 goals or more in a Championship season before.
Injury issues aside, it all begs the question: who can we expect to get the most game time in the next few months?
So allow me to transport you to a fantasy world. No, not Westeros or Middle Earth. This is instead the most absurd of worlds: one where all of Reading’s listed strikers are injury free and available for selection. With the surprising wealth of talent available, what then, is the current striking hierarchy?
Before we start, a quick note. The play of a certain Ince Jr has necessitated that I make a clarification on what we’ll be reviewing. It also serves as a reasonable excuse to watch that free kick again.
Paul Ince started the season preferring a 3-4-3 formation, with a lone striker flanked by wingers. The lone-striker role is one Reading fans have seen a lot in recent years, as Bowen and Veljko Paunovic most frequently used only one striker - usually Joao. Recently though, Paul Ince has begun to give his son a role alongside Joao in a 3-5-2 formation.
Tom Ince has taken to the role... about as well as he’s taken to everything else at Reading football club: with great aplomb. He gets himself around the pitch and helps Reading’s new, more energetic style defend from the front. When playing him alongside Joao, this seems to be the point. As Tom Ince said himself about their partnership after the Stoke game: “I do the running, he scores the goals”.
So with all that positivity about Ince’s performances in mind, he’s still not quite the penalty box finisher we need him to be to compete with a more traditional striker like Joao or Carroll.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s almost nobody I’d prefer taking a shot from outside of the box, and certainly not from a free kick than Tom Ince. However in my opinion, long-term solution at striker he is not.
Despite Ince’s forward-ranging heroics then, he won’t be discussed in this article, which will mainly be discussing the centre-forward/number nine role and the impressive crop of players Reading have amassed at that position. Two of these players may well end up playing alongside each other in the 3-5-2 Paul Ince has recently experimented with, but either way, they’re the prime candidates.
Let’s start by discussing the incumbent number-one choice at striker for Reading. Lucas Joao has been Reading’s preferred option up top regardless of formation for more than two years now, mostly down to his prolific goalscoring record. He leads the team both in shot accuracy and goals scored this season with 60% and three respectively.
30% of Reading’s total goals scored through 10 games isn’t bad at all, especially considering Joao has come in for some criticism already this season. Whereas previously though Joao was competing with also-ran forwards such as Puscas and Sam Baldock, or sharing the field with the more versatile Yakou Meite, now he faces real competition for the starting role.
He’ll need to keep his levels high throughout the season, and can’t sulk if he finds himself with a guaranteed first XI spot if he doesn’t keep scoring. With no goals in his last four games, Joao could certainly do with a goal against Huddersfield Town.
Returning to Reading again after his two goals in eight-appearance cameo last year, Newcastle United’s premier ponytailed poacher will be looking for game time to prove his worth ASAP. Linked with top-flight clubs in Belgium and England during the summer, Carroll clearly still has ambitions of playing at a higher level. Hopefully a third-placed Reading team is a good fit then!
I was a little surprised to see Carroll sign just a short-term deal again. However, it’s possible that the roadblock was more Reading’s business plan than the lack of shared interest in a longer deal. Perhaps Carroll is looking to earn that longer deal as soon as January rather than later.
Regardless of whether his desire to win is fueled by desire for a contract or a move, Carroll needs goals to prove his point now. His career has more forward momentum now that any point in recent years and he’ll want to keep that going. Despite not earning a longer-term contract at West Bromwich Albion (run by the very talented football mind of Ron Gourlay), 2021/22 was Carroll’s first in five years in which he started 10+ games and it was his best goal return in that period.
Carroll has the talent to score at this level and if he can adapt to Paul Ince’s style, he should be hot on Joao’s heels in no time.
Spotted in the Oracle, and now in eight matches this season for Reading, Shane Long’s Royal return has panned out about as well as expected so far. Offering almost the exact opposite to Joao, Long has been used by Paul Ince so far to inject energy and smart pressing into Reading’s attack.
Effective both as a starter or off the bench, but somewhat limited by match fitness, Long’s return has been one or two close misses away from being far more than a nostalgia pickup.
Shane will surely want another goal soon though, especially with Carroll joining the team. The international break should give Long time to get over his “viral issue” and then Reading will have an ex-Premier League striker combination on their bench!
Long seems tailor-made for this hard-working team and Paul Ince knows what his presence will do for members of the squad, let alone the matchday crowd. Given Carroll’s shorter contract, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him preferred in the coming weeks. But Long has earned his minutes so far with hard yards, and he’ll rightly have no diminished expectations of gametime.
With Long and Carroll now on the books, Meite is going to have to work for every minute he gets this season. I wrote back in early August that this would be a huge season for Meite. Injuries have blighted the last 18 months for him, and he struggled to work his way back into Paul Ince’s first XI when he returned early last season. Missing more one-on-one chances such as the one he drove into the keeper against Wigan Athletic won’t help him to change Ince’s mind.
Luckily for Meite though, he offers something different to Reading’s other striking options. While Carroll and Long offer physicality with their size and workrate, Meite is by far Reading’s fastest and most powerful runner both on and off the ball. That should mean there’s always a place in this team for Meite regardless of whether that’s out wide or down the middle.
With a good preseason behind him, Meite will be hoping he can make the early injury just a blip on the path to a comeback - something his previous form would suggest he is more than capable of at this level.
So what then is the hierarchy? Well Joao almost certainly will and should start the first game back after the break.
However, the acquisition of Carroll - though likely partially a result of Long’s uncertain health - shows that the coaching staff aren’t fully convinced by Joao currently. That suggests to me that the leash for Joao will be short after the international break.
And why not? Joao is a clinical finisher and unplayable in his best form. Reading have changed their style recently though and Joao will need to adapt his to match it. He’ll win points for Reading by himself this season, but the team has become more important than talented individuals recently. With a need to move the ball faster, the savvy Carroll and Long should both be nipping at Lucas’ heels for a starting role.
Meanwhile, although Meite’s previously sure place in Reading’s strongest XI has come under question with the form of Tom Ince, his versatility should still allow him to get minutes when the more conventional centre forwards are leading the line. He’s also a great option off the bench to have, with his pace a nightmare for tired full-backs to handle. That should mean he’ll see minutes, but he perhaps won’t be in the same conversation as the other three forwards in Paul Ince’s mind.
Joao is one of the best strikers in the Championship on his day: a supremely talented ball carrier and lethal from 15 yards. It’s possible to argue though that his form has suffered in the last 18 months from not having much competition for his place. Well, he’s got it now.
If Joao doesn’t score or contribute dramatically in other ways in his first three starts back after the international break, then Paul Ince would be well within his rights to give starting opportunities to Carroll first and then Long. Meite will continue to see chances centrally I’m sure, but Paul Ince should consider trusting him further out on the wing as previous Reading managers did to unlock his full athletic potential.
Working out how to get minutes to each of Reading’s talented strikers during this first half of the season is no easy problem to solve. But doesn’t it feel good to have good problems again?