Reading currently find themselves with four ‘keepers on the books who could realistically hope to claim the number-one shirt for 2023/24. It’s not at all clear who currently will line up between the posts for Reading either in August 2023 or long term, despite Joe Lumley having stemmed the bleeding in that position, one which cost Reading points last term.
With just a few months left in the season until Lumley and Luke Southwood’s loan periods end, while Dean Bouzanis bravely warms the bench and Coniah Boyce-Clarke knocks on the door, Mark Bowen, Paul Ince and co will have more than a few decisions to make this summer.
Let’s dive into the performances this season and expectations for Reading’s goalkeeping options to determine whether any of them might begin to stand out as the favourite for 2023/24.
When Lumley put in the performance against Rotherham United that Middlesbrough fans had apparently been expecting all along, there were serious worries in the Reading fanbase. Lumley’s attitude to shake off last season and the Rotherham result though has been fantastic.
He’s one of many boisterous figures in this Reading changing room that helps keep things ticking over. His presence is clearly magnetic: everyone on the pitch is going to hear what he has to say, one way or another. Opposing fans (and managers) hate him. His defence loves him.
His distribution has been reasonable and brilliant at times, especially when playing the ball long - finding Lucas Joao in dangerous space for his first goal against Stoke City comes to mind.
Of his launched passes, Lumley has connected on 42%, 10% higher than Bouzanis and higher than Southwood’s percentage from last season from a similar number of games.
Given the fact that many ‘Boro fans seem mostly done with Lumley, that should mean Reading should be actively pursuing a return for Lumley in the summer, right?
Well, hold your horses. Lumley is certainly impressing Reading fans but his underlying numbers are not quite so impressive. While he has made some impressive saves this season, he’s made sparingly few he wouldn’t be expected to make, and worse still, not saved as many as expected. His post-shot xG per 90 minutes differential is -0.37, meaning he costs us a goal which an average goalkeeper might have saved once every three games.
Lumley is also not as effective on cross collection as he may seem - just a darn site better than his recent competition! But more on that later. He’s about halfway down the league on cross-collection percentage.
All of this rings true to the eye test. When it comes to box presence, Lumley is a little above average. When it comes to shot-stopping, perhaps he’s a little below. The loanee has made some excellent saves throughout the season but he’s also been slow to get down to some shots.
If Lumley is back in 2023/24, that can only be good for squad momentum and morale, but if it’s just a one-season stop, he should be remembered fondly as the man who helped steady Reading’s goalkeeping ship.
Chance he starts/returns in 2023/24: 3/10
It’s tough to know what to say about Bouzanis because, in truth, we really haven’t seen much of him. The Australian has started just three games in the Championship so far. Bouzanis’ stats are similar, if a little poorer than Lumley’s (further showing that Lumley is a reversion to the mean of average goalkeeping after last season’s issues rather than being exceptional). He also fails to provide a positive goals saved vs allowed per 90 statistic, letting in four goals on an xG of less than three. His height (6ft1) may be a factor there.
He occasionally looks shaky when he does play: some of the fumbles against Watford in the FA Cup come to mind. But you wonder how much that may be a result of both the big step up in divisions and a player getting used to being a backup after playing 86 matches in the previous two seasons.
Bouzanis signed a three-year contract with Reading, so you’d think he’s expecting to stay a while, and this time on the bench was understood at the time of the signing. His partner, Steph Catley of Arsenal, moved with him (or perhaps the other way around!) to the UK at the same time, and still plays her football at the Emirates. Clearly, living close to London is in Bouzanis’ best interests.
I expect he’ll have a chance to earn the shirt sometime before the end of next season, but he’ll need to improve his performances to be considered a long-term option. To be fair to him, he’ll need a run in the team first.
Chance he starts in 2023/24: 7/10 (at least for a while)
After bursting onto the scene for Reading at the start of 2021/22, Luke Southwood might be fairly asking how he ended up in his current situation - on loan at Cheltenham Town. His ability to throw himself through the air, palms outstretched, has never been in doubt. His reactions are lightning quick, as he showed with some imperious goalkeeping against Fulham last year.
Southwood stole the gloves from a whiteboard-punching Rafael in 2021/22 and never gave them back, putting together an impressive run that would see him pick up his first call-up to the Northern Ireland team.
Unfortunately though, his lack of presence in the box let down his shot-stopping ability and put his defence into sticky situations too regularly for Paul Ince to ignore. Southwood is just under 6ft1 and does occasionally look lightweight in the Championship when his box is stacked with gargantuan EFL target men and centre backs.
Statistically, the best way to show this is with the crosses-stopped stat. This season, the lanky and fearless Lumley has stopped 26% of crosses into the box. That’s not bad and he has the potential to go higher, given last season’s 30%+ performance. Meanwhile, Southwood in 2021/22 only stopped 8%.
That translates to defender confidence, and if a defender doesn’t have faith in his goalkeeper’s ability to claim a dangerous-looking cross, their decision-making process may be adversely affected in a game of such tiny margins.
After enduring a disappointing second half of the season in which Reading fumbled around to replace him, Southwood moved to Cheltenham on loan for 2022/23.
Southwood is having a decent season there. He’s WhoScored’s seventh-highest-rated goalkeeper in League One (among players with 20+ apps) and has kept nine clean sheets in 26 appearances: better than one in thre. He’s been a regular feature in Cheltenham’s player of the month polls.
His deal expires this summer though, and at 25 years old, he’ll be looking for assurances of playing time if he’s going to sign on for more in Berkshire. Realistically that means even if on a short-term deal, if we want to re-sign Southwood, we’ll need to commit to giving him the number-one shirt for at least a portion of next season.
It may well be that this has been the plan all along. Lumley is only here for a year in theory, and it’s possible that the club sent Southwood on loan with assurances that his time at Reading would come if he performed well in League One.
That’s all in theory though. Southwood has clearly improved since his 25-game run in the team last season, but is it enough for Ince, Bowen, and co to give him the number one shirt in return for renewing?
Chance he starts in 2023/24: 5/10
Having been on the Royals’ books since he was eight years old, 19-year-old Coniah Chronicles Boyce-Clarke is surely only a season or two away from being ready to try out.
Boyce-Clarke played with the under-23s at 15 and has continued to play at that level. Interestingly, at 17 years old, he had a 60% save record on penalties. Either nobody under the age of 21 knows how to take a penalty or we might have a useful asset on our hands!
Boyce-Clarke has also played with the Jamaica under-20 team, keeping clean sheets against Antigua and Barbuda among others (reader: imagine my shock when watching a under-20 Jamaica vs Antigua game and VAR was used).
Boyce-Clarke has been on the bench a few times this year and it would appear that, in Southwood’s absence, Paul Ince wants CBC to take his chance to be around the first team. Next season may be a bridge too soon for the precocious talent, but let’s get him signed up quick!
Chance he starts in 2023/24: 3/10
Realistically, if the above four candidates are the only ones for 2022/23 (and I think that they are as Jokull Andresson is both returning from injury and doesn’t quite seem up to the level yet), then I think we can expect to see a goalkeeper competition next year between Southwood and Bouzanis.
Unless Southwood is ready to drop down a league permanently for regular playing time, I think this backroom staff could get his signature on a one- or two-year deal. Toms McIntyre and Holmes could well be recruited to convince their academy comrade to stay if that’s what Reading want.
More importantly though, I actually have some trust in the recruiting staff to accurately determine whether Southwood is worth a new deal. If he does leave, expect a new goalkeeper to come through the door. Bouzanis may start next season if we’re without either Lumley or Southwood, and I think it would be worth seeing what he can do with a 5-10-game run in the team. That said, his stats don’t paint the picture of a long-term solution. Unfortunately, not all diminutive Australian goalkeepers can be Reading legends!
This may ultimately be the best possible option. If Reading can’t get good value on a deal for Southwood, dipping back into the transfer market for a goalkeeper using Lumley as a benchmark is most likely the right thing to do. Reading will hopefully have some money to spend on coaxing a better standard of ‘keeper through the door in the summer and could pick up a better option overall.
Good squads start from the very back. Let’s hope that Reading make the right decision in that position in 2023.