A cup run could actually be handy for Reading
On the face of it, this game looks like little more than a distraction. Reading’s focus should be and is very much on the league, given the ever-precarious nature of our Championship status. Take our eye off the ball and we could well get dragged into a relegation scrap. Just ask Hull City, who were eighth at this stage of the 2019/20 campaign but ultimately finished 24th.
But still, any chance to win games and build momentum should be taken. Of course, momentum from one competition (probably built by a heavily rotated side that’s not necessarily that similar to the first team) doesn’t necessarily carry across to another competition. After all, Reading have had good FA Cup runs which haven’t been reflected in league form: 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2019/20.
It never hurts though to create as much positivity (among fans as well as players) and winning habit as possible. A victory - or at least a big performance - in the FA Cup can help develop confidence in the league. The most obvious examples would be Brian McDermott’s cup runs in 2009/10 and 2010/11, but an impressive display at Old Trafford in January 2019 under Jose Gomes was also a shot in the arm and preceded a vital league win in the following match against Nottingham Forest.
Given the sheer number of senior players Watford have unavailable for Saturday (15!), this tie should very much be regarded as winnable - although it wouldn’t be as much of a disgrace to go out as it was to lose to Kidderminster Harriers a year ago. All things being well, Reading will get past Watford and be rewarded with a good draw in the next round - whether that’s a glamour tie or one that’s also winnable.
Resting first-team players
We know this match won’t feature the Royals’ “key players and mainstays” as Paul Ince confirmed after the West Bromwich Albion defeat. There’s no point risking them getting injured and they need a break anyway after playing regularly across the campaign - not to mention an intense festive schedule of three matches in six days that Ince is keen to remind everyone about whenever he gets an opportunity. To be fair, he’s not wrong.
So who counts as a key player/mainstay? Excluding Tom Holmes who’s ill, I’d put another seven players into this category, all of whom have played more than 1,500 league minutes so far: Jeff Hendrick (2,315), Tom Ince (2,266), Andy Yiadom (2,101), Joe Lumley (2,012), Tom McIntyre (1,984), Junior Hoilett (1,956) and Mamadou Loum (1,539). If you’re interested, Holmes is fourth on 2,084 (if you’re not, he’s still fourth on 2,084).
Ince will very probably also rest Andy Carroll and Yakou Meite. The former started all three of Reading’s festive fixtures, while the latter started twice and was rested in the third (but used as a substitute). There’s one more non-injured player who started twice over the festive period, but more on him later (spoiler alert it’s Naby Sarr).
We can also add a few more players into the list of those who won’t feature - albeit because of enforced absence. Ince confirmed in his pre-match comments that we won’t see Ovie Ejaria, who’s back in training on Monday. As far as I’m aware the latest is that Tyrese Fornah and Dejan Tetek remain unavailable and we know for sure that John Clarke is out for the season.
Long-term injured players getting back up to sharpness
We also know from Ince that Scott Dann, Naby Sarr and Liam Moore will play on Saturday. While Moore will be getting his first taste of action since late 2021, the other two managed starts over the festive period after barely featuring earlier in the campaign due to long-term injuries. Sarr got two in fact but was rested for the trip to the Hawthorns.
That lack of match sharpness was apparent. Both Dann and Sarr understandably looked rusty in their starts against West Brom and Norwich City respectively. They weren’t desperately bad but were still certainly short of the level Reading need them at, so game time in the cup will help. Ince said as much here:
“The thing with [Naby Sarr] is he has to keep playing. Between now and February we have a week between each games so he’ll have a full week of training between games. He can’t play three games in a week. He’ll be playing on Saturday. He needs it to sharpen up, like Scott Dann and Moore.”
Although he’s not had injury problems to the same extent as Sarr, Dann and Moore, I’d still put Sam Hutchinson in the same category. He’s also expected to play against Watford. This would be his first appearance since getting 63 minutes at Watford in early November; before that he hadn’t made it onto the pitch since the 2-1 defeat at Queens Park Rangers in early October and he’s only managed 10 appearances this season overall.
Getting all four back to full sharpness would be a big boost for Reading’s squad. All bring plenty of experience at the back - a key ingredient for a side that wins games by managing narrow leads - and can insulate Reading against another defensive injury crisis.
And in the specific case of prodigal son Moore, who Harry wrote about here, full fitness means a higher chance of the club getting him out on loan this month. However you look at things, it’s in everyone’s interests for Moore to recuperate as well as possible as quickly as possible.
How many centre backs can Reading physically fit onto the pitch at the same time? We won’t know until Moore, Sarr, Dann and Hutchinson are all back fully fit and ready for action.
It’s an opportunity for fringe and fringe-ish players to catch the eye
Unlike in other cup games in recent years (I’m thinking particularly of the League Cup here), Reading actually have a decent amount of senior-level depth at the moment. The Royals can afford to rotate heavily on Saturday without needing that many under-21 players, although a few will undoubtedly be involved to some degree.
A look through Reading’s last three subs’ benches provides us with a list of players who haven’t been playing that much recently and will therefore be desperate to finally get a start. Cup ‘keeper Dean Bouzanis is the safest bet here, but you can also certainly add in Amadou Mbengue, Femi Azeez, Shane Long and Lucas Joao.
Three of those (Mbengue, Long and Joao) have been starters for Reading at some point this season but ultimately haven’t been able to keep their places. Azeez could have gone into the ‘long-term injured players getting back up to sharpness’ category, but he’s been back in contention for a little while now and got various appearances for the under-21s in late 2022. Also I can’t be bothered to rewrite that section, ergo Azeez can stay here.
Any of those five will feel aggrieved if they don’t start on Saturday; if they can’t get into the XI when the changes are rung, when will they? Depending on formation, Reading should be able to fit all of them into a balanced set-up.
The harder question is who plays at left-wing-back (Ince will probably go 3-5-2 again - more on that later - so not left-back). Both Baba Rahman and Nesta Guinness-Walker were predominantly put on the bench over the festive period (bar the latter starting at the Hawthorns), so there’s no pressing need to rest either.
There’s no obvious answer on who should start, but my own preference would be to give Guinness-Walker another go and see if he can improve from Monday. It’s been a while since he started consecutive matches (mid-October) so he’d benefit from a little run in the starting XI. Giving him a proper go (rather than dropping him after one match) leaves Ince in the best position when it comes to picking his left-wing-back going forwards: if Guinness-Walker impresses he stays in the team, but if he doesn’t, he’s had a big enough chance to then be fairly dropped for Rahman the next week.
All of these fringe/fringe-sish outfield players could conceivably break into Reading’s first team and stay there, although it’s less likely for Azeez. Giving them a chance to strut their stuff against Watford could ultimately give Ince a nice selection headache for the rest of the season.
Despite how many first-team options Ince has available, he could and should still blood some younger players. He’s suggested that he won’t do this heavily, saying the following, but it’ll be interesting to see how far he follows through:
“There will be one or two academy players on the bench but it’s the FA Cup and you have to treat it with respect. I’m not going to fill the bench with kids. You have to respect the tournament.”
Will Ince really include some of his “key players and mainstays” on the bench for the sake of minimising the number of academy players involved? Reading have a decent number of options but not enough to fill a matchday squad without drafting in some of Ince Jnr, Yiadom, Hendrick and co.
So which youngsters are most likely to be involved? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jay Senga, Nelson Abbey, Kelvin Abrefa and Rashawn Scott in the squad - all could be spotted in some training snaps from the club on Thursday. Going by who featured in the League Cup defeat to Stevenage and is likely to be fit, I’d also add Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, Kian Leavy, Mamadi Camara, Louie Holzman and Jahmari Clarke onto the longlist of candidates.
Given Ince’s comments, I’m not expecting those players to be used en masse. Using a few at a time is the best way of handing out experience: youngsters get more out of matches such as these if they’re playing alongside a large number of senior first-teamers rather than from other inexperienced players.
Too often in recent years we’ve had such a young XI that it’s felt like boys vs men. That was particularly true in last season’s League Cup defeat to Swansea City when a particularly raw side (George Puscas was the closest we had to a seasoned pro) never landed a blow on the visitors.
So who are the top candidates? We can’t know Ince’s thinking about who he’s most impressed by in the academy, but I’ll pick out six names of my own. First and foremost, Abrefa is probably the likeliest to start (at right-wing-back) although it depends on where Mbengue is used. In addition, Abbey seems close to the first team (I spotted him warming up at the Hawthorns) so could get a run-out at left-centre-back when one of the senior defenders is withdrawn.
It’s also worth Reading getting some experience into younger midfielders and strikers, given how much turnover is expected in those departments in the summer. That’ll be Senga and Leavy in midfield, as well as Ehibhatiomhan and maybe Clarke up top. All four (among others) are at the start of their career where they need to be picking up first-team experience where possible - something that Senga and Clarke have at least managed a bit on loan.
There’s room for tactical experimentation
Given Reading’s formation consistency this season and who’s likely to play, I’d be surprised if Reading don’t use a 3-5-2 on Saturday; Long, Joao, Azeez, Guinness-Walker, Hutchinson, Moore, Sarr and Dann don’t collectively fit into anything else. But there are two things I’d like to see Reading try tactically - the first of which is inevitable as it’s about player selection while the second isn’t as it goes against Ince’s instincts (Incestincts?).
1) In the first case, a rejigged midfield. It’s unlikely that we’ll see any of Hendrick, Loum, Ince or Fornah, so Saturday is a good opportunity for a temporary reboot. This isn’t just for the sake of rotation, as much as that’s needed. Experimenting with other players will potentially open up other options for Ince to use in the league later on this season.
I’d go with Hutchinson as the holding midfielder - as he’s done on various occasions under Ince so far. Ideally Reading would have tried Fornah here, a role he played for Shrewsbury Town last season, but Hutch will have to suffice. Given that Moore, Dann and Sarr are also set to play, I’d be surprised if Hutchinson doesn’t slot into midfield.
In front of him should be Mbengue and Azeez, for whom playing in a three-man midfield at Reading isn’t a familiar concept. The former has predominantly lined up at centre- or wing-back while the latter is typically a wide player, although he did have a late cameo as a central attacking midfielder at the Hawthorns.
However, both are capable of slotting into midfield. Mbengue has played there previously in his career and, going by the eye test, he’s got the tenacity and general physical presence to be an energetic ball-winner. Azeez on the other hand would be more of a creative force - admittedly similar to fellow ‘winger-turned-attacking-midfielder’ Tom Ince, but I’d be intrigued to see him audition as some kind of a number 10.
Given how stale Reading’s midfield has so often been this season, developing Mbengue and Azeez as viable options in those roles would be a big boost. It’s worth Ince experimenting with them against Watford.
2) In the latter case, a more attacking approach in general. Reading have understandably prioritised defensive solidity this season in order to maximise points, but it’s come at the expense of creativity and goals. Anything Ince can try on Saturday in order to develop the Royals’ offensive play would be worthwhile.
What does that mean in practice? Hopefully plenty of service for Azeez as an attacking midfielder and a front two of Joao and Long, naturally. Getting the ball into their feet could do just that.
Furthermore, with Reading likely starting fresh legs at wing-back (probably Guinness-Walker on the left and either Mbengue or Abrefa on the right), there’s an opportunity to push those players on and really try to stretch Watford. Similarly, if Moore starts as an outside centre half in Reading’s back three, he should have license to push forward into midfield when the opportunity arises - something he’s done before to decent effect.
Reading should play this XI
Bouzanis; Moore, Dann, Sarr; Abrefa, Mbengue, Hutchinson, Guinness-Walker; Azeez, Long, Joao
I’ve made that a 3-4-1-2 rather than the usual 3-5-2 - so two deeper midfielders instead of the customary one - although Mbengue could be pushed higher to keep it as Reading’s usual 3-5-2. The benefit of having him and Hutchinson playing fairly deep would be to allow the wing-backs and Azeez to push high, as well as potentially letting Moore bomb on. Given Mbengue’s mobility and versatility, he’d be an ideal player to plug gaps left by a marauding Abrefa or Moore.