Baba Rahman’s season, already the topic of some debate among fans, reached something of a sliding doors moment in the past week or so.
First, a strange rush of blood to the head late against Sunderland led to him attempting an ill-advised drag-back rather than clearing the danger, leading to Patrick Roberts’ late winner. His agonisingly slow walk around the pitch and back to the technical area gave away just how he felt about the moment. Then, injured against Rotherham United in the first half, Rahman was replaced by Nesta Guinness-Walker, and the substitution that many Reading fans had been hoping to see play out for months was finally forced on Paul Ince.
Given the excitement around Baba’s return this summer, it’s been a shame that - by the eye test - we’ve seen a different player on the pitch to the one we got last season. Is that accurate though? In a team with a few passengers, has Rahman really struggled as much as the general perception belied?
I took a look through FBref’s advanced stats for Rahman over his two seasons in Berkshire to see if the underlying numbers back up the fan sentiment. It’s worth noting that Baba has made 18 appearances and completed 13.5 90s this season, whereas last season he played 28.7 90s in 29 appearances.
First, let’s look at Rahman’s defensive work this season. The mistake that was made against Sunderland is obviously top of mind at the moment, but is it a common theme?
Well, interestingly, in terms of defensive actions (defined as interceptions and tackles), Rahman hasn’t actually fallen far this season. Baba has made 4.1 defensive actions per 90 this season vs 4.3 last season. Certainly a drop-off, but a minor one. To make up for that, his tackle success rate is slightly improved this season (from 63.5% to 65.4%), meaning he’s missing fewer tackles or at least being stronger in the challenge.
Unfortunately though, and especially given his decent performances at the World Cup, his attacking play has really dipped this season. Baba’s expected assists generated has fallen from 1.9 over 29 games to just 0.2 this season over 18 appearances (equivalent to 0.32 over 29 games).
A general decrease in progressive actions and significant decrease in his number of progressive passes are likely to blame for this. Rahman finished the 2021/22 season with 62 progressive carries and 115 progressive passes in 28.7 90s. That gave him a total of 2 progressive carries and 3.8 progressive passes per 90, totalling just under 6 progressive actions per game.
This season, Rahman has made just 23 progressive carries and 30 progressive passes in his 13.5 90s. That gives him a total of 1.7 progressive carries and 2.2 progressive passes per 90, totalling fewer than 4 progressive actions per game. That equates to more than a 33% drop-off, and an almost 50% drop-off in progressive passes.
Though the drop-off in progressive carries hasn’t been as stark, his ability to beat a man has also fallen away. He’s actually attempting more take-ons per 90 this season (1.7 rather than 1.43), but his success rate has dropped from 58% to 30%. Whether that’s the result of an injury stealing some pace, a lack of confidence or something else, it’s a startling stat.
It’s worth noting that last season featured career highs for Rahman in many of these statistics. In Veljko Paunovic’s 4-2-3-1, Rahman thrived as the left back, with Ovie Ejaria and Josh Laurent able to cover for him if he pushed on to provide crosses into the box. This season however, the failure of any one central midfielder to be as dominant as the previous midfield pivot of Laurent and Andy Rinomhota has led to Rahman being asked to cover a lot more ground.
Moreover, there’s little in the way of interplay opportunities for Rahman within the current system. Ejaria as the left-winger in the 4-2-3-1 would be available for overlaps and short passes for Rahman far more than anybody has proved to be in the 3-5-2. The strikers are too centrally placed, rarely interacting with the wing-backs (and if they do, it’s often because they’re out of position). The midfielders, again, aren’t providing dynamic attacking runs and positioning.
Therefore, as I did last time out with Lucas Joao, you have to ask whether the system under Paul Ince, which has stifled much of Reading’s offensive output, is to blame. At first, there’s a temptation to argue that this can’t be the case. Rahman, never the best pure defender, has usually been given a more advanced wing-back role this season on the left.
Previously, he would have been given an overlapping left-back role in a back four, still asked to get forward, but usually covered by a winger if he does so. This season, he’s been entirely exposed on the left wing, while also being asked to provide creativity.
His passing-accuracy stats could suggest that what is being asked of him has compromised his passing potency however. While his short-passing accuracy has remained around 85% this season, and not significantly differed from last season, his medium- and long-range passing accuracy have dropped by 4% and 11% respectively.
Of course, this could simply be a result of a genuine reduction in Rahman’s accuracy, but how often have we seen Reading’s entire back five retreated into our own third and being asked to launch clearances in Andy Carroll’s general direction? The presence of the target man himself may be responsible for an increased rate of riskier passes.
Baba has also recorded a decreased rate of passes attempted per match this year. This is likely down to Reading’s surrendering of possession more willingly under Ince. Perhaps this style is preventing Rahman from getting into as much of a rhythm as he was able to in games last year, as he was still able to contribute with a goal involvement at the mid-season World Cup in Qatar.
Crucially then, how does Baba compare to his main competition this season: Nesta Guinness-Walker? If Rahman loses his place in the team for an extended period, it’s likely that it’ll be the ex-Wimbledon man replacing him and indeed, some fans have been calling for just that. But does he actually offer more?
So far this season, Guinness-Walker has picked up 10.6 90s in 16 appearances, about a quarter under Rahman’s reps. In that time, he’s picked up double the expected assists of Rahman, though that’s still been low, with just 0.4 over the course of the season - equivalent to 0.73 over Baba’s 29 appearances last season. He has picked up more progressive carries and passes per 90 (2.4 and 3.2 respectively) than Rahman, including an extra progressive pass per game, giving him more chances to create… chances. Interestingly, these don’t tend to come from attempted crosses as they typically do with Rahman.
Guinness-Walker is more scattershot than Rahman. His short passing is on par with the Ghanaian, but he lags on mid- and long-range pass accuracy, perhaps contributing to him being more inclined to take on his man than find a cross into the box.
Guinness-Walker has attempted 2.7 take-ons of his man per 90 this season, much better than Rahman’s 1.7. On top of that he’s more successful (37.9% rather than Baba’s 30%), though both players are below 50% in this category. This may be coming through chances to get comfortable on the ball. When Guinness-Walker plays, he generally has far more touches per 90 than Rahman, who often ostracises himself to his wing and rarely contributes elsewhere.
So Guinness-Walker is a more creative player, finds himself more involved, and beats his man more often than Rahman this season. In short: what the fans have seen with the eye test bears out with the underlying figures this season. Guinness-Walker, who was playing League One football last season and wasn’t fancied by many when he came on trial at Bearwood, is out-performing the Chelsea loanee...
...in attack. And here’s the crux of the argument, and likely what’s kept Rahman in Ince’s team over Guinness-Walker all season. While he’s up there with clearances, when it comes to defensive actions, Guinness-Walker lags well behind Rahman, contributing fewer than 2 defensive actions (tackles and interceptions) per 90. Baba more than doubles his contribution here.
So with that in mind, and knowing what we know about Paul Ince’s priorities this season, are we likely to see more of Guinness-Walker? Well, while the Royals are under Paul Ince, perhaps not, but if that’s not guaranteed past the summer, Guinness-Walker feels more like the full-back of a more progressive fluid team in the future. If a new manager takes over this Reading team and wants to play a short-passing, more expressive attacking game, Guinness-Walker will immediately become the clear choice over Rahman.
Rahman was excellent in 2021/22. Despite Reading having a poor season, Rahman recorded his best term in years, secured his place at the World Cup and made his way into the hearts of Royals fans with his late-night posting antics.
For some reason though, at least so far this season, it’s not working out as well. Rahman still provides more of a safety blanket than any of the competitors for his spot, but his fast-declining attacking output is contributing to Reading’s lack of creativity in 2022/23.
Regardless of how the final few months of the season shake out, Baba will only conjure up great memories for me in the future. Moments such as putting in the free-kick for Tom McIntyre to score the winner at Sheffield United last Easter are chinks of light in a tricky 2020s so far for Reading. This time though, when he returns to London, Reading might not need call on Baba again so quickly, for better or worse.