The Reading left-back situation is quite the dilemma for Paul Ince to solve. It’s certainly a talking point that’s circulating the fanbase after a few murmurings of discontent over Baba Rahman’s recent performances and suggestions that Nesta Guinness-Walker should get to start more regularly. To explore this properly we have to go back to the start of the season and understand why the views of many changed and when the left-back situation became a problem.
This is an issue which has plagued Reading not only just this season but also for several seasons, arguably since 2016/17 when we saw the best of Jordan Obita in his prime before his ACL injury at the start of 2017/18. The outlier is when Omar Richards stepped up in 2020/21 and certainly showed his qualities not only attacking-wise but also defensively before he signed an agreement with European giants Bayern Munich at the end of that season.
Option 1: Nesta Guinness-Walker
Guinness-Walker came in as a relative unknown to me and a large amount of the fanbase after leaving AFC Wimbledon in the summer, but impressed the manager and his coaching staff enough to get a one-year deal at the club and looked extremely out of his depth in his first game against Blackpool. We have seen Guinness-Walker build up his confidence and quality throughout the games where he has shown his attacking quality and given Reading an outlet to get the ball to deliver crosses. This is shown in his brief spell in the team against Norwich City, Huddersfield Town and QPR in the early parts of the season.
This run of games came to an end with the error defensively for one of the goals against West Bromwich Albion at home in the middle of October when he got caught out of position in a game that we went on and lost 2-0. Do I think that it was a bit harsh to drop him after one error? Yes, but at that time of the season you could argue that with Baba, his experience was something Ince wanted to lean on, given the position we were in at the time. Ince also most likely wanted to give Rahman a run of games ahead of the World Cup to give him the best chance for him to be in the squad.
Guinness-Walker finally got the chance that the fanbase felt he deserved against West Bromwich Albion away. It came after impressing when he came off the bench in the previous game against Norwich City late on and changed the game, winning the penalty that was then confidently dispatched by Andy Carroll.
After Rahman’s horrendous error in the Sunderland game, we all thought Guinness-Walker would get to start the game against Rotherham United, especially after Paul Ince tended to drop players after errors earlier in the season. To the shock and bemusement of many though he went for an unchanged line up.
However, Guinness-Walker did get his chance due to a Rahman injury and performed well, linking up with fellow substitutes Femi Azeez and Tyrese Fornah, making great lung-busting overlaps at times, stretching the defence - something that doesn’t happen from Rahman.
Option 2: Baba Rahman
Reading needed another left-back for squad numbers - this was a must. We brought fan favourite Rahman back on loan from Chelsea. This came with a mixed reaction although some fans loved it given the fan interaction that Rahman participated in last season.
Rahman has not exactly been bad but has been severely underwhelming, not living up to the hype when he re-signed in the summer. Baba has largely been a steady player from whom you know what you are going to get, but in his recent performances you have seen that defensively he regularly gets caught out, not positionally being in the right spaces on the pitch and normally being too high and getting done in transition. However, to give this point the full context, it is generally a problem with the system and not the personnel.
Another thing he lacks is dynamism going forward which you need in the system that we are playing this season. He struggles to beat his man and put decent crosses into the forward line - this is especially important if you are playing Carroll, who relies on crosses to get his goals.
Recently we have seen this come to a head with the late goal that led to Reading falling to yet another defeat away from home at Sunderland. Just so I remain balanced, I do think the tactics deployed by Ince were wrong and far too defensive. Another mitigating circumstance for the error is the fact he brought Scott Dann on, meaning the defence had to shuffle around.
Option 3: Femi Azeez
One of the options Ince could deploy is to play Femi Azeez as a left-wing-back. I would rather have Azeez playing in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 on the left or right wing. This is because it allows Femi to play his best football - that is when he is being direct, running at people, cutting in and getting past the opposing fullback.
I also don’t think he should play in a 3-5-2/5-3-2 as he did on Friday night against Cardiff City. This is not because I think Azeez is a bad player - I just think that when Azeez goes wide into the channel it causes a shortage of people in the box, given that Carroll will drop deep to hold up the ball, and as a result will struggle to then accelerate and get in the box in time for a cross.
Another reason I wouldn’t play Azeez at left-wing-back is he hasn’t played in that position much if at all, so his defensive game might suffer as a result and we could see teams target the left side of the defence even more than they are right now. It also would block the slot for Guinness-Walker who, as I said earlier, deserves a run of games in the team at left-wing-back and left-back from now until the end of the season. The only time I would consider doing it would be when either we haven’t got anyone fit in that position or when we absolutely need a goal and we are two or three down.
What will happen going forward?
My thoughts are that Guinness-Walker should be getting more game time but I do worry that, even if he does play, how restricted his attacking style might be, given Ince’s pragmatic approach of safety-first might stifle him going forward. In a back three Guinness-Walker would flourish because he has less defensive responsibility and he has defenders that will cover him when he bombs on.
The perfect solution, in my opinion, is that we should play Tom McIntyre as the left-sided centre back. This will allow us to have the same understanding and threat that we do on the right side with Junior Hoilett and Andy Yiadom. This will give the chance for Guinness-Walker and McIntyre to combine, making overlapping and underlapping runs, causing the threat.
The other option that we have seen which arguably strengthens Guinness-Walker’s case is that, in the most recent game against Rotherham, we moved to a back four and he played as a conventional left-back. He still showed his ability to get forward - even in a four - something that allows us to get the link-up play with whoever is on the left. Whether that is Azeez or Tom Ince, this will help with chance creation and fixing the severe lack of good-quality chances that we have not given to the any of our strikers.
Do I think it’s something that will work long-term against the better teams? Potentially not, given Guinness-Walker’s fragilities defensively. However, you could play him against the lesser teams that wouldn’t be capable of exploiting the lack of positional awareness that Guinness-Walker shows, and then you can get the great attacking flair he can produce.
Overall I believe that Baba should be phased out; we should be looking at the future and giving Guinness-Walker a run of games from now until the end of the season and then rethink the left-back position if needed in the summer. If it works out, Guinness-Walker could also grow into a sellable asset - something that Reading need in order to become more sustainable.