Throughout this season it’s felt like there’s been a great, big, playmaker-shaped hole in the middle of Reading’s team. Michael Olise, John Swift and the Ovie Ejaria of a few years ago have all been conspicuous by their absence; Reading lack that stand-out bit of creative quality to dictate play, put the side on the front foot and create chances in the final third. The ever-hardworking Tom Ince has done his best, often being ‘the attacking midfielder’ in Reading’s XI (though that’s included various specific roles), but he’s a square peg in a round hole.
Looking to fill that void more convincingly is Cesare Casadei, who arrived on loan for the rest of the season from Chelsea on January 30. On the face of it he fits the bill as a specialist attacking central midfielder and he certainly moves to Reading with no shortage of hype surrounding his long-term future.
This will however be his first taste of proper men’s football. So what should we expect from him at Reading?
What kind of midfielder is he?
Casadei is versatile enough to play as a #6 (deep-lying midfielder), #8 (box-to-box midfielder) or #10 (advanced midfielder), but the consensus I pick up on from numerous writers is that he’s very much best as an #8 (according to CFC Central, Simon Johnson and James Horncastle - both of The Athletic).
Casadei’s playing style and qualities certainly make him a more attack-oriented than defensive option. In this deep dive on Casadei, which focuses on his time with Inter Milan’s under-19 side, CFC Central said he played as an #8 but “[functioned] as the primary link between midfield and attack”.
What really makes him stand out is his goal threat which, as Horncastle noted, was “more in common with a promising centre-forward” than a midfielder. In fact, Casadei hit a very impressive 14 goals in 30 league appearances for Inter Milan’s under-19 side last season. The secret to that record? His “intuitive movement and late runs into the box, displaying an impressive interpretation of where space is likely to open up”, as per CFC Central.
Perhaps inevitably, Casadei has drawn comparisons with Chelsea legend and all-round perfect example of ‘Midfielder Who Scored a Lot of Goals’ Frank Lampard. You can add ‘Midfielder Who Scored a Lot of Headed Goals’ Michael Ballack into the mix too: Casadei has developed a solid reputation for being a strong aerial threat.
Over to CFC Central who describe this trait as follows:
“Standing at just above 6’1, Casadei is a colossus in the air. He possesses a strong, well-timed leap — his ability to attack crosses and attacking set-pieces aggressively, coupled with ability to ghost in unmarked, is reminiscent of Michael Ballack.”
A perfect example of the above came in a goal scored during a 3-3 draw with Manchester United’s under-21s this season. Casadei had a decent delivery from the left wing to work with, but had to generate his own power while picking out the bottom corner, which he did expertly, thanks to a really well timed jump.
Otherwise, according to CFC Central, in possession Casadei is an accomplished passer with either foot, whether in a ‘pass and move’ setting or when looking to unlock an opposition defence with a through ball. He is however less adept as a ball carrier. Still, passing is a quality Reading haven’t had in their midfielders all that often in recent years.
Out of possession he’s no light touch. Horncastle describes Casadei as a “hard-working” #8 while CFC Central notes the youngster’s endurance and willingness to get stuck into challenges. Paul Ince will lap all of that up and it’ll hopefully make him keener to throw Casadei into the fray. Casadei should be ready for the gruelling physical demands of the Championship.
So how does he fit in at Reading?
He’s certainly a different kind of midfielder to the core options Reading have at the moment. Mamadou Loum is a holding player, Jeff Hendrick and Tyrese Fornah aren’t so strong going forwards and Tom Ince is very much a converted winger - not a specialist central attacking midfielder. Casadei therefore stands out for his natural offensive ability, well-rounded qualities and goal threat.
On paper he fills a similar(ish) role to Ovie Ejaria, who’s also best deployed as an attack-minded #8. But while Ejaria plays that part as a dribbler, looking to carry the ball upfield and take a man on, Casadei is more of a passer and outright goal threat - aspects where Ejaria has shown flashes of ability but little more. Regardless, Ejaria’s breach of club discipline in December and generally bad performances on the pitch mean he probably won’t be competing with Casadei for a spot in the side any time soon.
Casadei therefore has the potential to be a very consequential signing for Reading - one who can give the side extra dimensions that it would otherwise have lacked. But where specifically he plays is an important factor to consider.
In isolation, Casadei fits neatly into Reading’s current main formation of choice - the 3-5-2 - which generally consists of one deeper midfielder and two #8s, but has also been rejigged a few times recently to contain two deeper players behind a #10. So it’s easy for Casadei to slot into his preferred role (#8) but there’s also leeway for him to push further up (as a #10) or drop back (as a #6). Paul Ince will certainly appreciate that versatility.
The complication however is where Reading put Tom Ince, seeing as he’s a key component of the first team and one that so often plays as the side’s attacking central midfielder. There could well therefore be an overlap between Ince and Casadei. Going off what Paul Ince has opted for previously, there are a few viable options for playing them together:
- Play Tom Ince as a striker in the 3-5-2, leaving Casadei to play as a #6, #8 or #10 without any overlap. Given that this isn’t Tom Ince’s strongest position and Reading have plenty of options up top anyway, this isn’t ideal, but I’ve got a feeling that Paul Ince will be tempted by it.
- Play both Ince and Casadei as #8s in the 3-5-2. The simplest solution: cram two attacking players into the midfield three at the same time. Paul Ince has done this a couple of times before with Ejaria instead of Casadei, but not extensively. However, while it would give Reading more going forwards, using only one defensive midfielder (probably Hendrick) could leave the side a little lightweight.
- Play Casadei as a #6 in a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2. Reading could always drop Casadei deeper - most likely in some kind of double pivot rather than on his own, given his lack of experience. That’s ideal from the perspective of freeing up Ince as a #10 or winger, but it then reduces Casadei’s main quality: his goal threat.
Of those three options I’d prefer the second (it’s about time Reading went more attacking), but there’s an even better alternative if Paul Fancies ditching the back three.
Casadei’s arrival makes playing a back four significantly more feasible
Reading have only once started with a back four this season: a 4-1-4-1 at Vicarage Road which didn’t really work all that well. Paul Ince has also rolled out the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 as in-game alterations, but he primarily opts for some kind of 3-5-2 and secondarily goes for some kind of 3-4-3.
Given Reading’s high number of centre-back and striking options in the squad, choosing 3-5-2 in particular makes sense. 4-4-2 is probably the closest match for this group if you want to play a back four (Reading have wide players and strikers), but that leaves the middle of the park short on numbers. With no specialist central playmaker in the squad, playing a 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 doesn’t work that well - Reading would have just one centre-forward up top and no effective attacking midfielder behind in support.
That’s where Casadei comes in. Adding someone who can actually play as an attacking #8 or outright #10 - rather than a winger or deeper midfielder being shoehorned into an unfamiliar role - opens up more tactical possibilities.
Given his familiarity with the #8 role, I’d prefer the 4-3-3 with the youngster as the more attacking of two box-to-box midfielders in front of a holding player. That allows him plenty of license to get forward when required, protected by two other midfielders, but doesn’t place as big a creative burden on him as the #10 role would.
Reading have various options out wide and elsewhere in midfield, but which striker is best for Casadei to play off? Yakou Meite isn’t strong as a lone centre-forward and would probably be preferred as a winger in any back-four system by Paul Ince, while Andy Carroll is more of an outright target man but there’s overlap between his aerial ability and Casadei’s. Reading can and should opt for greater variety.
That leaves Shane Long and Lucas Joao. I’d be happy with either them starting up top on their own in principle but Joao is distinctly more durable than his veteran teammate and more of a goal threat. In turn that opens up the possibility of an effective attacking pairing between Joao - a striker who needs the ball into feet but can also feed other players - and Casadei - a technically gifted attacking midfielder who likes making runs into goalscoring positions. Joao’s also not an aerial threat but Casadei is.
On paper, Joao and Casadei complement each other nicely. It’s been a while since we had such an option in the squad who can bring more out of Reading’s best striker. Hopefully Cesare Casadei can fill that void.