When the idea of Lucas Joao going to Everton was suggested on transfer deadline day, a fierce debate erupted about whether Reading should cash in on the frontman. For some Reading fans this is impossible to consider. Joao remains our most prolific striker, and even if he’s not currently getting game time, his contributions down the stretch - even if few and far between - could be vital.
For others though, it appears that for reasons that pertain both to Joao himself and the current situation of the club, the tricky finisher who once came close to hitting 20 goals in a season is long gone.
We all remember early 2020/21 Lucas Joao. His twisting-turning goal against Bournemouth capped off a wonderful rise to prominence as one of the Championship’s classiest strikers. Just about the only thing that could slow Lucas down in his earlier Reading tenure was a series of injuries.
Indeed, it’s only because he played so well in this period that we can consider Joao’s two seasons since to be a regression. 2021/22 came with 10 goals in 24 appearances - not bad by any measure, and it included crucial goals against Sheffield United and Swansea City during a scoring streak around Easter that saw him bag four in three.
Come 2022/23 though, and the once undroppable striker has started just 11 matches and struggles to force his way into Paul Ince’s plans with regularity. When he does play, a desire to see him “work harder” and contribute more to the team performance has helped hamper his attacking output.
With Joao having seemingly been on the downward slope for so long, it’s odd to think that we’re less than two years removed from the penalty miss against Preston North End that seemingly kicked Lucas out of his hot run of form in Reading colours.
Later on of course, there was the miss at Barnsley that helped end Reading’s playoff hopes for good. Since this moment, Joao has scored 16 goals in 52 Championship games - little under a goal every three games. That’s still the best tally of any Reading player in that time, but the rate has been steadily trending downward throughout.
So there’s a legitimate argument to be made that Joao’s performances in a Reading shirt have gone downhill. What I think is less clear is why that is. In the FIFA generation of football watching, there’s a temptation to see player quality in any given situation as possible to be represented by a number. Players with scores of 90+ on FIFA are considered the “best” in the world.
In the real world though, a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic factors contribute to a player being in good or poor form at any time. In the context of football, extrinsic factors are those that are out of a player’s control, whereas intrinsic factors are within the player’s control.
We see extrinsic factors represented in players having seemingly dramatic changes in form when the context of their career changes, whether that be from a move, a managerial change or even a personal situation.
You only have to look at Joe Lumley to see an example of this. Though I’ve not been as thrilled with Lumley as some this season, it’s clear that the perception is he’s playing “better” than he was with Middlesbrough last year.
Jeff Hendrick is another good example. Long considered a reasonable Premier League player and key as the 10 in Sean Dyche’s system, this year he’s both disappointed and failed to be given a clear role in the team by Paul Ince.
Intrinsic factors are the things a player can control. Their innate talent, attitude to hard work and self-motivation to win are good examples of this. Perhaps Dele Alli is the best recent example of a clearly talented player who’s allowed intrinsic factors to derail his career, having spurned several opportunities given by multiple managers to improve his attitude.
At times, Joao has given the impression of a luxury footballer. Under Veljko Paunovic it was common to see Joao throw himself into the attacking side of the game, only to moan and drop his shoulders if the basics such as his hold-up play weren’t working for him. This season though, Paul Ince has noted the improvement of Joao’s in-game effort, and there seems to be no sign of clear discontent from a player who likely wants more game time.
Though there are certainly intrinsic factors that have led to Joao falling out of favour, including his perceived inability to hold the ball up and only recently improving defensive effort, it seems clear to me that a host of extrinsic factors have contributed to his decline.
Joao is a goalscorer and a natural finisher. Given even a half-yard of space inside the penalty box, we’ve seen him put the ball in the back of the net more often than not. The issue is that Reading have failed to give Joao that space when they have played him this season, whether that be through gameplan or creative ability.
This can be seen statistically through a significant drop-off this season in his shots, dribbles, and key passes per game.
- In shots per game, Joao’s average has remarkably dropped more than 50% from 2.1 over the previous two seasons to 0.8 this season
- In dribbles per game, Joao has dramatically regressed, completing just 0.2 this season vs at least 1 in each of his previous seasons
- In key passes per game, Joao has fallen from an average of 0.9 in his first two seasons to 0.4 this season
All of this together tells the story of a player who has been given sparingly few chances to put his best qualities on show this season.
Part of the frustration with Joao comes from the perception that, when he doesn’t score, he doesn’t offer a whole lot else. That may be a little unfair though. Yes Joao doesn’t cover as much ground as Shane Long or Yakou Meite, but he’s behind only the Irishman in defensive actions (tackles and interceptions) per 90.
What’s more, he’s improving his usefulness to the squad in this regard, with his rate of defensive actions skyrocketing since Paul Ince took over the Royals.
The issue with all of that is clear though: asked to defend more and deeper, Joao is finding himself in spaces on the field in which he can express his attacking talent less frequently than ever before. Joao is a player who thrives on playing off teammates around him or being given space to run. His brace against Huddersfield Town in 2020/21 demonstrated his best qualities perfectly.
I therefore think it’s fair to argue that John Swift’s departure disrupted Joao’s supply more than initially expected.
The system that has worked best for Joao was Pauno’s 4-2-3-1, in which Joao led the line by himself, with Swift usually in the #10 role behind him and Meite in particular steaming down the right flank to support Lucas. In that formation, Joao was able to use his short-passing skill in small spaces to help create and score. In his hottest form, Joao’s quick feet and ability to bounce off other players saw him glide around the penalty box.
Perhaps there’s hope that some of that magic could be rekindled with the addition of Cesare Casadei to the team, but this would require a shape change from Paul Ince and the coaching staff. Reading have alternated between a 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 as basic structures this season, but have yet to give a player a run in the team as a clear number 10.
Hendrick, previously a 10 under Dyche as previously mentioned, is another option there if we want to try to develop some chemistry between Joao and a midfielder. It’s currently unclear whether Hendrick can still run that role though, so he may not be an option Ince wants to consider.
Whatever happens with Joao, it’s clear that his situation has become endlessly complicated, and there’s no one party to blame for his falling out of favour. With his contract running out in the summer, it’s unclear whether he’ll be here in 12 months time in any case, but if we want to have a chance of re-signing him, then he’ll need a run in the team to prove he’s still the main man at Reading.
Joao will need to continue to improve his work rate in order to get that run, but if he does get it, the team should strive to put the right situation around him in order to help him succeed. Perhaps if Reading can secure safety before the final month of the season then experimentation with a number 10 could help that. Perhaps we even have that solution in the team now with Cassadei.
In any case, if we don’t try to get him rolling in the team again and let Lucas walk for free in the summer, his time at the club will be remembered bittersweetly. He’ll have been a player who arrived in Berkshire with a bang, but ultimately gone out with a fizzle.
And if Joao gets another proper chance, but still can’t do it then well… we’ll always have Bournemouth (H).