Football is sometimes easier than it seems. Obviously, the team with the highest budget is most likely to win. However, there are other examples where a squad compiled with less money was pretty successful. It depends on the right “ingredients” which don’t necessarily need to be highly expensive. It is about cohesion on and off the field and leadership within the group. It is about tactical flexibility and how to get the opponent into trouble.
When we talk about our beloved Reading Football Club these days, we certainly have to include the financial situation. Other clubs can simply sign who they want. We, on the other hand, have to wait and see which players remain available on a loan or are without a contract. Not an easy task.
But if you do not have money to spend you have to be creative. To be fair, I think Mark Bowen and co already were that, to some point. We’ve made some good signings - Joe Lumley, Amadou Mbengue, Cesare Casadei to name only a few. But there are definitely areas where we need to find better solutions in the next season.
In my opinion, the composition of the squad is still too imbalanced, both in terms of the players’ skills and their character traits. Of course, we lack overall quality on the pitch. Again, here we collide with our financial restrictions. Nevertheless, I am referring much more to the different individuals, in general, a team should possess. Concerning the above-mentioned “key ingredients” I tried to highlight our main weak points.
Local heroes with whom the supporters can identify
Shane Long, Tom Holmes, Tom McIntyre
Let’s better start with a soft one. Although it is neither a football- nor character-related classification, I think it is crucial to have players like these in any squad. They are the connection to the fans and represent a certain identification with the values of the club.
With Long, Holmes and McIntyre, this is maybe the part where we are best positioned, although it would be nice to see some more youngsters from our academy making it into the first team, especially if you cannot spend a lot of money on new signings.
Leaders with experience
Scott Dann, Sam Hutchinson, Andy Carroll, Shane Long, Andy Yiadom
Here I see already some limitations. Without real leadership it is difficult to create a certain cohesion within the squad. Starting with Dann, to me he is not at Championship level anymore. By character he would be the perfect leader, but not with his fitness level. More or less the same goes for Hutchinson; someone with his injury record cannot be the head of a team. Carroll and Long both have the experience and character to lead a group. As strikers it is not easy though, especially if you are not always a regular starter, which is why I do not see them as an ideal cast.
And then there is Andy Yiadom. He was the logical choice for the captaincy in the summer. Honestly, I am happy with him being the club captain. The only problem is that his performances seem to have been affected negatively by the armband. Maybe it is the responsibility. Maybe it is some kind of extra pressure he feels. Not everyone is a born leader - it depends on the character. From an outside view, it is difficult to say whether he would be better without the captain’s band. That is for the manager and his staff to analyse. Still, my impression during this season is that he has felt too much burden on his shoulders.
I also added the experience factor to this, as Holmes and McIntyre could be included on the list as well. I just think it would be a bit too early. They are 23 and 24 years old, have been regular starters for only two or three seasons, and already feel the responsibility of being “one of our own”. To expect them to be our indisputable leaders in difficult times is too much. They still need someone on their side to support them, so that they can better focus on their performances.
Andy Yiadom, Baba Rahman, Nesta Guinness-Walker, Kelvin Abrefa
A big weakness of ours. Only Andy Yiadom represents an upper-Championship level. Baba Rahman has been a big disappointment. I really thought he was a good choice for the spot at left-back, so no complaints to Mark Bowen and Paul Ince.
My question is only this: for what reason have you signed Nesta Guinness-Walker? If he is Rahman’s backup then you should have given him a run of games already due to the lack of quality the Ghanaian has shown. If you think on the other hand that Guinness-Walker is not good enough for the Championship, then why have you signed him? McIntyre has done his best to perform at left-back, but that should only be an interim solution.
At right-back you could add Amadou Mbengue, although it is not his original position. He can fit in if needed. A real backup would have helped though. And in some way, the same questions regarding Guinness-Walker could be asked about Abrefa. I know he is only 19 years old, but when your regular starter (Yiadom) is injured, why not give him a chance? He certainly could not have done worse than others…
Aggressive midfield terriers à la Gattuso
There is little to say as we just do not have someone to occupy this role. Mamadou Loum is not that player and Jeff Hendrick… ehm no! Obviously, not every successful team has a Gattuso in their squad, but I somehow feel that, given the way we play and while looking also at our weaknesses, this is an element we are missing.
Cesare Casadei, Tom Ince
To make it clear from the beginning, Hendrick is not offering that needed creativity. I do not want to start criticising him - that is not the point here. He is just not the type of midfield player that feeds the striker with deep passes.
On the contrary, Casadei internalises all required attributes. The only problem is that he arrived three weeks ago and is only 20 years old! On Ince opinions differ. At least I have a more critical one. On the one hand, there are his footballing skills. He is definitely one of the strongest players we have got. He creates danger and can open up spaces with his energetic runs.
His behaviour on the other hand is a real problem. Especially when things are not going our way, his attitude is destructive. His head goes down, he shows frustration by waving his arms and starts complaining to his teammates. Someone like Ince Junior can be a real asset in a functioning squad, but in a fragile construction like ours, he can be Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Overall, we are definitely understaffed here as well.
Tom Ince, Femi Azeez, Junior Hoilett, Ovie Ejaria, Mamadi Camara
First, Tom Ince is for me more a winger than a creative midfielder. That is his ideal position. A position he has barely played in. Something that leads directly to the tactical system and is related also to the next category (speedy strikers).
In my opinion and simplifying things a bit, you have generally two styles of how you can play offensively: with tall, powerful strikers you should try and get many crosses from the wing into. Alternatively, if you have got rather speedy strikers, you should try to keep the ball on the ground and search for deadly passes through the middle. At least these are two major options.
In our case we have got Andy Carroll and Lucas Joao - in terms of headers and physical presence probably some of the best strikers in the league. The problems are: a) we nearly never play with wingers and b) we almost have no wingers in the squad. Apart from Ince there is Femi Azeez, who is 21 and started only once from the beginning (as a striker!), and there is Junior Hoilett, who had to help us out as a wing-back. That’s it.
Ovie Ejaria is out of favour and Mamadi Camara has not played a single league minute since our defeat at Rotherham United in Mid-August. Like above, you could question once more why Camara did not get a chance in any of the last matches where we were missing any kind of creativity down the flanks. Only Paul Ince might not…
Shane Long, Yakou Meite
Although Long is already 36, he is the one who gets closest to this type of player. Maybe a four- or five-year-younger version would do even better. Meite is dynamic, but not exactly a sprinter - someone like Leroy Lita or Adam Le Fondre who can beat the defender by speed.
We are lacking that option and, as a consequence, that is limiting our game a lot. We are too one-dimensional, too easy for the opponent to deal with. With Carroll up front and no wingers on the pitch, they know exactly what we will try to do. Nothing to fear. There is no flexibility. No sparkling moments.
So, what to do with all these weaknesses? Realistically my only hope is to survive this season and (dream of) doing it better next season - the same hope/dream I had in the summer of 2022, 2021, 2020… but what else can we do?
Despite all negative aspects, the current squad is stronger than its position on the table, although that has never been counted. We just need to get the ship over the line, and in the summer maybe do a fresh start with some new faces. Whether that means with or without Paul Ince is another topic… Come on Urzzzz!