With Ruben Selles finally in place and rule breaches no longer a fixture on the EFL embargo page, the Royals are finally in a place to crack on with their summer recruitment. Harvey Knibbs and Sam Smith have already joined on free transfers.
After losing out on the first few weeks of preseason, Reading need to move quickly to bring players in for Selles to work with, but crucially it has to be with a plan in mind. It remains to be seen exactly how spend-happy the Royals can be, but regardless the club must leave behind the scattergun approach to recruitment that saw the bottom fall out of their Championship stay.
First though, where are we already strong for a Selles team?
The club somehow managed to stuff an airplane with 26 players for a pre-season trip to Spain, but make no mistake, this is a thin squad. After the somewhat surprising departure of Naby Sarr in June, and the less surprising departures of Yakou Meite and Tom Ince shortly after, Reading are left with just four or five regular starters from last season.
Tom McIntyre seems as though he could potentially do well under Selles, with his passing range likely to find him a place in the team - whether in midfield or defence.
Andy Yiadom should also expect to keep his place, though he has potentially the most promising youngster breathing down his neck in Kelvin Abrefa. Capable of both pragmatism and positive play, the captain seems a good fit for League One and for the responsible style Selles will likely implement.
Femi Azeez meanwhile will have to show that he can provide the work rate needed to succeed under Selles if he wants to continue his development in Berkshire. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from him though and he certainly seems like one who could flourish if he commits himself in the right way.
Outside of that however, Reading are clearly a little short. Centre back is a clear issue, with only Tom Holmes being truly trustworthy over a season in that position. Andy Carroll, while certainly a very nice option in the third tier, is not the typical kind of striker Selles likes to use. After Southampton spent tens of millions on 6”7’ Genk striker Paul Onuachu in January, Selles barely gave him a look-in, preferring faster and more energetic forwards.
No matter how Selles deploys Reading’s returning players, Mark Bowen will have to dip into the transfer market to complement the squad. As we have learned in recent years though, the best signings are aligned with a manager’s philosophy, and brought in to fit their play style. So what style is Selles most likely to want to deploy last season?
Selles is a coach who has played a familiar combination of the 4-2-2-2 formation and “Red Bull football” style of playing with the ball moved vertically quickly though the centre, and retrieved high up the field with an intense press.
Ralf Rangnick, one of the earliest innovators of the style, probably had the worst experience with bringing it to the Premier League. While his Red Devils team played for themselves more than the system, his principles (and some of the founding principles of Red Bull football) give us an idea of the style we may see next season:
- Act, don’t react - dictate with and without the ball
- Numerical superiority and direct play
- Use transitions - five seconds to win the ball back, 10 seconds to score
This has worked with various levels of success in the last decade. Red Bull Salzburg dominate their league through financial means as much as tactical, but Red Bull Leipzig’s style of play has been as influential as it is effective in recent years, taking them to the Champions League consistently.
Other managers using the style have struggled though, and the question remains as to how well this approach works in English football (usually in the Premier League). Ralf Hassenhuttl, the man Selles was brought into Southampton to coach alongside last summer, is probably the man who has managed a side to the most consistent period of success with the style, taking Southampton all the way to a brief flirtation at the top of the league during lockdown.
Jesse Marsch, who learned his craft with Red Bull New York before moving to Central Europe, had mixed results at Leeds United. The data liked him, showing his team created dangerous situations, but they consistently struggled to convert chances: a consequence that would eventually cost him his job. It’s unsurprising given his history though, that he almost walked straight back into the Premier League with the Southampton job ahead of Selles.
While there are some concerns about Selles’ tactical inflexibility and the 4-2-2-2 structure, the Spaniard did begin to experiment in the closing weeks of the season. During Southampton’s 4-3 loss to Nottingham Forest, Selles began to experiment with a 4-1-4-1 that became a 4-3-3 in possession. It also featured Ainsley Maitland-Niles in an inverted left-back position, pushing up into central midfield when Southampton had the ball.
Beyond the willingness this shows Selles has to use concepts from elite football, this shift could also provide a potential glimpse at how Reading may set up next season, with energetic forwards such as Knibbs and Azeez playing on the sides of a front three in possession, and dropping into a bank of four to press the ball high up the field when the ball is lost.
To fit that play style, Reading are going to need a few tactically minded additions this summer.
With the arrival of Knibbs and Smith, most recently of Cambridge United, we can begin to see an idea of what Selles might be looking for in his attacking players next season: work rate and pressing intelligence.
Further, they’re also good indicators of the age profile we should be aiming for with our summer recruitment. The club has gotten disappointing returns from older hands in recent years, with Danny Drinkwater, Jeff Hendrick and Scott Dann all having mixed to poor stays in Berkshire. On the other side of the spectrum, the club is lined with an interesting crop of youth prospects again, and doesn’t necessarily need to restock the farm, to use an American term.
Instead, the club should prioritise spending money (if available) on players with a few seasons under their belt, but still with room to grow. Knibbs is an excellent example of one such player.
While his career-to-date scoring rate isn’t going to excite some fans, it’s clear that this is a player who has grown into a role and now reached a crucial stage of his career. Knibbs started 30+ games in League One last year, continuing an upward trend throughout his career: a good sign that this is a player willing to learn. Indeed, even his goal-involvement rate wasn’t bad last year, with five goals and five assists getting him above one goal involvement per four games. For a player mostly tasked with being an energetic presence and leading the press, that’s a good sign.
With the above in mind, similarly situated players with a demonstrated improvement curve and an age profile to match Knibbs are an essential pickup this summer.
An exception to this rule would be a big name previously being rumoured for a surprise move to Berkshire. Former Southampton player Theo Walcott would be extending his time with his former coach Selles if he does join and, despite his age, the vote of confidence for Selles would be meaningful. This is a player who’s been around some of the best minds in the game during his long career. His experience would be a boon for Reading’s youth to learn from, and moreover It’s perhaps a sign that Selles’ presence could help the club to make better signings than we might expect.
Where, then, are Reading in most need for reinforcement?
Technically proficient left back
The club’s main remaining left-back option, Nesta Guinness-Walker, may be able to play in a technical inverted role but he feels like a better option for when Reading want to play with a traditional overlapping full back. It’s also possible we’ll see Tom McIntyre in that position but, regardless, a left-back is needed.
With Guinness-Walker’s strengths and weaknesses, and left-back not being McIntyre’s best position, we’ll want a strong defender first in that position and natural left-back, but also one who can be calm on the ball and under pressure. With the youth of our other options, this may be a chance for an experienced lower-league left-back to develop their technical game.
Reading have done well to add Knibbs and Smith to their striking corps as early as feasible in the window. The pair combined for close to 20 goals last year, but both are yet to consistently show they are top finishers at this level. Make no mistake though, these are fine pickups of players with plenty of League One minutes in their legs.
All that said, I do feel that Reading will still be a finisher away from a complete set of striking corps. Ehibhatiomhan seems a little too raw still for a breakout season, and Carroll may struggle to play the style of football that will keep him in Selles’ first XI.
Joao and Meite leaving the team is a lot of firepower to replace in one summer, and neither at their best can be replaced at this level. George Puscas, though he’s been gone for the best part of two years now, has also left this summer. The obvious upside to that loss is that funds should (hopefully) be available following his transfer to Genoa.
While it’s not atypical for sides under Selles’ playstyle to share the goalscoring around among hard-working forwards, clinical finishers always elevate a team and provide a focal point that can pull opposition defenders out of possession, opening up room for the system to create overloads elsewhere.
Having lost Sarr in the dead of night to the Middle East, Reading are suddenly left with just McIntyre, Holmes and Hutchinson as experienced centre backs in the squad. Even ignoring the respective issues there with injuries, that gives us a serious size disadvantage in the occasionally more industrial third tier. Moreover, it leaves the cupboard more bare than it has been in a while.
Reading find themselves in this mess by the virtue of allowing a lot of talent to slip through their fingers at this position in recent years, especially out of the academy. Gabe Osho, Jake Cooper and Rob Dickie are examples of that. However, while giving players such as John Clarke a real chance is well within our interest, we’re still a sturdier reinforcement or two short for the upcoming season if we want to challenge in the top half.
The wildcard here is Jeriel Dorsett. If the academy product and former Rochdale loanee can nail down a starting spot alongside Tom Holmes, then the starting centre back roles will be filled. Regardless, Reading’s squad will be light on centre backs, and in need of reinforcement.
However Selles decides to set up his team in terms of formation, Reading are going to need not one but two strong central midfielders. Having gone through a cavalcade of loan playmakers in recent years, Reading should start their rebuild by settling on two permanent players who can play both a six and eight role. Reading will be expected to play with a double pivot often next season, and need players they can rely on in that area.
Ideally, the club should be looking to buy players who can develop further while at the club, and triallists Luke Amos and Tivonge Rushesha (previously of QPR and Swansea City respectively) could be just that. Reading have done a poor job of recouping value from their often mercenary playing assets in the last decade. One would hope that Bowen is looking at players who could either stay at the club for a long time or bring in profit in lieu of that.
Lewis Fiorini on loan would help sure up that position for the next season, but you’d hope to see Bowen try to bring players in permanently as he was able to with Josh Laurent back in 2020.