Reading kept hold of their match-winners
This is the most important positive from the January transfer window. Reading have four key attacking players who are capable of providing match-winning moments (and have done so already in their time with the Royals): Femi Azeez, Lewis Wing, Harvey Knibbs and Sam Smith.
Despite the fears of a mass sell-off that would include the above players, all stayed put. Reading reportedly had interest in all four of them and, whatever the precise reasons for declining sales, it was vital that they did so.
Most of the Deadline Day speculation was around Azeez, who was strongly linked with a move to Plymouth Argyle. Admittedly I had a bit of a heart-attack a couple of times, seeing differing reports/rumours that he was on his way to the Championship club, but ultimately he stayed put.
As did Wing, Knibbs and Smith, and to be honest I’m surprised there wasn’t more speculation about those three leaving. Wing in particular is at least top-end League One standard, if not Championship standard, so would have been a shrewd acquisition for a number of clubs.
To stay up this season, Reading will need to be able to roll out the formula of ‘keep things tight and then grab a goal or two from a moment of magic’. We won’t always be at our best (obviously), so will need to be able to fall back on individual ability: think of Azeez’ winner against Exeter City and Wing dragging us back into the game at Cheltenham Town as two examples.
Flogging the future to save the present
The most important negative from the January window though is the long-term cost of Reading’s transfer activity. There’s a clear theme in who the Royals have cashed in on: young, talented players with long-term potential who’ve been developed in the academy. Say goodbye to Nelson Abbey (20), Caylan Vickers (19), Taylan Harris (18) and Cameron Frederick (16). Tom Holmes (23) and Tom McIntyre (25) are more experienced so don’t quite fit this bracket, although there are similarities.
In a brighter world, we’d have been able to see Abbey, Vickers and co develop here at the very least until the end of this season before being sold for a bigger fee in the summer. Better yet, hold onto them for a few years and watch their long-term evolution at Reading.
Sure, there’s a level of inevitability to seeing some young players leave. Reading frequently sell under-18s to bigger clubs: Luca Fletcher and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens to Manchester City for example. If a youngster is rated highly enough to attract suitors before they’re proven at first-team level, Reading will struggle to keep hold of them, regardless of ownership stability.
And you certainly can’t begrudge any of them for joining the clubs they’ve joined. Abbey heads to Olympiacos (and maybe then on to Nottingham Forest), Vickers to Brighton & Hove Albion (who have a fantastic record of developing and then selling talent), Harris to Premier League side Luton Town, and Frederick to Southampton - a club with an excellent academy.
Abbey aside, there’s not too much of a short-term hit to Reading’s strength. Vickers, Harris and Frederick were probably each at least one full season away from being able to consistently impact games at League One level.
But this all comes at a long-term cost. Even if everything goes well on and off the pitch from here, Reading will need younger players to step up next season and beyond that. And emotionally too, it’s gutting to see so many cases in quick succession of Reading’s talent being poached by higher clubs.
I understand it pales in comparison to more pressing issues but the sale of Taylan Harris is a hint of how long we'll feel the aftershock of Dai's mismanagement of this club provided we still exist in a few years.— Jordan Cottle (@JordanCottle) February 1, 2024
Clinton Mola and Amadou Mbengue are suddenly really important
Reading lost some really useful first-team-quality defensive options in the January window, cashing in on Abbey and McIntyre without securing loan-backs for either, unlike the sale of Holmes. Excluding players with little to no experience outside academy football, that leaves Reading with a back four of Andy Yiadom, Holmes, Tyler Bindon and Jeriel Dorsett, and just two backups: Clinton Mola and Amadou Mbengue.
It’s safe to say that, even without any injuries, both will get a lot of football in the remainder of the season. Any side will have to rotate substantially in the intense run of matches coming up, but that’s particularly true of Reading, a side which loves to bring on full-backs in the second half of games to maintain energy levels.
Are Mola and Mbengue up to the challenge? On the one hand, encouragingly both are energetic players with a decent amount of potential, and their versatility (each can play anywhere across the back four) will be handy. But we’ve also seen too many error-strewn performances from them, and at this level mistakes get punished.
As is Ben Elliott
Ben Elliott hasn’t really been in the conversation recently, due to heading off to AFCON for a few weeks with Cameroon, but he’ll soon be a key option for Reading. Vickers’ departure leaves Elliott as the only real creative option on the bench, and that’ll surely mean plenty of game time for him.
It’s safe to say we’ve not consistently seen the best of Elliott just yet, with the summer signing demonstrating flashes of potential but struggling to convincingly influence games. Some of that’s been due to a lack of experience (he’s only just out of Chelsea’s academy remember), while the wide roles in the 4-2-2-2 and the 4-1-4-1 don’t really suit him.
So Reading’s recent move to 4-2-3-1 brings possibility for Elliott to kick on. An injury to Knibbs would immediately give him a starting spot in a (probably) ideal 10 role, and even being used out wide in this formation - that bit narrower than in the 4-1-4-1 - could work.
Zane Monlouis could be an ideal replacement for Nelson Abbey
Reading only brought in one new player in January, signing Zane Monlouis on loan until the end of the season. Style-wise he’s a left-sided centre-back, progressive in possession, able to bring the ball forward with a pass or dribble.
Sounds a fair bit like Abbey really, doesn’t it? There are some differences of course - Monlouis is less experienced than Abbey and right- rather than left-footed - but they have broadly similar profiles.
That brings a couple of encouraging possibilities. For a start, having some effective build-up play from the left side of defence will provide more variety in possession. Reading don’t really get this from Jeriel Dorsett at left-back or current left-sided centre-back Holmes. It would have come from McIntyre (in either position).
Signing a left-centre-back also makes sense for our other options. Holmes and Bindon can both play on either side of a pairing, but are stronger on the right, particularly in possession.
Annoyingly, Reading couldn’t move on all their deadwood
The last thing Reading need at the moment is deadwood in the squad: players who are being paid but can’t/won’t contribute to the team. Reading have at least made some progress on this front, releasing Ovie Ejaria and loaning out both Dean Bouzanis (deal at Sutton United extended) and Nesta Guinness-Walker.
We’re still left with Harlee Dean and Sam Hutchinson though. Alongside Andy Yiadom and David Button they’re Reading’s only 30-something players, and their vast amount of experience should have been invaluable for a young squad needing to grind out points wherever possible.
In reality they’ve added little this season, both underperforming in the first few months before being shut out of league action after the 3-2 defeat at Shrewsbury Town. Remember: that’s the game which Hutchinson reacted to in post-match comments by having a go at his own teammates.
There have been some glimmers from both since. Hutchinson played against MK Dons and Charlton Athletic in the cup and then recently appeared for the under-21s against Chelsea, while Dean played against Eastleigh in the cup and made the bench for the Exeter City win and Charlton cup match.
As things stand though, both are wasted wages. Reading aren’t getting any value out of either at first-team level; it’s so telling that younger options have consistently been chosen ahead of them in the matchday squad and a rookie centre-back in Monlouis was brought in. Moving Dean and Hutchinson on wouldn’t have been easy (there won’t have been many suitors willing to take their wages on), but it would have been a pain-free way to cut the wage bill.