After a number of transfer windows to forget in the last few seasons, the summer of 2015 has been a record-breaking transfer period for Reading FC. Rewind to a few months ago and concern would be the overriding feeling amongst Royals fans. With a team struggling to find goals, and subsequently finishing in a perilous league position, Reading fans were relying on this transfer window to bring in at least one decent striker.
In reality, thanks to the ceaseless enthusiasm and backing from the Thai owners, Steve Clarke has managed to bolster the squad beyond any expectation. The Reading manager brought in thirteen new faces, although a fair few are on a season-long loan, and many will now be believing that the Berkshire side will be challenging for promotion come the end of the season. You would imagine that, considering the multi-millions that have been invested in the club in this window, anything less would be deemed a failure.
While the vast majority of Reading fans are excited to see the new players in action as soon as possible, there have been some concerns that perhaps there are now too many players on the books. Squad harmony is not something that can be created overnight and subsequently it may take some time for the players to click. While this is true, anyone who is aware of Reading’s luck with injuries in recent seasons will know the importance of having quality options in reserve. Not only that, increased competition amongst the ranks can only be a good thing if the side are to cut out lacklustre individual performances.
Reading’s heroic performances in the FA Cup last year were the glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark, disappointing season. With the Royals’ squad in the condition it is currently, Clarke will surely also be hoping to progress in both Cup competitions as rotation is now plausible.
The only downside to the capture of a number of quality players is the subsequent impact on the academy products. Prior to the start of the new season the likes of Tariqe Fosu, Dominic Samuel and Jake Cooper would all have been particularly optimistic of making a breakthrough into the first team. Aaron Tshibola has been a stand-out amongst the youngsters playing in the first team so far, and seems to be the current exception, but it will be interesting to see if he can appear consistently in the first team. Michael Hector is testimony to the Reading academy and has demonstrated exactly what you can achieve if given the chance in the first team. Many of his fellow academy graduates, however, will probably now have to wait a while longer for their chance to impress.
What can be said, however, is that it may be a little while until Reading fans can see all their new signings in action and until Clarke’s ideal starting line-up is ready to go. Whether this is due to fitness or team chemistry it will be important for the Reading manager to not throw the new arrivals in at the deep end. Clarke’s team choices so far would suggest that there is no risk of that. Early signings Orlando Sa, Paul McShane and Stephen Quinn have all particularly impressed while Alex Fernandez and Paolo Hurtado have yet to be handed a start in a Reading shirt while they work on their fitness. Deadline day signings Lucas Piazon, Matej Vydra and Ola John all made their first appearances in a Reading shirt against Ipswich and will be hoping to build on that next time out.
While it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly will be Reading’s best starting line-up at this early stage, with a number of players yet to make their debut, here is my evaluation of Reading’s options.
Goalkeeper (Ali Al-Habsi, Jonathan Bond)
Despite the errors that crept into Adam Federici’s game from time to time, he was always going to be a difficult player to replace mainly due to his consistently impressive distribution. Reading now have the option of experience or youthful exuberance in Ali Al-Habsi or Jonathan Bond. If early performances are any indicator of form, both are capable of moments of weakness (to put it kindly) but out of the two Bond is the one I would opt with. At his age he definitely has the potential to improve, especially under the guidance and expertise of Dave Beasant, and if he is able to sort out that kick of his then they could be onto a winner.
Right-Back (Chris Gunter)
With such an abundance of options in other positions, Chris Gunter appears to be the only senior right back available to Clarke. Luckily, with his willingness to get forward, Gunter performs well in this role and even scored himself a goal in the Cup. I’m sure the likes of Hector or maybe Andrew Taylor could cover the role if need be, but Gunter is the clear first choice in the right-back position.
Centre-Back (Paul McShane, Anton Ferdinand, Michael Hector, Jake Cooper, Niall Keown)
For Hector to practically be kept out the team after his performances towards the end of last season, there must be some special performances occurring from his fellow centre-backs so far this season. Anton Ferdinand and Paul McShane have been key to the Reading side in the opening fixtures and are providing strength and experience to a back four that has previously been vulnerable. Hector has recently been purchased by Chelsea and loaned back to the Royals but you feel he may be used in rotation with Ferdinand and McShane being the main choices.
Left-Back (Jordan Obita, Andrew Taylor)
In a time when Reading’s options out wide were limited through injury, Obita was someone that the side increasingly relied on for pace and creativity on the flanks. For a while many were calling for him to play as a winger but Clarke has clearly decided his best position is in defence. Until the signing of Taylor, Obita was the main left-back at the club and faced little in the way of competition. Now Reading are in the stronger position of having cover in that particular area, but you feel that Obita will still be the favourite to keep the left-back spot for the majority of the season barring injury.
Central Midfield (Oliver Norwood, Danny Williams, Stephen Quinn, Aaron Tshibola, Alex Fernandez)
Now this is where decisions become difficult to make. With so many possible combinations available to Clarke in the attacking area of the pitch, the world is his oyster when it comes to choosing formations. Whether it’s a 4-5-1, 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2, 3-5-2 etc. etc. Clarke has a calibre of players at his disposal who are capable of adjusting to any formation. There was a time when I cried at the thought of Reading playing with a single striker but with the pace now available both on the wings and up front, the Royals should now be able to hold their own.
When it comes to central midfield it would be easy to assume that Tshibola will now be used as cover, but his performance against Ipswich in particular could suggest otherwise. Clarke has definitely seen something in him and he could yet feature on a more prominent basis than originally expected. As for Fernandez, I have not seen enough of him yet to be able to make an informed judgement but based on the performances of Norwood, Quinn and Williams so far I would say that it will be difficult for him to appear consistently in the starting XI.
If opting for a midfield five then clearly Clarke will be able to accommodate three central midfielders, whether that’s one in the defensive position and two pushed forward or vice versa. In a midfield four, however, obviously someone will be missing out. Against Ipswich, Clarke opted to play Quinn on the wing which worked surprisingly well. With so many wingers now at the club, however, I don’t see this as his main position this season. Based on early performances from Norwood, Quinn, Williams and Tshibola, Clarke could opt with any of them in his team and be fully confident of them putting in a shift for the team.
Wingers (Garath McCleary, Paolo Hurtado, Lucas Piazon, Ola John, Jack Stacey, Tariqe Fosu)
Garath McCleary demonstrated what Reading were missing when he made his return to the squad against Portsmouth following his injury. Over the transfer window, however, Reading have certainly strengthened in the wide areas. As with many of the youngsters, you would imagine the likes of Stacey and Fosu will continue to play for the U-21s or go out on loan. That leaves McCleary, Piazon, John and Hurtado to fill the two wide positions.
Again having not seen Piazon, John or Hurtado play for a fair period in a Reading shirt yet it is difficult to know who will fit best in the team. What can be said, however, is that between the four of them there is plenty of pace available to Clarke. As a known quantity, McCleary may be favourite to take one of the positions when fully fit.
Since the arrival of Vydra and Sa, Clarke has also seemingly returned Blackman to the wide position. Against Ipswich he was particularly impressive and may just have made that position his own. While I’m sure he would prefer to play in the striking role, he may be the one to edge the likes of Piazon, John and Hurtado out the starting lineup. You can be certain, however, that they will be doing all they can to impress the manager and grab any opportunity to make an impact with both hands.
Strikers (Orlando Sa, Matej Vydra, Nick Blackman, Hal Robson-Kanu, Simon Cox, Dominic Samuel)
Reading have been crying out for a consistent striker for what feels like forever. The latest transfer window has potentially brought in exactly that. During his two seasons in the Championship with Watford, Matej Vydra scored 20 and 16 league goals respectively. Previous strikers at Reading who have contributed similar numbers include Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Dave Kitson, Nicky Forster, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Adam Le Fondre. The most recent of these, however, left prior to the 2014/15 season. If Vydra can replicate his previous Championship form at Reading then he will surely be the missing piece to the puzzle. For this reason, of course he should start consistently.
Orlando Sa is the other clear choice up front for me. With Vydra, the duo have arguably the best attacking partnership with Sa’s hold up play and Vydra’s pace. Against Ipswich, Sa in particular showed what he is capable of and brought the goals back to the Madejski. As previously mentioned, Blackman would probably prefer to be playing in the striker position but if Reading can play with Sa, Vydra and Blackman all in the team then it will serve them well.
In terms of the other players, I personally don’t see them as Reading’s immediate best options. Samuel is currently out injured but will struggle to make any breakthrough into the first team unless there are a multitude of injuries. Simon Cox, meanwhile, has become a forgotten figure at the club and the arrival of Sa and Vydra has only forced him further down the pecking order.
As for Hal Robson-Kanu, I just don’t know where he fits in. The Welshman has mainly featured on the wing for Reading but his performances there have been lacklustre to say the least. His goals in the FA Cup last season demonstrated his goalscoring ability so perhaps with many options now available on the wing he will be given the chance to operate in a more central role this season. As far as strikers are concerned, however, there are still better players ahead of him in the pecking order in my opinion. Based upon his form in the Cup last season, therefore, Robson-Kanu may be best suited to helping the side advance in the FA Cup and Capital One Cup competitions.
Thanks for reading and feel free to share your opinions on who you think will be Reading’s stand-out performers this season in the comments box below!