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Reading's Best XI

In this semi-off season, there's obviously a great deal less football to dissect, but there's a topic that's always fun - squad depth. Considering where we are in the season I'll only be considering those with deals who run past June, with the exception of Ovie Ejaria who you would assume we'll pick up the option for.

So, what is Reading's best side?

Were I to be playing Football Manager the first thing I would do is attempt to filter out the best players; Those to centre the team around. In the Reading squad there are a few candidates for this, but I think there are two that stand out above the rest. Legitimate 'franchise players', were the term to have the same relevance in UK sport.

John Swift, and Michael Olise.

I will come to the glaring omission shortly, but, for me, these two are the primary talents at our disposal. Both are adept at pinging balls around, and both are young enough that - while easily good enough for the division - haven't reached their peak in either ability or resale value (unless somebody comes in with a bonkers bid for a wonderkid, obviously).

I was sceptical playing Swift in the deeper role because I feared it would stifle his output at the other end of the field. However, as I've touched upon numerous times at this point, he's not playing the same holding role as Pelé, which benefits him. Sure, he's not playing quite as many key passes, but he's still influential. Not only that but it allows us to build from deep, and frees up a slot for Rinomhota to shuttle between the boxes - something that Swift himself struggles with.

Olise is just a precocious talent. He's shown ability both with the ball at his feet, playing balls over the top of defences, and even defensively - where he's been asked to track the opposition fullback. At eighteen he looks a standout, and he's forced his way into the first team on merit.

So, what of Ejaria? Obviously, he's a great talent, but maybe a rung below these two. He's not as young as Olise, and he's not as good as Swift. He's great with the ball at his feet but often doesn't end up doing enough with it. (He averages an assist every 7.75 games, and a goal even less frequently.) His strength is clearly his technical ability, and when he can do that around the box he opens up space for other players, or he thumps it in himself. Watch his goals this season back, it's incredible the kid doesn't have more, but that's the issue. We've seen a couple of sumptuous through balls from deep, but always when the team are breaking.

So I think that it'd be good to push him further forward to get him in amongst the strikers - not wholly dissimilar to how he plays on the left of Bowen's current system, but allowing him more freedom to drift about the pitch.  A trequartista, if I'm using that word correctly.

To finish the midfield off we have Andy Rinomhota, who is himself fast becoming a key member of this team. His energy and ability to carry the ball, a la Danny Williams, progresses Reading up the pitch. Not only that, he makes more tackles than any other midfielder and is fouled almost as often as Olise is. He wins the ball, gets us up the pitch or alleviates pressure by winning a foul.

So, how do we fit four central midfielders fit into one system? A diamond is the obvious solution and actually fits the players quite well. Rinomhota, as already discussed, plays a box-to-box role, which means Swift can keep his role as the quarterback. Olise is better in transition than Ovie, so - while he probably plays ahead of Rinomhota, he's the second in the true midfield pair. That allows Ejaria to push up around the strikers, and make an impact at that end of the pitch.

This is already pretty similar to how Reading utilises the current midfield. The only differences being Olise and Meite start on the wing (although rarely stay there), and Ejaria lines up alongside Rinomhota rather than playing in the true CAM position. So here we've sacrificed a little bit of width but added the ability to play forward quicker.

The defence, in many ways picks itself. Obita and Blackett are out of contract at LB, Miazga's loan finishes, and Gunter - another leaving the club - was unlikely to challenge Yiadom for an extended period of time anyway. So that leaves us with Richards, Moore, Morrison, and Yiadom. McIntyre can then be eased into the team over the year to act as Morrison's replacement, and it's unlikely we'll need to extend the veteran defender's contract any further. Rafael is the only real choice behind them.

The last area to tackle is the strike force. After a rocky start, Puscas seems to be doing well, and Meite isn't far behind in the goal tally. Their partnership seems to be developing after their roles were more clearly defined; In the first few games together they were found occupying the same space too often. It is, however, only the Romanian that I would be picking out of the two. I think that Meite's main talent, and his main role in the current team, is to be a nuisance and to win aerial duels at both ends of the pitch. Goals that he gets are a bonus.

It's a role that Lucas Joao can also play, but more importantly, the big(ger) man is good on the ground too. Meite's pass percentage isn't just bad, it's abysmal. His 59.3% ranks him as easily the worst outfield player on the team. Joao's is a more respectable 73% -  he can bring other players into play, and he always seems to be in the right position to finish. He's second only to Puscas in minutes per goal (less than a minute and a half more than Baldock, but almost forty ahead of Meite), and it was only spells on the sidelines that have stopped him achieving more.

If Joao is as injury-prone as he seems, then there'll be more than enough chances for Meite off the bench. Will the Ivorian be content with that, given he's now 24 and has been one of the better performers in the last few seasons? I doubt it, but Reading do have to trim the squad, and Meite is not a bad option.

The final question is about how this team plays.  I actually think that it's not a massive leap from the current tactics. Reading would probably look to overload the left-hand side of the pitch - Richards would sit deeper, but still look to influence play. Yiadom would be attempting to stretch play on the other side, offering the cross-field pass. Rino, Swift, and Olise cycle through their positions, always leaving at least one back to stop any counter. Rino, in particular, has a job to do protecting Yiadom on the right.

Either Swift would look for vertical passes (calling it long ball is so unfashionable), or the midfield pair of Olise and Rinomhota would progress the ball forward. Whatever's easiest to get Joao and Ejaria in possession. Between them, they can unlock the defence. Puscas' sole focus is that of goalscorer. He no longer needs to link attacks, he's just trying to get in behind and put it past the keeper.

Defensively there are a couple of questions. We tend to play ten men behind the ball currently, which doesn't square with having three players whose primary focus is to attack. However, I'm confident that Rinomhota and Olise work hard enough to counteract fewer bodies. Swift, too, has actually been fairly adept in his defensive work on the whole.  Were we to be seriously overrun we could go to a flatter 4-1-3-2, with less impetus on Olise and Rinomhota to get forward, or even a 5-3-2, with Ejaria (or at least the player in Ejaria's position) being sacrificed for an extra defender. That gives the added benefit of freeing those at wingback to push on.

How does this team do? Well I'm firing up FM and I'll get back to you.


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