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Alfa Semedo (and what his use says about Veljko Paunovic)

Alfa Semedo joined Reading as a defensive midfielder. Since arriving on loan he's played roughly 50% of minutes in the league, and yet has barely featured in his favoured position. Instead, he's been played predominantly behind the striker but also has featured off the right, or even up front.

Firstly, it's important to understand Semedo's role in the team before we get to Paunovic's reasoning.

First and foremost, he's a target in midfield. That gives more options when wanting to play long. It's particularly helpful when Reading look to stretch play vertically from goal kicks. The general pattern is that Semedo wins the header in midfield, and flicks on to Joao to hold up. Voila, Reading are now in possession in the opposition third. Easy as that. When Baldock plays... let's just ignore when Baldock plays.

That height is useful in crossing situations too. We've seen on more than one occasion his late runs into the box can create good chances, but he's not adept at converting. Reading make among the fewest crosses in the league anyway, but it's not just an asset from open play. He also provides a good target for set-pieces - which is the reason Paunovic gave for introducing him at Deepdale.

Alfa nicks in to set up Olise. The way he sets himself to make the challenge, combined with those long legs, mean he's odds on to get there first

He's incredibly good a stealing the ball away from players before they've managed to take control of possession. Most of his memorable moments in a Reading shirt actually stem from it. His two assists against Blackburn both came from nipping in to get the ball before the opposition player got there. Even the penalty he won against Bournemouth - where he was nominally in possession of the ball - was a succession of getting to the ball before B'mouth players.

Plus he's got surprisingly good close control, which can get him out of some tight spaces. Combined with his strength, that can help to open up the pitch on the counter attack. Against Stoke, before it all started going downhill, he used his body to roll past defenders well. Albeit, his control when moving is not quite of the same standard.

There are other obvious downsides to his game. Most are not his fault, but down to being asked to do a job he's evidently not suited for.

His passing is limited. Largely focusing on linking play, rather than attempting to be incisive. Even then, he seems to have lapses of concentration where simple passes go astray. He has the worst passing accuracy of any outfield player to play over a quarter of Reading's minutes so far this season. Semedo's 0.7 key passes per 90 is on par with Yakou Meite (who passes less than half as much) and Tomás Esteves. The other candidates at #10 (Ejaria, Swift, and Olise) all complete twice or thrice as much. When Ejaria and Olise flank him it's less important for him to be the creative force but given he's the central cog it can still be an issue.

Semedo doesn't realise Hylton is there, and plays the ball against him

And to compound that, his vision and awareness are poor. He rarely attempts to turn and can end up making passes to players that aren't there. Perhaps the biggest change from defensive midfield is having to face toward your own goal, rather than the opposition's, and that shows at times.

Even his defence can be ineffectual. Pressing players at the wrong times, or not being combative enough high up the pitch. When playing as the striker against Norwich there were a few occasions that he failed to put pressure on Norwich's centre-backs when they were facing their own goal - another difference from playing deeper. Against Millwall, he may as well not have been on the field and was removed at half time as a result.

So, what does any of this tell us about Veljko Paunovic?

Appearances in the starting XI

The way Veljko views Semedo is best summed up by his game time in relation to two players - Yakou Meite and John Swift. Semedo has only started in matches that Meite hasn't, except for three occasions. Rotherham and Blackburn, when Paunovic was using his 4-4-2 diamond / 4-3-3, and Millwall - where Semedo was hooked at half-time. He also found himself back on the bench as soon as Swift recovered.

The reason behind having one of Meite or Semedo is clear. If Semedo's job is to win headers and be an auxiliary goal threat from midfield then it treads on the toes of Meite - who does both jobs more effectively from the flank. Semedo isn't suited to playing wide, as the manager seems to want players cutting inside from the right-wing and threatening the goal. Meite, Olise and Aluko have all taken up that role during the season. Alfa, being right-footed with very little threat, doesn't fit the brief. Admittedly, he has very rarely been deployed down the right, and on those occasions, he was mainly there to add an aerial presence.

Reading use Holmes as the out ball, and have players ready to pick up the second ball

When it comes to Swift, Paunovic clearly feels that there's nobody in the team who can bring the ball out of defence as well as he can. We've seen the midfielder rotate into that defensive midfield screen in order to help move the ball forward, lessening the need to be direct and by extension lessening the need for Semedo. Even without Meite (the two have not played together purely by chance this season) having Joao up front still allows a direct pass. Tom Holmes is also occasionally utilised as an option on the right flank from goal kicks or set pieces to offer an alternative.

Apart from a select couple of occasions (Norwich in particular), it's hard to believe Semedo was in the side because of his defensive skill. It's a useful asset, but the willingness to play Swift highlights that Paunovic isn't looking for a defensive force. As does the fact that Semedo effectively replaces Yakou Meite (also not a defender first).

So Semedo is in the team to aid ball progression when Reading don't have a skilled #10. Veljko seems to want a technically proficient passer behind the striker. Even when Swift wasn't playing, there was a stretch Olise started with Meite out wide (let's not get into trying to understand why he was benched quite so much). 

Paunovic seems well aware of the loanee's limitations, as is shown by the fact that he's not been a mainstay in the side by any stretch. Semedo isn't some pet project Veljko has, to him it's born out of necessity. Whether we move toward a player who can do both roles will be interesting - Paunovic had one in his Serbian U20 side in Sergej Milinković-Savić, but his current price tag should indicate how in demand a player like that can be.

Above all, it shows that Paunovic's teams, as much as he may like to spin to contrary, are not just possession sides. They require a more direct aspect that true possession team would baulk at. This is obvious to Reading fans, who are constantly berating the need to play Sam Baldock up top. Maybe that's a consequence of the team Paunovic has at his disposal. It'll be interesting to see what happens if he ever does manage to get some traction in the transfer market, but given his previous teams all had the exact same trait I wouldn't expect to see much change.

So what Semedo really tells us is that Paunovic does not want Semedo at all.


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