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Replacing Omar Richards

In the summer team report I wrote: "we really don't want to be going into 2021/2022 without any LBs so a new contract for Omar has to be on the agenda early". And yet, that seems to be exactly what's happening with Richards set to depart for pastures new. Whether he goes to Bayern Munich or not, bigger clubs are circling. There's a couple of options internally, and the club are also looking elsewhere.

Ethan Bristow

The youngster has been the go-to left-back for cup matches and tends to start for the U23s. He's been brought onto the bench since Richards' injury, but has found himself behind Gibson and McIntyre in the pecking order.

Bristow's little run inside drags the right-back narrow, and gives Aluko space to attack

He has good vision to spot a pass, and often plays them first time to not allow the defence to put him under pressure. That's normally followed by an intelligent run, and not always to get the ball - sometimes he simply pulls a defender out of position to create space for someone else. He's comfortable running inside or outside, depending on who's playing in front of him. I'd like to see him back himself in possession a little more, when he does he can beat players with pace or skill.

Bristow still needs to work on his forward runs off the ball - there's so much space to attack here.

As to be expected given his tender age, he doesn't always make the right decisions. Sometimes he tries playing through players in front of him, but in general, he's still tentative carrying the ball forward with any level of pressure. And while he's adept at his give-and-gos, his offensive positioning could be improved. 

That can party be explained by the fact that in his senior career so far he's been focusing on keeping it tight defensively. Even when he is caught out, he has the speed to recover. Disappointingly in both Luton games you could argue he should have done more for the goals, being outjumped at the back post in the league cup and not stopping the cross for the winner in the FA Cup - although he needed more cover from those in front of him for the latter.

Bristow isn't expecting the flick from Lawless, and was turning back rather than continuing his run into the box.

Occasionally he completes his action and doesn't anticipate the next, and for a side that relies on its spontaneity at times that needs to improve. For example, he'll pass into a player and not make the run for the return ball, or half-complete a tackle and think the job's done.

Also he can do this:

Honestly, I'm pretty high on Bristow. The main drawback is that his contract runs out this summer too.

Imari Samuels

The other young promising academy left-back. Samuels is younger than Bristow and has an England U17 call up under his belt. The Royals have been itching to get him involved, to the point that in 2018 he was the reason Reading were expelled from the FA Youth Cup after he played aged 15; before he was eligible. Since stepping up to the U23s in 2020 he's been forced to play largely out of position. His lack of playing time means it's slightly harder to form a valid opinion.

Bowen's main use for Samuels was as a wing back, supporting attacks

Samuels over the summer seemed to be Bowen's second-choice left-back but has dropped down the order slightly. His ability to get up and down the pitch perfectly suited Bowen's requirements for a wing-back in his 3-6-1 system, but is less important for Paunovic.

He takes up a nice position, in case McIntyre is caught out by the ball

He reads the game well, and, like Bristow, has a good sense of positioning. It's noticeable how well he does little things - like covering the centre back when he goes up for a header or fills in centrally if the CB has pushed out to a player wide.

He's not panicked by Crawley's press, instead he plays a ball into Tetek in the centre and takes out three players.

I have yet to see (note, not suggesting that he doesn't have them given the limited amount of video) the same sort of ability on the ball as Bristow, though he's clearly composed with the ball at his feet. His passes don't progress play as much but his vision is impressive, often enabling him to play out of tight situations.

Samuels, at just 17, is one for the future. There's still parts of his game that need to be improved, but importantly, those in the know think there's a player there. Just the fact he's basically the only left-back contracted beyond this year puts him in a strong position.

Cohen Bramall

The case for bringing in an established player is clear, and the twenty-four year old has been playing regular minutes in League Two over the past two seasons.

He's Colchester's main set-piece taker, and has a more consistent end product generally. So far at Colchester he has 8 assists in 43 league games which is a pretty decent return. He also has a couple of direct free-kick goals, including one in the delayed play-offs at the end of last year. 

Bramall's usual move is to play into the winger and go beyond them

Colchester are more direct in attack, with wingers on both sides, and therefore Bramall's job is different than Richards'. He'll consistently look to go down the line, and usually run beyond the winger - although he is intelligent enough to hold back if the striker has come across to occupy the space instead. If the ball is on he'll also play long into the channel for others to run onto. 

Reading fans should already be well versed in his main strength, as he sprinted down the left side in the opening game of this season before pulling across to Jevani Brown, but that shouldn't mask the fact he's not a particularly good dribbler. He can step round a player or attack space well enough but in tighter spaces tends to end up running into defenders. Under pressure he normally tries to go long down the line rather than retaining possession

Bramall lets McNulty get the wrong side of him, and the striker can use his strength to stop Bramall getting to the ball

He's also got a few weaknesses defensively. He can be caught underneath switches in play and is a little lazy when it comes to tracking players. He has a tendency to allow the man to get the wrong side of him, only to use his pace to recover (which he does well). Even when he has clear sight of problem situations arising, he tends to stick to the initial task rather than adapting with play.

Bramall lets a cross come into the box. He's been slightly distracted by the run outside, and opened space for the winger just to play the ball straight in.

His defending one-on-one also needs improvement. Players can cut inside him easily, and seemingly fool him with the slightest footwork. He's also not particularly adept at stopping players getting crosses into the box, although in Reading's system he'll have a lot of help from the winger in front of him.

The key to bear in mind is that Bramall's mistakes come in an environment where Bristow and Samuels are entirely unproven. They could end up being much worse at senior level than their youth career suggests. And maybe Reading don't need a Richards clone, if they can utilise Bramall's skillset and have Laurent effectively cover, then maybe that opens up more options for Reading offensively.

John Kitolano

My shout is for John Kitolano, a twenty-one-year-old Norwegian who's currently with Wolves' U23s. Given Brexit has significantly shrunk the talent pool English teams can recruit from, sometimes you have to think outside the box. Although he's made no senior appearances in England since his arrival in 2018 he spent last season on loan in the Eliteserien (the Norwegian top flight), split between Molde and Odd. The best part being his contract at Wolves expires in June, and so should be available relatively cheap.

Kitolano is alert enough to spot the striker running behind the CB, and gets across to cut it out.

A lot of Kitolano's strength comes in his defensive abilities. He makes the right plays, rarely dives in, and looks generally solid. He often holds position in such a way that he could make any number of decisions based on where the ball goes. The only hole is he has a tendency to press into the middle of the field when the winger drifts inside, leaving a gap behind him, and doesn't have the lightning pace of the others to recover.

Motioning to players to get out to their man

He also seems to communicate well with those around him, something that's useful for when Ovie switches off. It also shows that he's clear in his own role, and doesn't compromise himself to atone for the mistakes of others when it's not needed. 

Kitolano can do the attacking stuff, here he times his run well to exploit space

Going forward, he tends to be a little tentative, largely playing back to the centre-backs to retain possession. He doesn't overlap with the same frequency as Bramall, but uses the opportunities he ventures forward well. His final ball is easily better than either of the youngsters at the club currently.

On the counter-attack, he can beat players with his speed and deceptive strength, he makes the defender come across and then plays the striker through.

Not only does he overlap, but he's able to draw players to him and create space for others. He does seem to have the control to play in tight spaces - a key skill given Reading's style of play.

Finally, at just 21 he still has time on his side, and can develop further. The (presumably) departing Richards is a perfect example of just how quickly a youngster can improve with the right coaching.

Reading's youth options both look solid enough to make the step up in the next couple of seasons, but whether it's wise to throw them straight into the fire is a decision for Veljko. I'm unconvinced by Bramall, who we've been linked with fairly extensively and would prefer a different option. However, Bramall would be an adequate stopgap, or could even be a good fit if Paunovic is looking for a more aggressive runner to stretch play.


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