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Reading FC Season Review | 2020/2021

When your season starts with your manager having to watch your opening match from the hotel because he's not been hired in time to beat the quarantine, anything above getting relegated should probably be classed as a success. And Reading exceeded surely even the most optimistic of pre-season predictions.

Veljko Paunovic

Veljko Paunovic almost exclusively utilised a core group of players in a 4-2-3-1, only changing things when enforced. One of the consequences of that is that Reading had more players play over 3,000 minutes than any other side (roughly three-quarters of the season). That consistency is often seen as a good thing, but in a condensed season, it surely contributed to the injury woes.

It can't have helped that the manager also used the second-fewest number of players over the course of the season. His substitutions were often categorised as late (Reading's subs played just 16 minutes on average, only Norwich's played fewer) or non-existent (Reading were 19th for number of subs made).

On the flip side, despite being bare-boned, The Royals also have a promising squad for the future, being the third-youngest squad in the division. The youngsters have all improved, although how much of that is down to the manager vs their natural curve is impossible to say. That will become clearer with time as we start to understand Paunovic's strengths and whether he can consistently bring through academy grads. 

In that sense there are still a few questions that just haven't had the time to be answered. Most of the youth in the side comes from players either already in the team (Olise, Ejaria, Richards) or enforced  through injuries (McIntyre, Holmes). Obviously, Paunovic did give game time to those in the academy in the cups, but when the team was struggling for first team options over Christmas he chose to simply not use them. Given that there was a cull of academy players over the summer it's perfectly possible that the next generation is simply not ready and it's hard to criticise a manager who has still had to rely on guys in their early twenties, or even teens, but it would be nice to see him actively start promoting some players.

Defence

One of the major talking points all year has been xG and Reading's conversion rate. Nobody thought the pace set at the beginning of the season was sustainable, but those first eight games were built on a resolute defensive structure above all else which seems to have been lost a little bit. More generally, Reading rarely blow teams away but tend to create more than their opponents.

The defence, which only truly slipped in the abysmal November period and then when the play-offs were unrealistic, was designed to stop efforts from inside the box. Reading's opponents shot from outside the area 41% of the time, only Preston kept their opposition to a higher percentage. And that's also reflected in the xGA - only five teams performed better, though Reading actually conceded 10% more than the stat suggests we should have.

It is hard to overlook the fact that Rafael did not have a particularly strong season in goal. There were more than a few occasions where he conceded softly from outside the box, or put the team into bad positions with the ball at his feet. It must, however, be caveated with the fact that Rafael is largely comfortable with the ball in a way that this team require. Plus, despite lacking height, is good at coming for the ball from set-pieces and crosses to alleviate pressure. Any goalkeeper that replaces him needs to have the same composure.

And Reading are in a much stronger position than a year ago now that The Toms have proven themselves to be consistently viable options at this level. It will be interesting to see how the two progress given that phasing Morrison out seems like a sensible option at some point this season with his contract coming to an end, and Moore's high wages potentially coming off the book the year after may open both spots up.

Attack

Going forward felt more of an individual endeavour. There were two clear standout performers, with Lucas Joao topping 20 goals (in all competitions) and Michael Olise being involved in 30% of the team's Championship goals.

Lucas Joao

Joao's goalscoring dried up in the run-in, but a lot of that was because he was often stopped midway in the opposition half before he could progress into more dangerous positions. I think we saw that opponents realised that stopping Joao stopped Reading. Much of that was due to the lack of a secondary goalscoring threat for much of the season. Puscas and Meite were both sidelined for large parts, but when they played they scored at a decent lick (although Puscas played too few games to generalise too much)

Ignoring his penalty misses, Joao did tend to put the big chances away (yellow/orange). Obviously toward the end of the season, his finishing did dip. Going into next season the point should still stand, create for Lucas and he'll reward you. Despite missing some easier chances, he still finished above his expected goals total. That just goes to show how he can create something out of nothing, and the team benefitted as a result. It could be argued that the key to fully unlocking Joao is to build a structure around him that allows him to get even more opportunities in dangerous positions, rather than relying on him to create for himself.

Michael Olise

Meanwhile, Michael Olise took the role as the side's primary creator. The majority of his assists came from set-piece opportunities, and will hopefully prove easier to replace than his raw ability. John Swift is the obvious candidate, but it's worth noting Olise has more assists from dead balls this season than Swift has in his career.

What is going to be harder is replacing his ball carrying and vision. Of those who played over 1,000 minutes, he played more key passes p90 than anyone bar Buendia. Again, John Swift is the most likely candidate but he seems to be the one to drop deeper, attempting to help with ball progression, rather than attempting to play the killer pass in and around the box. Whether that changes without Olise remains to be seen. 

Olise is also able to glide past opponents with pace and open counter-attacking opportunities, best exhibited by his goal at Ewood Park where he drifted past the despairing dive of the last defender before slotting coolly home. If anything, that's something that would have been nice to see more often but his positioning out wide meant he was rarely running down the centre of the pitch.

One area that Michael should improve as he gains more experience is getting into positions to provide more of a goalscoring threat. Currently he rarely gets into the box and, while he clearly has the ability to convert long shots, they're not quality scoring chances. It's hard to know if that's a Paunovic instruction. For instance, he tends to show for the short pass when the ball is in crossing positions rather than being central. That could be because that's where Olise feels most comfortable or it could be because, at 5'7", there's little point him going for a header. Particularly in a side that has Meite too.

Yakou Meite

As touched upon earlier, had Pauno had Yakou for the entire season then who knows what would have happened. His 0.64 goals p90 topped even Joao's output. In such a technical team, Meite is a bit of an anomaly but his goalscoring is undeniable. Plus his desire to run in behind often harmonises well with Joao wanting the ball to feet. 

It does occasionally cause problems defensively when he's used in the hybrid RW-ST role (very similar to how Bowen deployed him), and there were a couple of goals toward the end of the season where he was late getting back into position. Although, to be fair to him, one of those was Tom Lawrence's peach from outside the box.

I'm still unconvinced by him playing as a lone striker in the current system. He doesn't have the same ball retention, or ability to beat a player close to their own goal. There is no such worry out wide where he's able to knock the ball past a man into space or cut across the box and shoot. The one place where he easily has the jump on Lucas is his heading ability, but that too can be aided by being up against traditionally smaller full backs. 

Ovie Ejaria

Ovie is a conundrum that I don't think any manager has been able to solve quite yet. He has undoubted technical ability that surpasses almost any in the division. He's able to win fouls all over the pitch that either relieve pressure in the defensive third, or create chances to put free kicks into the box - and given Reading's goalscoring from those situations it can be key. The way teams collapse on him opens space for others, which has resulted in goals for others but can also see him crowded out in good positions. Either way, his headline stats of 3 goals, 5 assists don't completely reflect his contribution.

But he's often lacking a bit of directness, a bit of speed, to really cut open an opposition. He's hesitant to cross - especially on his weak foot - and he's the most obvious candidate to be dropped for that winger that everyone's crying out for, which would be a real shame. He may be saved by Reading's soft embargo, and the fact that Swift doesn't seem capable of playing every game so may be required at CAM whatever happens.

Playing Style In Possession

In terms of playing style, Reading were one of the few teams to average over 50% possession and one of the top sides for passing accuracy. But that's at odds with the results, which are far superior with less possession. Joao and the rest of the team thrive with the space in transition, and as teams started to understand that they started to cede possession to The Royals. Next season it will be key to come up with a solution to teams who make it hard to play through the middle of the park, which happened more and more as the season wore on.

It's worth bearing in mind that this squad is still entirely inherited, and as a consequence, we saw Paunovic try various tactics to add to the attacking threat. Laurent and Rinomhota in the screen started to make runs beyond the strikers - and these seemed to work best with Tom McIntyre on the pitch who was more than willing to try those passes over the top. Different combinations in the attacking quartet were designed to balance threat and defensive rigidity.

The lack of any out and out wingers has been a source of much chagrin. To me, it's a slightly overplayed issue. Of course, it's important to have options to call upon but given that Meite will likely play off the right when fit, then you're really only looking for someone on the left. And it's possible to create that width in other ways, with different players moving out wide. We've seen previous Brentford sides have their central midfielders move wide to create that spacing. It is true, though, that Paunovic himself seems to want those sorts of players and they seem to align with how he sees the game.

When Reading have the ball out wide they tended to cross from less than ideal positions and usually as a last resort. Rather than attempting to get to the byline to cutback, they instead floated balls in from deeper. There seems to be a desire from Paunovic to put crosses in as much as possible, you can often hear him shouting for it, an I think that stems from a desire to be positive. However, Lucas Joao is actually not the best in the air despite his height. He's only got one headed goal to his name as a Reading player (in the league anyway), and that was from inside the 6 yard box.

Back when I was previewing Paunovic's style I mentioned that set pieces were crucial to his teams, and that's been the case at the Madejski too. The Royals scored 17 goals from set pieces, only bettered by Cardiff. Yakou Meite, Michael Morrison and Tom McIntyre were obviously the key threats from those sorts of situations, and without them in the team we did look a little less dangerous but it's unfortunate to have all three injured.

Midfield

Clearly, the signing of Josh Laurent has been a major positive this season. The midfielder won player of the season and has been almost universally loved by fans. He dominated the team in terms of ball recovery; over 50% more than his nearest outfield rival (Rino, obviously), and only Fulton and Skipp made more tackles across the league in the DM/MC position.

Frequency of Actions. Source: smarterscout. John Swift benchmarked against CAM, Rino/Laurent benchmarked against DM

At times though, we have seen how playing two players primarily for their defensive attributes can hamper a side going forward. Neither Rino nor Laurent are particularly proficient at progressing the ball through the lines. Laurent, for much of the season, was tasked with dropping deeper to pick up possession before trying to play out of defence - you can see this in the percentage of balls he plays forward (33%). Trying to compare the graphs above is a little difficult, as they're benchmarked against different positions, but what is clear is that Swift attempts to progress the ball far more often than either DM.

It's unlikely that Swift could consistently play a deeper role due to his deficiencies defensively. He's not as bad as some make out, but he's clearly not got the same ability there as LauRino. I'd be surprised if we don't see a continuation of him rotating into the deeper role in possession to give the best of both worlds but that may be dependent on what happens with Olise this summer.

A seventh-placed finish contrived to be a disappointment. At the beginning of the season, you wouldn't have believed such a feat were possible. We have more of an idea about how Paunovic sees his team and with a decent summer (alas, it doesn't seem likely) maybe there'll be a more balanced squad to help him realise his targets next season.

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