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Starting the Year Renew

Ah, 2023. A new year. A time to take stock of what you have, and look forward to the twelve months ahead. The first thing on Paul Ince's plate is to renew Andy Carroll and Amadou Mbengue's contracts - something he's been very vocal about wanting to do.

Mbengue is a difficult one. Yes, he is undoubtedly an exciting prospect but this is a club with six other senior centre backs. He'd be useful cover elsewhere, namely at right back, but Kelvin Abrefa has also showed some promise in that position in his, albeit small, cameos so far. Ince has already said his preferred back three is Yiadom, Holmes, and Sarr. Mbengue could be first-choice backup on the right side of that three, but given Yiadom is captain and played more minutes than anyone outside of Ince and Hendrick, realistically he won't get much of a look in. Likewise TMc is probably ahead of him for Sarr's spot. Shifting Moore and Dann in the summer still leaves him in the same position - and that's before we even get to looking at what a Paul Ince back four looks like. (Does it look like a defender who is in the 97th percentile of aerials lost? I doubt it)

Realistically if there's a clear pathway, maybe he is a better right back option than Abrefa, then it probably makes sense. If he's going to sit on the bench and play a bit part for the next couple of years, we have an academy for that.

The one I'm more certain about is Andy Carroll. A bit of a cult hero, but not doing a whole lot on the pitch.

Let's start out with the big stuff. 

A goal almost every other game is masking the fact he only scores about one in four when discounting penalties. Penalties obviously do need to be scored, but I think it's generous to count them in a discussion about how well a player is doing generally. 0.22 goals per 90 is still in line with Joao (0.26) and Meite (0.29) but when we look at non-penalty xG numbers there's some suggestions that Carroll won't remain level. Meite leads the team with 0.37 npxG p90, followed by Joao and Long at around 0.23 each. That makes Carroll the worst striker by this metric, with just 0.11 - or a goal every nine games.

He is currently exceeding his expected goals value, scoring an extra goal from open play so far. He did the same in his first spell with Reading, and maybe we're set up to get Carroll the 'right sort' of chances but overall fbref has him underperforming his xG in the since the start of 2017/18. Maybe that's because he was in the Premier League for four seasons - we can hope.

He's also not benefitting the team a lot in terms of chance creation. Shot creating actions are the two actions (pass, dribble, shot, fouled, or some defensive action) that precede a shot being taken. Carroll ranks below all but Long - though the Irishman still ends up having the highest expected assists value among the strikeforce, while Carroll's is lowest. When you look at Goal Creating Actions then, again, he's bottom of the pile. 0.11 GCA per 90 minutes, three times less than Yakou's 0.39. Though Carroll has admittedly been done a little dirty here by the fact the Hull's own goal didn't garner him anything, likewise Meite's penalty against Swansea.

But not only does Carroll not score or create himself, with him on the pitch the team is statistically poorer - a net 0.28 xG worse off than when he's not in the side. Has there been a clearer example of this than our victory in the FA Cup over Watford? Reading, in total control, replace Femi Azeez with Andy Carroll and to facilitate that switch Shane Long drops into midfield. All of a sudden Reading lack mobility, and lack hold up - particularly when Joao is then taken off for Michael Craig. That leads to Watford being able to keep the ball in their attacking third and Reading have a nervy last fifteen minutes before Long secures the tie.

But He's A Presence!

This normally comes alongside a stat about the number of aerial duels he wins, and he does win a lot. 96th percentile, an almost full green bar. 8.57 per 90. Though it must be said that Reading actually have two other decent aerial presences who are in the top 20th percentile for both aerials won and percentage of aerials won. Yakou Meite and Shane Long, who doesn't so much win aerial duels as just not lose them.

There's another part of headers - and that's how often does an aerial duel lead to possession for your team? Interestingly there's not a lot of difference between the strikers in terms of percentage of overall aerial duels that end up at the feet of a Reading player, but Joao is much better at maintaining the ball if he wins the initial header. There's a massive caveat to this data in that you do have to challenge to have it classified as an aerial duel, something that Joao particularly doesn't do often at all. Meite too is better than Carroll in this regard, and the number of aerials he partakes in is closer to Carroll's.

And there are downsides to being a presence, it's probably being a big guy that stops The Geordie from winning free kicks. For a big man he ends up on the floor quite a lot, but wins less than a foul per 90. Meite (1.84) and Joao (2.14) win over twice as many and in a side where 1 in 3 goals are from set pieces, that's important.

But He's a Target From Those Set Pieces!

Sure, he has been effective at times from set pieces. His header won us the game against Hull, and he picked up a goal and a penalty against The Swans at home. He's also helpful in our box, where he's managed to get first contact on a set piece roughly once a game.

And it's not so much that he's been bad from set pieces. It's just that is he adding enough benefit for the rest of his game to be below par? Does that Swansea goal not happen just because it's Lucas Joao on the edge of the box? Reading have plenty of big men to win headers at both ends - Holmes, Sarr, McIntyre, Loum, Meite. Take your pick - even Joao is half decent defending corners.

But He Works Hard!

This is absolutely fair, Carroll does work his socks off. The problem is twofold. One - he's an old, regularly injured (though maybe not in his Reading career), immobile centre forward. The guy failed a medical for Club Brugge over the summer, and while they may have higher standards than us, it's not great news either way.

And two, a lot of his charging around the pitch is largely pointless. I don't have access to individual players pressing stats, but the fact that he's only attempted three tackles all season shows he's not a pressing monster. It'll come of no surprise that he has the lowest total per 90 of the entire outfield squad. He fares better for interceptions and blocks, but he's still largely middle of the pack. 

Admittedly, Carroll does end up with a lot of touches with the ball either way, but they tend to be in non-threatening areas. He's in the 99th percentile for strikers when it comes to touches in their own penalty area. And even with all these touches he doesn't do a lot, given that he only completes 1 pass in 2. The only two passing metrics he ranks well in are progressive passes and passes into the final third among strikers - but should that be his job? Isn't that what the midfield is for? 

Even in the final third, he doesn't find a way to break into the box (to be fair, not his job), and only shoots an average amount - with a poor record of getting it on target. The immobility we mentioned earlier ends up costing us too - against Swansea Meite put a brilliant ball across the box from the left hand side, but Carroll wasn't quick enough to get there. Thankfully Ince scored seconds later from their botched goal kick.

Let's be fair, not all Reading's issues come from Carroll. Ince is a defence first manager, who would rather fit square pegs in round holes rather than give younger players any minutes at all. But Andy Carroll forces some decisions. You can't press high. You can't try to play passing football. He's likely not going to get into the box in time in open play. And you sacrifice all that, just for a guy that can head it? If Carroll was only being used in the last 10 minutes of games as a Plan B, I could live with that, but you seemingly have to remove the temptation for Ince to play him week in week out. 

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