Summer upheaval leads to surprise start for Reading - Interview
Friday, 11th Dec 2020 14:32 by Clive Whittingham
It looked to be another season of struggle in waiting for Reading when they decided to tear it all up and start again on the eve of the new campaign, but as Simeon Pickup from The Tilehurst End tells us it's been surprisingly plain sailing so far.
Good deal of turmoil over the summer, what were your feelings coming into the season?
We were all set for a season of building under Mark Bowen. We knew it’d be difficult, given the lack of funds, but there was still hope that we’d see Reading kick on from last season and finally establish itself in mid-table. There was even time for Bowen to debut a new system, broadly similar to a 3-6-1 and modelled on both Sheffield United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, which would have been intriguing to see come to fruition…
…and then he was gone. A matter of weeks before the start of the season, Reading decided to review its operations behind the scenes, leading to the departure of not only Bowen, but also chief executive Nigel Howe. Although the club had underperformed on their watch, removing both at all, let alone so close to the start of the season, felt illogical and harsh. Reading have struggled for stability in recent years, and we’d made some progress on that front under Howe and Bowen, so there was certainly a sense that the club had randomly decided to scuttle itself for no reason.
Given that new man Veljko Paunovic had no obvious credentials for this position – given his lack of experience in management, let alone English football, and poor record at Chicago Fire in the MLS – his appointment was uninspiring. Anyway, as he had barely any time before the start of the campaign to get his ideas across, not least because he had to spend a big chunk of pre-season (including a League Cup game against Colchester United) in isolation, his chances of success seemed slim.
At least that’s how it looked at the time…
What's been behind Reading's great start?
Primarily a level of cohesion and spirit that’s been alien to this club in recent years, which has come about because of two main things: Pauno (as we like to call him) and the make-up of the squad.
In the first case, the new manager is big on instilling “non-negotiables” into the team’s approach, and he’s done wonders in his own right of improving the work rate, concentration and organisation of his players. Bowen tried that too though, but rarely felt like an inspiring manager with a clear idea of how he wanted his team to play. Pauno on the other hand appears far more inspiring to the players (including captain Liam Moore who apparently fell out with Bowen) and has got the squad playing for him.
In the second, Pauno’s job has been made significantly easier by the work that had already been put in on creating a leaner squad. Reading have suffered in the past from having a bloated group – too many expensive, quality players left to sit on the bench and drag down the overall morale and cohesion – but we made big strides on tackling that with the summer clear-out. More than a dozen left, and although we’ve sometimes struggled for depth this season, the team feels far better motivated and focused than it did last season.
Reading league results so far…
The new manager felt like a left-field choice, what has he changed?
Besides his work on improving the squad’s attitude that I mentioned above, he’s already put the team through a big evolution tactically. In the early weeks he focused on making sure the team was solid at the back – demonstrated by our pretty ridiculous run of conceding just once in our first seven games. And that one goal was to Lee Tomlin who always scores against us, so it doesn’t really count.
Picking up so many wins was also down to being so clinical in the final third. Reading could rely on individual talent – particularly top scorer Lucas Joao and top assister Michael Olise – to come up with a moment of magic to win the game. The view from the pundits was that this approach was unsustainable, we were outperforming our xG and would soon tumble down the table.
What far too few of them appreciated though was that this was very much still a team in transition – after all, Pauno hadn’t been given the benefit of a full pre-season to get his ideas across. Most Reading fans knew that the team and system would have to evolve so that we were less reliant on clean sheets and a few chances in front of goal, improving our control of matches and creation of chances from open play.
We started to see Pauno change his side’s approach in late October and, in large part due to an accumulation of injuries and general fatigue, results flipped. From seven wins in eight to four consecutive defeats, on the face of it, it looked like we were collapsing. However, a closer look shows that our control of games was improving, as was our chance creation; the key issues were silly defensive mistakes and an inability to take chances.
In the last few games (I’m writing this before the Birmingham City match), we’ve seen Reading start to mix the defensive solidity of the early weeks with the more expansive play that had been on show in defeats to Stoke City and Preston North End. A 3-1 win over Bristol City was arguably our best performance of the season, and we’ve dominated subsequent matches against strugglers Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest in a way that we weren’t capable of earlier on in the season.
How did your transfer window go in the end?
It was remarkably muted by our standards; I was half expecting a last-minute glut of loan signings like in recent seasons, but we sensibly decided to keep the squad small. We ended the window with just five additions – two of them permanent, three of them on loan.
The first through the door, Josh Laurent, who signed on a free from Shrewsbury Town, has certainly been the best of the five. We’ve converted him into a well-rounded holding midfielder – his mix of physicality off the ball and composure on it means he’s somewhere between being explicitly either a ball-winner or quarterback. He was very much a Bowen signing – he’d tracked Laurent since January, having apparently first been impressed by Laurent during their QPR days.
Ovie Ejaria also made a permanent move from Liverpool after spending the previous 18 months at Reading on two different loan spells, although he’s taken a while to get up to speed. As for the loan arrivals, Tomas Esteves (young right back from Porto), Lewis Gibson (young centre half from Everton) and Alfa Semedo (imposing central midfielder from Benfica) are yet to properly impress. Esteves and Semedo will hopefully improve as the season goes on, while Gibson is likely to be recalled due to a lack of first-team football.
Ins >>> Ovie Ejaria, 22, CM, Liverpool, £3.5m >>> Josh Laurent, 25, CM, Shrewsbury, Free >>> Lewis Gibson, 20, CB, Everton, Loan >>> Alfa Semedo, 23, CM, Benfica, Loan >>> Tomas Esteves, 18, RB, Porto, Loan
Outs >>> Modou Barrow, 27, LW, Jeobuk Motors (Korea), Undisclosed >>> Danny Loader, 19, CF, Porto, Free >>> Tyler Blackett 26, LB, Forest, Free >>> Adrian Popa, 31, RW, Voluntari, Free >>> Vito Mannone, 32, GK, Released >>> Jordan Obita, 26, LB, released >>> Charlie Adam, 34, CM, Bolton, Free >>> Garath McCleary, 33, RW, Wycombe, Free >>> Chris Gunter, 31, RB, Charlton, Free >>> Jordan Holsgrove, 21, CM< Celta Vigo, Free >>> Sam Smith, 22, CF, Tranmere, Loan >>> Marc McNulty, 28, CF, Dundee Utd, Loan
Stand-out players and weak links in the team?
I’ve struggled to answer the first bit of this question in recent years, usually not having more than two or three players at a push to pick out. This season though there are really impressive individuals all over the pitch, but here’s the shortlist.
Top scorer Lucas Joao tends to find the net even when he or the team aren’t playing well, but he adds so much more than just goals. He’s excellent at holding the ball up, bringing our other attackers into the game or fashioning a chance himself out of nothing. Top assister Michael Olise, who turns 19 on the day of our game at Loftus Road, has dazzling footwork and a wicked delivery from open play or set pieces, and will likely be snapped up by a big club for £20m at the very least in the summer. Left back Omar Richards (an academy graduate like Olise) is a dynamic, consistent and reliable presence who’s also been linked with a move to the Premier League.
Weak links in the team tend to be more about the team’s tactical failings rather than specific individuals being bad. For example, right back Tom Holmes (a converted centre half) often struggles to add incision going forwards, Andy Rinomhota’s lack of guile means we often lack creativity from a deep central area, and old-school centre half Michael Morrison isn’t the most refined at playing out from the back.
In some games those weaknesses haven’t punished at all – in fact, those three have all had good seasons. But get your tactics right and you’ll expose those failings – Birmingham City pressed us aggressively on Wednesday and had a lot of joy. That was a bit of a surprise for us as I was expecting us to struggle against City due to them sitting in and inviting us to break them down. We’ve struggled to do that this season, so if you go for the low-block approach, it’ll likely pay off for you.
Can a promotion push be sustained?
On current evidence, we know this Reading side is very good in spells – what we don’t know though is how consistent it’ll be over the course of the season. I wrote that sentence before the Birmingham City game on Wednesday, and that match underlined how inconsistent we really are. We’re capable of putting in excellent performances like against Bristol City and dominant but less impressive ones like against Nottingham Forest, but then also dropping points frustratingly as with the Sheffield Wednesday game or putting in a dud of a performance as with Birmingham City.
How that all balances out over the course of the season is anyone’s guess. We probably don’t have the depth to sustain the same level of consistency that a side like Bournemouth will, but it’s too early to tell whether or not we’ll lack consistency to such a degree that we’ll drop out of the top six.
The more specific worry is injuries to key players, which have derailed us already this season. Our four-match losing streak came when Yakou Meite, Ovie Ejaria and Liam Moore were all either unavailable or coming back from injury, and a similar pile-up could prompt results to flatline again. Going into the QPR game there are now real worries over Joao and Meite, who were both hurt in the Birmingham City match.
The Twitter @TheTilehurstEnd, @SimFromBucks, @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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