Transfer embargoes and defensive woes weigh heavy on Royals - Interview
Thursday, 9th Sep 2021 09:46 by Clive Whittingham
Reading won seven of their first eight games last season but no team has conceded more than them in the EFL at the beginning of 2021/22 and an ongoing transfer embargo has made strengthening the team tough - we spoke to Simeon Pickup from The Tilehurst End for the latest.
How was last season?
Last season was miles better than expected but still a huge disappointment in the end. We'd anticipated scrapping in the bottom half of the table, so to start so quickly and not suddenly fall away took us all by surprise. The first half of the season underlined the fact that, for the first time in years, we had a talented young squad, harmony in the dressing room and a bright manager capable of sculpting a winning side. So, to see those play-off hopes die out with a whimper was a big shame, and it took away from what had been an impressive season. In the end, the small size of the squad, the manager's unwillingness to rotate key first-team players, a lack of tactical variety and the inability to bring sign anyone in January due to FFP – Reading were the only side to make no signings in that window – all contributed to us falling away. Still, that season deserves to be looked back on as a decisive step in the right direction. Reading have a lean and talented group, the connection between club and fans is strong (a million miles from the rage when we abruptly got rid of our manager and CEO on the eve of 2020/21) and the pathway from academy to first team is probably the best it's ever been.
Given the start, how much of a missed opportunity was missing the play-offs entirely?
Whether we regard 2020/21 as a missed opportunity will probably depend on what happens this season. Either it was a brief spurt of success built on sand, or the foundations truly were laid down for this club to once again consistently be one of the strongest in the division. We won't be able to put a team that talented together for a while, that's for sure. Michael Olise is the obvious example: he's arguably the best player our academy has ever produced, and I'm surprised that no Champions League club came in for him, but he'll end up at that level anyway. Omar Richards earned fewer plaudits last season but his next career step, being snapped up by Bayern Munich at the end of his contract, shows just how good he was. There's certainly a strong element of last season being a missed opportunity, but there were mitigating factors like squad size and financial restrictions that made it an easier pill to swallow. The bigger sense of frustration is that we've been unable to get any financial reward for the talent we've brought through. Olise would have gone for a transfer fee rivalling the £20m+ Birmingham City got for Jude Bellingham had there not been an £8m release clause in his deal, while Richards would have fetched a fair chunk too. To see £30m-£40m of talent leave for a fraction of that is galling, especially given what those funds would do for this FFP-stricken, transfer-embargo-suffering club.
Reading’s league results so far…
How's the season started?
That being said, the defending (particularly from set pieces) has been pretty dire: 13 Championship goals conceded (not to mention three in the League Cup) means we've the leakiest back line in the top four divisions. While the loss of Omar Richards (left back who joined Bayern Munich on a free transfer), John O'Shea and Eddie Niedzwiecki (experienced coaches) hasn't helped, we should be doing better given Michael Morrison, Liam Moore and Andy Yiadom are still here.
Can you explain the reasons for the recent transfer embargo, what restrictions it's put in place and whether it's over now?
It relates to breaching FFP in recent years – Reading lost around £90m in a three-year period, well over the £39m allowed. This has been an issue since the current owners (siblings Dai Yongge and Xiu Li Dai) bought the club in 2017 and proceeded to splash cash heavily in 2017, 2018 and 2019, before trying to course-correct somewhat in 2020 (ironically our best season under them by far).
Getting clarity on what business can be done has been difficult and confusing since the start of the summer – both for fans trying to understand the situation and the club in making signings. That was particularly tiresome in the months running up to the season when no one really knew where Reading stood, besides hints and suggestions from the manager and in the media that progress was or wasn't being made. That lack of clarity in itself was, besides showing the EFL's general incompetence, hugely damaging as it denied Reading the ability to sign players and bed them in over pre-season.
Going by the business we’ve done and reports in the media though, we can safely conclude that Reading can only sign loan players and free agents on a deal lasting no longer than one season, and under heavy restrictions on wages. It's also probably the case that the EFL have to approve each deal to ensure it's not financially irresponsible.
We don't know about the situation moving forward though, which is of mounting concern. Reading have about half a dozen senior players contracted for next season so need to get on with agreeing new deals quickly, but that may be hampered by EFL restrictions.
Although there's a gaping hole up top, where we need to rely on misfiring forward George Puscas and the aforementioned Clarke, those signings flesh out the squad pretty well. Despite losing a lot of quality in Omar Richards and Michael Olise, the group as a whole appears better balanced and with depth spread around. That being said, most of those six are unknown quantities: they've either had injury problems in recent years, not settled at any one club or just not played all that much. Working out what we'll get from them isn't easy.
Ins >>> Alen Halilovic, 25, AM, Birmingham, Free >>> Scott Dann, 34, CB, Palace, Free >>> Junior Hoilett, 31, LW, Cardiff, Free >>> Abdul-Rahmann Baba, 27, LB, Chelsea, Loan >>> Tom Dele-Bashiru, 21, CM, Watford, Loan >>> Danny Drinkwater, 31, CM, Chelsea, Loan
Outs >>> Michael Olise, 19, AM, Palace, £8.3m >>> Omar Richards, 23, LB, Bayern, Free >>> Sam Smith, 23, CF, Cambridge, Free >>> Sam Walker, 29, GK, Kilmarnock, Free >>> Sone Aluko, 32, ST, Ipswich, Free >>> Sam Baldock, 32, CF, Derby, Free >>> Marc McNulty, 28, AM, Dundee Utd, Loan
While I and a fair chunk of supporters would argue that the improvements he made last season show he deserves time to build a side, others have had enough. Results haven't been good enough (it's relegation-battle form since New Year's Day), while questionable tactical decisions (putting players out of position) and generally awful defending are concerning regardless of the signings he's able to make.
I'm sure the owners will give him a decent amount of time to turn things around, given that he's only just been able to bring anyone in. But if form doesn't drastically improve soon, he may be turfed out by the next international break.
As for weak links, well, think of who was key to our fantastic start last season and flip the script. This time in 2020/21 we were defensively impeccable due to a well-regimented back four and imposing defensive double pivot in front, but now we're all at sea and none of those previously imperious players are at their former level: primarily Liam Moore and Michael Morrison, but also Josh Laurent and Andy Rinomhota. The absence of injured striker Lucas Joao also means we lack quality in front of goal and general physical presence in the final third.
My thoughts are pretty similar to those in pre-season really; the league start and signings haven't drastically changed my mind. There are enough question marks over this side – ongoing defensive issues, poor managerial decisions, constant injuries and unpredictable signings – to make a prediction difficult, but I expect we'll do well on some fronts, poorly on others and end up somewhere in mid-table. 12th.
The Twitter @TheTilehurstEnd, @SimFromBucks, @loftforwords
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