Reading Season Preview: Moore to stay?

With the 2018-19 Championship season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Simeon Pickup (@SimFromBucks) from excellent Reading site The Tilehurst End .

You finished 20th last season, 17 places lower than the 2016-17 campaign. Do you put the regression mainly down to bad man management, imbalanced recruitment, injuries or simply not as much luck?

I’d put it down to all those things and more really. Although a good number of our fans seemed to lay the blame squarely at Jaap Stam, in truth the regression from third to 20th was caused by lots of different factors. The simplest way of putting it is that Stam, an inexperienced and inflexible manager, tried to do too much in bad circumstances.

In reality, we never really understood why we’d been able to defy all forms of footballing logic to get all the way to the play-off final despite not being obviously good at defending or attacking. The main answer for me is that we had a coherent team that was held together by three key players capable of putting in match-winning performances: Ali Al-Habsi, Danny Williams and Yann Kermorgant – by 2017/18, two had left and one went through major injury problems throughout the season.

Otherwise, the recruitment was unbalanced, the squad was racked by injuries to left-back Jordan Obita, creative midfielder John Swift and various others, and confidence on and off the pitch got critically low as the season progressed. In the face of that, Stam (unwisely) stuck to his tactical principles, alienated the fanbase (the league attendance against Sheffield United of just over 6,000 was the worst we’ve had at the Madejski Stadium) and didn’t have the experience to get us out of the mess.

Modou Barrow was seen as one of your better players last season. Is it important to have players with the pace to threaten in behind?

Absolutely. One thing that really held us back in 2016/17 was the lack of a winger who, regularly, would give us an extra dimension going forwards by running at the opposition and stretching the defence. Modou Barrow gave us that in 2017/18 and got a respectable return of 10 league goals and four assists to match.

Sone Aluko had a great 2016-17 campaign with Fulham but it seems he’s yet to pull up any trees in Berkshire. Are you hoping for more from him this term?

He was awful last season to be honest, and I doubt he’ll disagree with me. With his experience in English football, we wanted a consistent, reliable winger in contrast to Barrow’s unpredictability, but in the end we barely got any attacking return out of him. It didn’t help that he didn’t fit in the team well – he’d often drift inside and deep to pick the ball up leaving us with no-one on the right wing. However, with the addition of the offensively-minded Andy Yiadom, he should be helped by those overlapping runs.

Goalkeeper Vito Mannone started 41 games last term. Did he impress as much as Ali Al-Habsi the year before?

Not really. He wasn’t poor by any stretch of the imagination, but rarely put in those match-winning performances of which Al-Habsi was capable. That’s being a little harsh on Mannone – he had a lot to live up to after all – but it’s clear we didn’t have the same quality between the sticks. Then again, his late penalty saves against Leeds United (away) and one at home against QPR which gave us our first win in about 20 league games were real season highlights.

The right-footed Chris Gunter started all 46 games last season, taking on various positions including left-back. With the signing of Andy Yiadom and the rise of Omar Richards, are you hoping Gunter won’t have to over-exert himself as much this year?

He needs competition for his spot really. Despite the huge turnover in players over the last five years, Gunter has been an ever-present, being picked week in, week out by Nigel Adkins, Steve Clarke, Brian McDermott, Jaap Stam and now Paul Clement. His performances are usually pretty solid, but rarely stand out, so another player coming in to keep him on his toes will help Gunter. Plus, Yiadom gives us a more attacking presence down the right which is always good.

It looks increasingly likely that centre-back Liam Moore will stay. Is that a boost to the defence?

It’s a huge boost to the whole team and the fanbase. Moore has been one of the biggest successes over the last two seasons, if not the biggest success, and could quite realistically have gone for more than £10 million were we to sell him this summer (and Brighton were reportedly interested). His commanding presence at the back, body-on-the-line defending and impressive passing range make him a quality centre half all-round, and he’ll be a key part of any success we have next season. The rumoured £1 million-odd transfer fee we paid to Leicester City is looking more and more like daylight robbery.

The main options to partner Moore are Tiago Ilori, who has faced criticism plus Paul McShane and new signing John O’Shea; the latter two being at the tail end of their careers. Can you trust either of them to perform well for a full season?

Tiago Ilori suffered a lot from being asked to over-play with the ball by Jaap Stam. Although he’s certainly a talented defender, he suffered a great deal from the pressure of not only having to play out from the back, but actively having to keep the ball when (all too often) no passing options opened up higher up the pitch. However, Clement has eased that pressure – Ilori is still able to play out, but he’s got greater license to go long if he feels the need.

On the other hand, Paul McShane and John O’Shea are fine as squad options. We need that experience in the defence, even if they’re not the most accomplished of defenders. As long as we’re not relying on them as regular starters we’ll be fine. Plus, we’ve got a host of young centre halves coming through, waiting to take over from McShane and O’Shea next summer, including new signing Darren Sidoel from Ajax’s academy.

Midfielder Liam Kelly has scored some high-quality goals since coming into the side. Are you hoping he might be able to hit them at an even higher volume this term?

He struggled from a lack of consistency in 2017/18 really. His breakout performances in 2016/17 came from him having a clear role in the team – sitting at the base of a three-man midfield where he could pick passes and dictate play. However, he was asked to play higher up in 2017/18 and struggled to find space in the same way, whilst still suffering from a lack of physical presence.

If Clement can find a role in the team for the Irishman that allows him to dictate play whilst not having to do too much physical defensive work, Kelly will be a lot more effective. Luckily, in David Meyler, we now have a midfielder who can do the dirty work for him.

David Meyler should provide leadership qualities after joining from Hull. If he stays fit, do you expect him to take on Joey Van Den Berg’s role of shielding the defence?

I expect him to start week in, week out as the defensive lynchpin in our midfield. One of the biggest tactical failures of last season was the absence of a defensive midfielder to give the team balance, but Meyler should provide that. Joey van den Berg seriously struggled in 2017/18 due to a lack of mobility and poor passing range, but Meyler should be an upgrade.

New signing Marc McNulty became the first player to hit 23 league goals for Coventry in 51 years last season. Are you excited to see what he can do in the Championship?

I’m cautiously optimistic really. Although it’s hard to tell how well he’ll be able to make the step up from League Two to the Championship, he’s undoubtedly got the instinct that any striker needs in order to score goals regularly. I doubt he’ll hit the ground running – he took a while to get going for the Sky Blues last season – but he will do if given patience.

McNulty found his best form alongside an industrious strike-partner. Will Clement pair him with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson against Derby, or will he favour an extra attacking midfielder in John Swift?

It’s hard to say at this stage – Clement usually prefers playing one striker up front, so it’ll be interesting to see if McNulty has been earmarked for that role, or if he partners Jon Dadi Bodvarsson as you suggest. Interestingly, in a pre-season friendly against Fulham we tried a 4-4-2 with one attacking midfielder (John Swift) and one converted physical winger (Yakou Meite) paired up top. McNulty may end up taking either one of those places if we go with 4-4-2 next season.

Royals aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest are my favourites for automatic promotion – both have plenty of quality in their squads and should have too much for most sides in the division. Otherwise, my dark horse is Bristol City. Although they’ve lost some top players in Aden Flint and Bobby Reid (possibly soon followed by Joe Bryan), they’ve recruited effectively this summer.

Adam Webster is a good replacement at centre half, Andreas Weimann will give them quality out wide and, with Mo Eisa set to sign at the time of writing, they’ll have plenty of goals in Reid’s absence. Johnson is also a quality manager who should be able to build on last season.

Where will you finish?

In lower mid-table misery – probably around 15th. We’ll be better than last season (we can’t be much worse) but the lack of transfer activity will hold us back.

Thanks to Simeon for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Reading can be found on We Love Betting from 30th July.