Can Veljko Paunovic keep The Royals on the Championship throne?
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Angry, bewildered, optimistic, and confused are only a few of the words that describe how Reading fans felt when the club announced Veljko Paunovic as their new manager on 29th August 2020. Fast forward two months exactly, and Reading were sitting in first place in the Championship with seven wins from eight games.

The Royals hadn’t been the most entertaining team to watch during this period, with clear cut chances few and far between. However, the table didn’t lie, and Paunovic seemed to be transforming a team who had finished, underwhelmingly, in 14th place the previous season. Reading’s defence were exemplarily solid, Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent were expertly dictating the midfield, Michael Olise, John Swift, and Ovie Ejaria were providing the creative flair in the side, and upfront, Lucas Joao simply couldn’t miss.

It all seemed a little too good to be true for Reading fans. However, in the spirit of living in the present, the Royals faithful were enjoying the ride whilst it lasted. And, ultimately, it didn’t last – in terms of wins, anyway.

A resolute Coventry City side beat Reading 3-2 at St. Andrews only three days after Reading had seen off Blackburn Rovers 4-2 to put them seven points clear at the top of the table. Uncharacteristic defensive errors and a lack of potency in attack mired the next two fixtures after the Coventry defeat; Preston North End and Stoke City both put three past Reading in two games at the Madejski Stadium, leaving pundits and fans wondering whether the Berkshire boys’ dream start had been a fluke, and nothing more.

Where has it gone wrong for Reading?

Despite Reading’s frankly abysmal results against Preston and Stoke, they didn’t actually play particularly badly in either game. Dominating possession, shots, and shots on target against all of the three teams they’ve lost to this year, Reading’s dip in in form can’t necessarily be attributed to style of play or lack of creativity.

Rather, the Royals’ issues are down to three key factors – individual errors, injuries to key players, and a lack of options on the bench and in the squad generally.

These individual errors were perhaps negligible against Coventry. Andy Rinomhota needed to be closer to Gustavo Hamer when he unleashed his 25-yard shot that put the Sky Blues 1-0 up. Goalkeeper Rafael Cabral didn’t get a good enough parry area on Max Biamou’s free-kick, but, in fairness, he was unsighted and most definitely abandoned by his defenders when Matt Godden nestled the rebound into the bottom corner. Neither of these goals was necessarily a direct mistake from a Reading player. 

All eyes were again on Rafael for Coventry’s third, when he was beaten from long range by Sam McCallum. The ball moved wickedly in the air, and a combination of a lack of step into the save and poor footwork ultimately consigned Reading to defeat.

Young defender Tom McIntyre was the first down the tunnel against Preston – a penalty concession, and then a failing to get the right side of Preston’s Emil Riis Jakobsen, were influential for all the wrong reasons. And, the story continued against Stoke City – Thomas Esteves, Lewis Gibson, and Rafael were all (at least partly) at fault for the away side’s three goals.

Such mistakes were uncharacteristic for Paunovic's side, with the manager himself previously credited for improving the collective mentality in the squad. 

And, on the topic of mentality, Reading’s fighting spirit has got to improve. As a top-of-the-table side, the Royals seem to have settled for defeats in the last few games. They have continued to create chances whilst a goal or two down, but without any real conviction. Paunovic has clearly galvanised a stagnating and underperforming squad given their first eight games, yet Reading have failed their real tests this year – coming from behind and reacting to a defeat.

Why Veljko Paunovic was actually appointed remains a mystery for some Reading fans. Regardless of the reason behind his appointment, it did appear that he’d be backed by Reading’s owners with a war chest of transfer funds to work with, in a desperate attempt to reach the Premier League whilst FFP regulations were loosened. However, no such spending occurred in the summer window, and Reading’s excellent start perhaps papered over the gaping crack in the squad - Reading do not have enough first-team quality players.

The Royals must add firepower to the squad

Despite free agents such as Jack Wilshere and Rajiv Van La Parra reportedly being offered to the Royals, the club passed up the opportunity to sign either. Paunovic was vocally apprehensive of upsetting the balance in the squad, which is understandable given the clear chemistry of Reading’s starting eleven when they’re at their best.

However, when a top-of-the-table Championship side’s bench consists of only one real attacking threat, how are they supposed to turn a game round?

Upsetting the balance of the squad will be the least of Paunovic’s worries if he doesn’t manage to get Reading back on track. One or two attacking additions (mainly a target man and an out-and-out winger) could completely revitalise Reading and reduce the need for players to play out of position. Some pace and energy from the bench in the last fifteen or twenty minutes of a game would make such a difference to Reading. With respect, Paunovic can’t rely on the likes of Sam Baldock or Sone Aluko to provide this; neither have made a particularly notable contribution since they joined in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Without a complete attacking quartet of Yakou Meite, Ejaria, Olise, and Joao, Reading quickly turn from a real offensive threat to fragmented in attack, with things not really ‘sticking’ so to speak.

Whilst Reading fans generally recognise that expectations were most definitely not to get promoted when Paunovic was surprisingly appointed back in August, this has since changed. The Royals have shown the Championship that they are a force to be reckoned with, and ultimately have to be treated as a very good side at this point.

However, should Paunovic and Reading’s players fail to stop the rot – which will hopefully be rectified naturally with the returns of key players such as Yakou Meite, Ejaria, and Swift – then the reasons behind Bowen’s dismissal and Paunovic’s appointment may again be thrown into disrepute.

The Serb must be given immense credit for the work he’s done at Reading so far. However, the work is not yet done, and given how good the Royals have shown how good they really are, then they really should be challenging for promotion this year.