- Reading are surprise Championship leaders at start of November
- Veljko Paunovic took charge in the summer, replacing Mark Bowen
- Royals fell to first league defeat at Coventry on Oct 30th
- Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford amongst teams in the chasing pack
They might have fallen to a 3-2 defeat against Coventry last time out but it was just Reading’s first defeat of the Championship season. The early frontrunners have started better than anybody expected under new boss Veljko Paunovic, after he took over from Mark Bowen in the summer. After nine league matches, they’ve won seven, drawn one and lost one, making them comfortable leaders - albeit fairly surprising ones. After a mid-table finish last time out, what’s made them start this season so well?
Looking at their current squad, it’s evident that there wasn’t a huge overhaul in the summer, though there was definitely a degree of change. Gambian winger Modou Barrow left on a permanent deal after spending the preceding year out on loan. Defenders Tyler Blackett and Jordan Obita were both released, as were long-serving duo Garath McCleary and Chris Gunter. In came Ovie Ejaria from Liverpool, Josh Laurent from Shrewsbury, and three loanees in the form of Everton’s Lewis Gibson, Benfica’s Alfa Semedo, and Porto’s Tomas Esteves.
However, a look at the most-frequent starters for Reading this season shows that there’s no over-reliance on the new blood. Six players have started in all nine league matches so far, from Championship stalwarts Michael Morrison and Liam Moore to Omar Richards and Andy Rinomhota, both in their early twenties. Add in new signing Laurent and goalkeeper Rafael Cabral, and we can see a clear mix of experience and youth in the starting eleven.
Another player to be heavily involved so far is forward Lucas Joao. He’s started the season emphatically, already scoring more in all competitions that he did in 2019/20, and is clearly a key feature of Paunovic’s Reading side. Add in the likes of Michael Olise and Yakou Meite as well as the other new signings and you have the core of the Royals’ squad this season. The squad isn’t overly large, but there’s definitely some quality in there, even if some are performing better than perhaps expected.
The new boss
However, this doesn’t explain how Reading have been able to go from finishing in 14th place last year to being top at the start of November. Eyes will be on Paunovic, who arrived here as something of an unknown quantity in the UK but will no doubt have earned admiring glances from elsewhere since taking over at the Berkshire club in his first role in English football.
Born in 1977 in what was then Yugoslavia, the Serbian manager had a decent footballing career spent mostly in the top two Spanish divisions before working as a Champions League analyst in Spain for a short time and then coaching the various Serbian youth teams. He then had a four-year spell at Chicago Fire in the MLS, taking a few months out after leaving the club a year ago and then replacing Mark Bowen at Reading this summer.
We often expect incoming managers like Paunovic to need time to adjust. The Championship is often referred to as one of the most difficult leagues in the world and it’s not something that the MLS and managing national youth teams can necessarily prepare you for. That said, whatever he’s doing certainly seems to be working so far. During his time in the US, his Chicago Fire team wasn't known for a distinctive playing style or a consistent strategy, but this flexibility could well be effective in the Championship. It’s going to be a long, pretty congested season, and his approach might stand the team in good stead as the months go on and players get injured or need resting.
The wider league
Admittedly, part of Reading’s success may be down to there not really being a standout team in the Championship this season - and as we can see from the Coventry defeat, Reading are certainly not infallible. While the relegated teams adjust to life back in the second tier, Brentford, Cardiff and Swansea aim to put their play-off defeats behind them, and Derby and Nottingham Forest falter at the other end of the table, Reading have been able to take advantage and climb to the top.
This is Reading’s eighth consecutive season in the Championship, and they’ve become one of the most ‘typical’ mid-table teams in the league. Rarely in serious danger of going down or going up, mid-table mediocrity has been the order of the day for Reading in most recent seasons. Where promotion contenders were discussed before the season began, they weren’t one of the teams to be mentioned too frequently, but they’ve certainly started well.
There’s a long way to go this season before fates are decided, but it’s definitely been good from Reading so far. The main question is whether the squad is big enough, and has enough quality, to sustain this form along the marathon that is a Championship season.
There are other teams with stronger squads on paper, and this could show as we move through the fixtures. However, they’re showing that they can put in some great performances, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them at least stay in contention.
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