Struggling Reading travel to the Riverside for this weekend's fixture.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
Middlesbrough and Reading come into this match with opposing situations. Following a 6-points deduction, Reading sits just above the relegation zone with three points separating them from the drop. Meanwhile, Middlesbrough is in 7th position with just one point between themselves and the vaunted top 6 spots. Therefore, both sides will come into this game looking for three points to further their charge towards their targets of survival and playoffs respectfully.
Despite a less than ideal start to the season, Middlesbrough has threatened at the top end. Under Chris Wilder, the clubs' form has gone through a considerable turn around with the side winning four of their last five outings. While wins against notable sides Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest will have had a positive impact on the morale around Rockcliffe Park.
On the other hand, Reading has been stuck in a rut in recent weeks after only managing two draws in the last five in all competitions. While on paper, this form doesn't appear as stark as some of the alternatives, a shock defeat to Kidderminster Harriers and a 7-0 drumming by Fulham paint a bleaker picture of their current situation.
Middlesbrough will go into this game as the favourites on the form cards, but Reading should not be underestimated. While their defensive record this season has been a cause for great concern, they are still a danger in attack, with a few notable attacking talents available in the squad. Additionally, in John Swift, Reading has one of the best-attacking midfielders in the league with an impressive return of eight goals and nine assists so far this season.
Owner: Dai Yongge
Dai Yongge is an unknown quantity. A businessman specialising in shopping centres turned his attention to football by purchasing Beijing Chengfeng. A period of relative success in Chinese football caused him to turn towards the European game. A failed bid for the then Premier League side Hull City would not deter him from his desire to own a club in Britain. He would try again and succeed when he agreed to financial terms to take over at Reading.
His tenure at Reading has been marred by recent controversy. In November, the club received a 6-point deduction for breaching FFP rules, handicapping their original plan to challenge for promotion. The deduction of points follows a reoccurring issue regarding the club's misuse of funds, leading to their current transfer embargo. This embargo has prevented the club from refreshing the squad to sustain and build upon last season's impressive finish. In addition, the fans have questioned the club's handling of finances following this controversy, with particular concern upon the £93m debt that the club has sustained over the most recent three-year period.
Yongge did reply to these concerns by pledging to "fix the issues of the past" in an official statement. However, Yongge's desire to see the club promoted to the Premier League will offset his move towards more sustainable financial practice.
Head Coach: Veljko Paunović
Paunović is under intense scrutiny. The Serbian manager has failed to curb the clubs' current decline in form, exponentially worsening over recent defeats to Kidderminster Harriers and Fulham. Discontented fans have questioned whether he should remain in the role moving forward. Many of their supporters have called upon Yongge to fire the current manager to stop the rot. The security of his position at the club has been a point of contention for the press; Paunović recently fielded questions regarding his future. Paunović dismissed these questions as him becoming a scapegoat for numerous prominent issues currently at the club. Nonetheless, a defeat against Middlesbrough could see him lose his employment at the Royals.
Paunović was not short of valuable experience with him having stints at notable sides Atletico Madrid and Hannover 96 during his 17-year career. Which most definitely augmented his previous successful period at Reading. However, the current difficult predicament appears to have exposed his limited experience as a manager. Before joining Reading, his only exposure to club management was a four-year stint at Chicago Fire in the MLS. Yet, Paunović's exposure to this experience will develop his coaching ability for future roles if he does not remain in place at Reading.
One To Watch: John Swift
One of the few bright sparks for Reading so far this season, it is no surprise that John Swift has garnered considerable attention this January transfer window. Some fans have recently questioned his commitment, as speculation over his future continues to rumble on in the background. But we cannot understate his importance for Reading in the first half of the season. The 26-year-old has managed to supply eight goals and nine assists to date for Reading despite their current precarious situation.
A graduate of the highly-rated Chelsea youth setup, John Swift will likely be considered one of the best free-agent transfers in Championship history. However, his stint at Chelsea spotted with numerous loans across the EFL, proved disappointing. He struggled to break into the first team despite impressive performances at his temporary clubs. As a result, Reading swooped in to sign the talented midfielder when his contract ended at Chelsea. He has made 187 appearances for the side since his 2016 arrival.
During his time at Brentford, it became apparent that he had enough talent to establish himself as a solid Championship midfielder. However, it was the current stint of his career. He fulfilled and outdid these expectations, becoming one of the best midfielders in the league. His development as a player coincided with his growing importance for the Royals. Paunović's side now heavily relies on his brilliance from game to game, which is mirrored in the club's statistics to date. The most prominent and yet least surprising indications of his importance are his direct goal contributions. This season's eight goals comfortably secures him as the clubs' top goalscorer; with a goal every 255 minutes, he is the most prolific in minutes per goal. Meanwhile, his nine assists place him considerably ahead of the clubs next best players, Alen Halilovic and Josh Laurent, who have managed two assists so far. Furthermore, these assists are primarily born from his seven big chances created, showing that these returns aren't inflated beyond his importance by other players individual brilliance.
After establishing his importance, it's important to analyse why he is so effective. Unlike most players in his mould, John Swift carries the ball like a wide player. He contributes a solid 1.8 dribbles per match despite regularly starting in central areas of the pitch. By ball carrying from these central areas, Swift is disrupting expectations of what a midfielder in his position should do, providing something different and asking questions of the opposition. Furthermore, his close control and flair allow him to draw in defensive midfielders or defenders and take them on. Then he plays a ball to a teammate in the space opened up by the opposition player trying to close him down. This can be enough to separate a player from a crowd of similar players. Still, he marries these abilities with a knack to score goals and an excellent passing ability.
It is not a surprise that, as an advanced playmaker, John Swift is a capable passer of the ball. The 26-year-old is the third highest in successful passes per match, with him stringing 40.7 passes together on average. Yet, as his assist return indicates, these passes do more than maintain possession for the Royals. He averages 2.8 key passes per match, more than double the sides next highest key passer, Ovie Ejaria. It shows that he is accurate, selective and intelligent with his passes. As the lynchpin to Reading's attacking play, John Swift sees a lot of the ball, which helps to inflate his statistics. However, he must be capable of returning these figures regardless of the service he receives, highlighting his talent.
Meanwhile, his goalscoring record is not a random fluke. John Swift has shown a clinical eye not typically seen in any midfielder. The 26-year-old will seize any opportunity to make a try on goal, with him releasing an impressive 43 shots to date. From these 43 attempts on goal, Swift has managed to hit the target 17 times. This converts into an incredible 40% shot on target rate bettering Lionel Messi's current 28% shot on target rate, albeit at a considerably higher level. Swift's impressive clinical shooting mirrors in his clinical return. He has outperformed his expected goals by almost three (expected goals range from 4.9 to 5.31 depending on sources), showing that he is a considerably better finisher than the average marksman.
Suppose his impressive performance this season hasn't been accurately addressed. In that case, he is also a critical axel to the sides pressing game. John Swift has won the ball 16 times in the oppositions final third catching their opposite number on the hop and opening opportunities for his teammates. Furthermore, his ability to regain possession in these areas helps alleviate the strain on their currently struggling defence.
In John Swift, Reading has one of the best-attacking midfielders in the league. His on the ball ability and return to date have understandably garnered interest from clubs currently at a higher standing. However, away from this speculation, there is no doubt that John Swift is a severe danger.
Hot Prospect: Tom Dele-Bashiru
Under the current transfer embargo, Reading has been unable to turn to permanent transfers with transfer fees to augment their side this season. So instead, they have had to make the most of the loan market. Tom Dele-Bashiru is one such loanee who has managed to make a steady impression without setting the world alight during his time at Reading.
A graduate of the impressive Manchester City youth system, Dele-Bashiru moved away from the Etihad Stadium when he joined Watford on a free transfer in 2019. Despite leaving the sky blues for first-team minutes, appearances were hard to come by in his early years at Watford, leading to his current loan move to Reading. During his time at Reading, he has made 23 appearances, and he is second on the goal chart, with him netting four times to date.
A winger by trade, Dele-Bashiru is most experienced playing in any of the three roles behind the striker, most probably one of the main reasons behind his recruitment following the club's success with 4-2-3-1. However, in recent weeks, the clubs' struggle to find a footing or some sustainable form has led to Paunović turning to numerous formations. During this period, Dele-Bashiru's versatility has been on full display. The Watford loanee has featured in the wide roles as a pair of central attacking midfielders and a defensive midfielder during the most recent difficult period. Despite the fluidity of his role, the Nigerian Under-23 international has managed to score four goals and set up a goal for his teammates during the first half of the season.
Dele-Bashiru follows a similar archetype to John Swift but a lesser extent. His style may further explain his recruitment, considering the selective manner that Reading had to conduct themselves with after their embargo. At the same time, Paunović's decision to turn to two players to cover Swift's absence is explained by the gap between them (due to Swift being so good rather than the alternative). In addition, he is comfortable dribbling, often looking to dislodge the opposition through on-the-ball drives through central areas. His 1.3 dribbles per game may mean that he is only the 4th most frequent dribbler on the side, but his success rate of 60% means that they can trust Dele-Bashiru with the ball at his feet.
Additionally, Dele-Bashiru could improve upon his chance creation. His 14 key passes to date, or 0.6 key passes per 90, position him as the 4th most influential passer in the side. However, his impressive 86% pass success rate and his relatively minimal 22 passes per match mean that Dele-Bashiru can be trusted with maintaining possession.
Finally, his solid goalscoring return especially considering the clubs' current predicament, should not be sniffed at. While he is also outperforming his xG (expected goals) as the average forward would have scored three goals from the opportunities, Dele-Bashiru has shown a clinical ability that should not be underrated. However, despite his impressive return, Dele-Bashiru could still improve this area of his game as he has missed three big chances so far this season. If he had managed to put these opportunities away, then he would have had an awe-inspiring return so far.
In Dele-Bashiru, Paunović has managed to bring in a very talented attacking midfielder. However, he remains a raw talent that needs refining, which is likely to occur during this season. Dele-Bashiru could be an even more dangerous proposition when he enters next season, whether with Watford or elsewhere. He could fulfil expectations set on him during his time in Manchester City's youth system if he continues to refine his ability.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 3-1 Reading
There is no denying that Middlesbrough is the favourites coming into this fixture. The Teessiders go into this game almost the opposite form of their opponents. The Royals will be in their sights as potentially three points. However, it is crucial that Middlesbrough, and their fans, do not get complacent. Reading remains a dangerous team going forward, and there is quite a high likelihood that they endanger our goal at some point during the game. Nonetheless, Middlesbrough should have enough to deal with the threat, and they should have enough talent to score the goals needed to keep all three points at the Riverside.