After an entertaining 1-1 draw with Norwich to start the 17/18 season, Fulham travels to face their bitter rivals, Reading. It might as well have been yesterday when the Cottagers last set foot at the Madejski Stadium and were denied their chance of promotion via the playoffs. Surely, the fans, coaches, and players will be seeking revenge the likes of which we haven’t seen in some time. It may not matter in the long run, considering how early we are in the Championship season, but because of all those reasons, this is a big game this Saturday.
That all being said, if there is a time to face Reading at their weakest, now might be it. Jaap Stam’s side is coming off a 2-0 defeat to Queen’s Park Rangers to start their campaign and you could almost pick a starting XI of Reading players that are injured in some capacity right now.
Still, Reading was a well-drilled team last season and was one penalty shootout away from playing in the Premier League. Whether or not you liked their style of play is of the eye of the beholder, but you can’t argue that it was effective. Not only did no side come close to within 400 long ball passes in the championship than Reading’s total last season (2,259), no one came within 3.3% of their completion percentage from those long ball passes either (52.8%).
Before Fulham’s playoff run against Reading, I profiled five of their key men and most of them have stayed with the club. This time around, I’ll present two mainstays and one newcomer that will be key for today’s fixture wearing the blue and white this Saturday.
The former Chelsea academy product hopes to continue to grow his game after a successful first season at Reading and being a member of England’s Under-21 squad at the European Championships. His radar profiles him as a perfect attacking wide player, and a poor man’s Floyd Ayite is the first that springs to mind when looking at his body of work. That being said, there are definitely areas for the 22-year old to improve on.
While carrying a career 14.7% shooting percentage in league games at Premier League and Championship level, Swift has never had a season where he has shot over 2.3 shots per 90 minutes. That’s a bit of a shame when also considering that 45.5% of those league shots go on target. To put things in perspective, Harry Kane’s shot on target ratio since 2012/13 under those same leagues is 46.7%. Context surely is everything, but that also doesn’t mean we should discount how much potential Swift can unleash.
Along with that, only Garath McClearly had a better total of dribbles than Swift’s 79 in 2016/17. If he can find a way to get into the penalty area more often, as evidenced by his team leading 44 shots from outside the box, Swift can develop even further as an above average threat at Championship level.
While Reading fans are happy that Swift can be counted upon as a long term asset at the club, it surely must have been a surprise to see Ali Al-Habsi leave to play club football in Saudi Arabia. Sure, at 35 and being so far away from his native Oman must be understandable reasons for such an experienced veteran to leave England, but there’s no denying Al-Habsi has left such a massive void in Reading’s net.
In comes in Vito Manonne: a man who also knows what it takes to play at a Premier League level. Unlike Al-Habsi, Manonne doesn’t have that much experience being a full-fledged number one goalkeeper, despite already being 29 years old.
While Al-Habsi has spent six of his last seven seasons in England playing the majority of the season’s games for his respective clubs, Manonne has one been able to do that twice in the last six years. Starting his professional career at Arsenal will do that to his numbers, but he has had the chance to make a name for himself at Hull City and Sunderland to no avail.
That being said, Manonne had to be solid in net during Reading’s capitulation against QPR. More will be counted upon him if Reading’s attack and team-wide health do not get better.
We finish this week’s post with another academy product from one of the most successful clubs in England. While Swift unsurprisingly couldn’t get any form of playing time at Chelsea, Blackett did have a chance while at Manchester United. However, the standards are that club are titles or bust and Louis Van Gaal and Blackett were just not good enough to deliver such promises; even if he was 20 at the time.
Now at 23, Blackett is establishing himself to the Reading faithful and can only get better. He has only played one season where he has been considered a full-fledged starter at his position at any club, so even he’ll need more seasons to prove his worth. But so far, Blackett has shone some solid defensive attributes in a Jaap Stam coached team. Last season, he was above the 50th percentile in all defensive categories except aerial wins and no one else on Reading came close to his 78 interceptions.
As evidenced by his crossing success rate, it will be fascinating to see what comes of Blackett’s attacking game if he were to ever bomb forward, but who knows if that will be possible while playing for such a defensive-minded manager. One thing to observe from that is Stam’s new 3-4-3 formation that he trotted out in the first game of the season. If the manager continues to use it, will we keep seeing Blackett utilized as a wingback or moved more towards the back three, especially with Tiago Llori suspended for this game. It’s still early days this Championship season, but I’m sure plenty of those questipns will be answered by the time May comes around.