There has been a lot to praise Veljko Paunović for this season.
He has taken a Reading team who have spent almost all of the last three years in the bottom half of the Championship and transformed them into promotion contenders, creating a fantastic team spirit and a genuine likeability about the squad.
But I will, just for this one column, pick apart what seems to be one of Paunović’s weaknesses as a manager. Substitutions. The Serbian either does not deploy them particularly well, or is reluctant to use them at all.
Let’s start with the first point. I can’t think of many truly game-changing substitutions Paunović has made this season. Perhaps the introduction of eventual match winner Michael Olise away at Queens Park Rangers, but aside from that, very few players have come on and made a genuine difference to the way a game has turned out.
As a reverse of that, it’s hard not to mention Tom Holmes being substituted off for Andy Yiadom against Millwall last weekend and the Lions scoring their two goals soon after. While I don’t subscribe to the view that the switch cost Reading the game, it did seem a slightly strange move to firstly disrupt the backline and secondly not to take off an attacking player to help the Royals see out the game.
It was an example of uncertain game management from Paunović that has been highlighted on a few occasions this season.
The fact that he has not had much success with substitutions perhaps leads the Serbian to think he won’t use them as much, or as early. He does not seem to trust many of the players on the bench to come on and make an impact, and in that sense we come full circle.
There is not a particularly great deal of quality available to Paunović in terms of players who will turn a match around.
With due respect to players like Sam Baldock and Sone Aluko, who work hard enough, they’re not game-changing players who enthuse supporters or inspire their teammates.
It comes back to the regular discussion around Reading’s small squad size, which has been good for creating a tight-knit group, but not so good when you’re looking for adequate backups in certain positions.
Plenty of academy players have bulked out the bench in recent months, but again there is a reluctance from Paunović to use any of them. Dejan Tetek’s four minute cameo against Bristol City on Tuesday was only his third substitute appearance despite being named on the bench on 19 occasions. Similarly, Jayden Onen has come on one out of a possible 15 times.
Even if Reading have a comfortable lead in a game, substitutions should be made to give key players a rest. Everyone knows how demanding the fixture schedule is, and if you can afford to limit fatigue in certain matches then you should.
Paunović eventually did do this on Tuesday night – taking off Lucas Joao, Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise from the 86th minute onwards – but he arguably could have done this a while earlier.
I’m sure Paunović is still learning as a manager, but if he can become slightly more adventurous with his substitutions, then Reading will be in a better position to finish games strongly.
By Olly Allen