All the focus was on one man in the build up to Monday’s game against Derby County: Lucas João.
The striker’s open goal miss at a crucial time of the game against Barnsley on Easter Friday was as frustrating as it was unbelievable, and led to many supporters asking for him to be dropped from the starting lineup.
Whatever your view on the situation, it was undeniable that João had suffered a severe drop off in form, scoring just once in his previous nine matches and looking low on a confidence. He was a shadow of the player that terrorised Championship defences in the first half of the campaign.
We’ll never know whether Veljko Paunović had been reading comments on social media or not, but the Serbian did make the call to leave Joao out of Reading’s team on Monday and bring in George Pușcaș in his place.
The decision worked perfectly. Pușcaș netted Reading’s second goal of the game after Michael Olise’s rocket of an opener, giving the Royals a cushion against the Rams.
When Tom Lawrence’s thunderbolt got the visitors back into the game, Paunovic brought Joao off the bench and the Portuguese scored with his first touch to make it 3-1 and prevent a nervy end to the match.
It couldn’t have panned out much better. Pușcaș’goal vindicated the decision to drop Joao, but for Reading’s top scorer to come on as a substitute and get on the scoresheet himself will have been a huge confidence boost.
But now Paunović faces the same João or Pușcaș conundrum ahead of the trip to Watford on Friday night.
Personally I would stick with the Romanian. It would seem harsh to drop him to the bench after he did what he was brought in to do on Monday, and now has two goals and an assist from his last four starts.
Pușcaș didn’t really do much wrong against Derby and his poacher-like nature may be well suited against Watford’s mean defence.
However something tells me that Paunovic might turn back to João. The two have a very good relationship, and the manager may have assured the Portuguese that he was simply taking him out of the firing line on Monday.
We have seen that man-management is key with Joao and a start against Watford could be seen as a reward for scoring off the bench against Derby.
Of course there is the option to deploy both players upfront together – a system Paunović has experimented with on a couple of occasions this season – but that seems unlikely.
It would mean that a midfielder would have to drop out of the side and that neither seems fair on players who have been performing well, or logical, with Watford possessing the quality to seriously hurt Reading if the Royals were to be too expansive at Vicarage Road.
It makes you wonder what the long-term plan was for Pușcaș and João when they were signed for a combined £13 million within 24 hours of each other in August 2019. Was one set to play back up to the other?
Were they going to play together? Or perhaps, in true Dai Yongge megalomaniac style, it was just a case of packing in as much quality into the squad as possible in the hope of getting to the Premier League. In fairness, that plan isn’t going too badly.
By Olly Allen