As Championship managerial debuts go, Veljko Paunovic couldn’t have asked for much better against Derby County last weekend.
A 2-0 away win for Reading was a result that few had predicted going into the weekend considering the rather chaotic build-up to the season the Royals had had: the Serbian only took his first training session post-quarantine four days earlier. But the Royals looked surprisingly slick and assured at Pride Park. Credit must go to the defence for being so organised, but the real highlight was the performance of Lucas Joao.
The striker showcased everything he is good at – he may be 6ft 4in but he is so much more than a target man. His hold-up play is a real asset to the team, while he is also incredibly skilful, epitomised by his back-heel assist for Ovie Ejaria’s goal. After a hat-trick against Colchester in the Carabao Cup, there are few strikers in the country on better form than Joao right now.
Of course the big question mark over him is his fitness, as he missed a combined four months of last season through injury. Reading’s performances and results noticeably suffered without him and there has to be a worry that that may happen again. If he can stay off the treatment table though, Joao is surely a good bet for 20 goals this year.
There is not just optimism on an individual level, as Saturday’s result gave a glimpse of Reading’s potential as a team. The omens are certainly good – the last time we won on the opening day we reached the play-off final and the last time we won our first away league game of the season we won the Championship title. Get the champagne order in now.
In all seriousness, Reading will certainly face much tougher tests than an off-colour Derby side. The Rams offered minimal attacking threat and had also failed to score against EFL new boys Barrow in the Carabao Cup the previous weekend. Fixtures against Cardiff City and Watford in the next few weeks will provide more of an indicator of whether the Royals could really be promotion contenders come May.
Tuesday’s cup clash with Luton Town was an altogether different test, least of all because Paunovic made 11 changes from the win over Derby. With six academy graduates in the starting line-up and a further six on the bench, it was at least an encouraging sign that the Serbian is willing to trust youth when possible.
Yet in truth, the quality was lacking from the majority of the youngsters – hardly a surprise considering they struggled in the Under 18 Premier League last season – but more worryingly from the more senior players too. Namely, Paul Clement’s offcuts Sam Baldock, Marc McNulty and Sone Aluko; if they were auditioning for more a regular role, they almost certainly won’t get it.
Personnel wise, Paunovic will have learnt one key lesson from his first two games in the dugout. His first XI promise to be very good indeed, but strength in depth may be an issue as the season wears on. Don’t be surprised to see some transfer activity in the coming days.