Reading’s summer spending seems to have been completed with six signings all looking to push into the side which won the Championship last season. One of the most interesting battles comes at left-back, as former Royal Nicky Shorey has re-signed to challenge Ian Harte for the shirt. Both players have Premier League experience – Harte most famously with Leeds United, Shorey for multiple clubs including Reading, Aston Villa and most recently West Brom. So who is likely to start against Stoke in three weeks?
Harte or Shorey for Reading First XI?
Ian Harte has consistently been a key part of the Reading system over the last two years, reflected in his goal/assist tallies and his recognition in the Actim Index. Last season Harte was ranked as the 24th best Championship player overall, and 9th best defender. In the 2011/1 season he fared even better, as the 11th best player and 2nd best defender in the league. As mentioned before, Harte’s ability from dead-ball situations is what helps him achieve these high scores. In the 2011/2 season the Irishman notched 4 goals and 11 assists, whilst the previous season saw him grab 11 goals, many of these from the penalty spot. Thus his contribution to the team going forward cannot be underestimated.
Defensively is where many Reading fans call Ian Harte into question. In the Play-Off Final 2011 Swansea exploited Harte time and again, recognising that his lack of pace would allow them to get in behind. This tactic directly led to two of Swansea’s four goals – Reading will certainly be nervous to allow the likes of Valencia, Lennon and Aguero facing off against him. However, last season saw Reading use a deeper line to avoid runners easily getting behind the defence. The Royals in fact had the best defence in the League last year, conceding just 41 goals in 46 games and keeping 20 clean sheets. The fact that they only scored 69 goals (joint 5th in the League) meant that the defensive record was even more important – Harte started 32 of Reading’s 46 League games last season.
The question, then, is whether to sacrifice Harte’s set-piece ability for Shorey’s superior pace and defensive work. The returning Royal was voted Reading’s best ever left-back in a poll in 2005, whilst he came 2nd in their “Player of the Season” poll in 2007, their first ever season in the Premier League. Shorey scored 12 goals for Reading in 267 appearances in his first spell at the Madejski Stadium, predominantly from free-kicks. As designated set-piece taker he also grabbed 12 assists for the Royals during their first two top-flight seasons. His moves elsewhere saw others ahead of him in the queue to take free-kicks and corners – last season he only took three direct free-kicks; two off-target and one saved. However, it’s certain that Reading will see him or Ian Harte as the primary left-footed set-piece taker come August.
But Shorey’s defensive work has not been as recognisable in the years since he left Reading. The Royals’ first ever season in the Premier League saw them finish 8th, with the joint 9th best defensive record. However the following season saw Reading’s defence collapse, as they were relegated with the second worst goals conceded column in the PL. He was a part of 3 clean sheets in the next season at Villa who finished 6th, but he was dropped halfway through the season after poor performances. He kept 4 whilst on loan at Fulham during the second half of the 2009/10 season in a side which finished 12th. The 2010/11 campaign, his first season at West Brom, saw just one clean sheet in the worst defence in the Premier League, whilst last season at The Hawthorns he was a part of 3 clean sheets as the Baggies finished 10th.
Shorey does seem to be a player who has grown into a Premier League left-back. He may have earned his two England caps whilst still at Reading but the move to Aston Villa after the Royals’ relegation seemed to affect his performances negatively, as he only had a 66% pass completion rate. At Fulham this increased to 75% whilst his two seasons with West Brom saw him average 77%. In his first season with the Baggies he created 35 chances (31 from open play and 4 from set-pieces) whilst the last campaign saw this decrease from to 24 (23/1). This in itself suggests that the Baggies reacted to their shambolic defensive record in 2010/1 by stopping the full-backs going forward – a system which Reading used last year en route to winning The Championship. Instead the Royals relied on passes to the wingers to unlock the opposition defence, and Nicky Shorey was used in a similar role, as 350 of his 729 accurate passes went to the left-wing. Thus the returning Royal should slot straight into Brian McDermott’s side, should he decide to keep faith with the system which won them the League.
So the big question then: Shorey or Harte? I don’t think it’s as academic as choosing only one player, as McDermott has the guile and confidence to choose a team to face each opposition side. Harte may be the first choice when not facing dangerous, pacey right wingers, though the deep defensive line Reading use will help to limit exposure of his lack of pace. Shorey, though used more as a full-back at West Brom, certainly offers more going forward in open-play than Harte so for six-pointers against fellow relegation candidates McDermott may choose to bring in Shorey to exploit the opposition’s defensive frailties. One thing is for sure – the left-back position at Reading is sure to be the most hotly contested one this season.