After a Christmas period that can be described as, at best, dreary and after 8 games with only 5 goals scored, the side has suddenly sprung into life. Massive home wins against Bolton and Blackpool preceding the biggest away win of the season and Reading are now a side who look like they can score for fun.
The turn around in performance has been astonishing and it begs the questions, what’s changed? The obvious answer is to note that the change has coincided with the absence of Danny Guthrie in the midfield. If that’s right, how is it that losing arguably the best player in the side has actually benefited the team?
Danny Guthrie, along with Pavel Pogrebnyak has dominated The Tilehurst End’s player of the month votes this season. Until New Year he was ever present in a side well in the playoff hunt and moreover, he was the key man in an ever changing midfield. As the players in the centre seemed to be on a continual rotation (first Jem Karacan, then Danny Williams, then Chris Baird, even Hope Akpan and Jobi McAnuff have been paired with him) the constant was last year’s free transfer from Newcastle United. But Guthrie’s been more than just a regular selection, he’s been central to what Nigel Adkins is trying to do with the team.
Ever since Adkins came in at Reading he’s been very passionate about how he believes the game should be played: ball on the deck and retaining possession and it’s fair to say that it’s had a mixed reception from fans. Whilst the side has been performing well enough in terms of results, the actual football on display has often been uninspiring and fans, still feeling the effects of the "Rodgers’ Revolution" have been very sceptical. Integral to his approach is the role of Danny Guthrie as the playmaker with everything going through him. As soon as a defender picks the ball up they are looking for him and he’s the man that instigates attacks.
That approach worked fairly well initially but opposition sides quickly cottoned on and soon enough Guthrie was being marked out of the game and Reading looked completely clueless, relying on set pieces to create anything. Moreover, because of the role Guthrie has been given, it made it almost impossible to alter the formation. There were little tweaks but moves such as Guthrie playing directly behind Pavel Pogrebnyak just didn’t work. But still Adkins persisted as Reading limped through games, remaining close enough to the top of table to not panic but never really threatening better sides. Guthrie’s performances deteriorated and his confidence seemed to be dropping but with no other obvious alternatives, he stayed in the side.
That all changed when he picked up a calf injury in the FA Cup defeat at Brighton and Reading’s hand was forced. Faced with a month without his playmaker, the Reading manager had no option but to change approach and the results have been stark.
In the 5 games that Guthrie has missed Reading's starting lineup has been unchanged and they've played with a directness and confidence that would have been unimaginable before Christmas. The change in formation to a 4-4-2 much better suits the players available and there are some great partnerships forming as a result. Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary know each other’s games inside out after years of playing together but the latter looks reborn in a much more straightforward role and the man who is leading the Championship’s assists looks threatening every time he gets the ball. Every Reading goal seems to stem from his direct running.
The worry that Hope Akpan and Danny Williams wouldn’t have the quality on the ball has been proved completely irrelevant as they too have benefitted from a more ‘back to basics’ approach. They aren’t being asked to run the game or start attacks, their brief is much simpler: win the ball and give it to a wide player. This has been made a hell of a lot easier with the decision to bring Jordan Obita into the side at left back.
The young Academy winger hadn’t really set the world on fire, despite showing some promise in his handful of appearances on the left wing and more than a few eyebrows were raised when he came into the side at Watford in place of Shaun Cummings. In hindsight the move is so obvious that it’s hard to believe it was ever questioned. Obita effectively does the same job on the left as Gunter on the right; he can play further forward. One of the reasons that Akpan and Williams have been able to go about their business so efficiently is that the impressive full backs are the players that are taking the ball off them because they’re pushed up much further. That in turn allows McAnuff and McCleary to push up and support the front two and in an instant, the opposition are under pressure. All the more so because the two full backs are able to beat a man and put a cross in themselves, something that Cummings and Stephen Kelly can’t really offer.
Then you have the front two. We saw glimpses when Billy Sharp was at the club of the benefit of giving Pogrebnyak a strike partner. What is surprising though is how quickly he and Adam Le Fondre have clicked. The run off the ball that the Russian made to open up the space for Le Fondre’s third against Blackpool was a brilliant and Le Fondre’s touch to set up his partner in the same game showed an awareness and touch that hadn’t really been evident earlier in the season. The two of them look lethal and Le Fondre in particular is playing with so much confidence that you're waiting for him to score rather than wondering if he will.
Nigel Adkins says that Danny Guthrie’s return to full fitness has given him a selection headache. I don’t think it has. The side is settled and playing well, I see no reason to tinker with it. If anything, it’s Guthrie who will have to adapt his game for this team, not the other way around.