Amid a run of games against top-six sides, Reading go up against a mid-table one on Boxing Day: 14th-placed Luton Town. The Hatters are enjoying a much more stress-free campaign this time out, having struggled last season after promotion from League One.
Luton fan and football journo Matt Storey puts much of that improvement down to the return of Nathan Jones. The Welshman guided Town from the fourth tier into the third, and had them on track for a Championship return before he joined Stoke City in early 2019. He helped the Hatters stay in the second tier after returning at the end of May this year in time for the post-lockdown fixtures.
You’ve had a much better season so far than last term - why is that?
We have a better manager in charge - and everything stems from that. There is just no questioning that Nathan Jones is the perfect fit for Luton - even with the way he left, he just gets our football club.
Where he talks us up as top-eight side, Graeme Jones was saying how great Nottingham Forest were because they won the European Cup 40 years ago. It’s a complete shift in attitude from the man in charge. Jones instils belief in our players, he makes them feel 10-feet tall and takes some of them to levels they didn’t know they had. While I don’t harbour any ill feeling to GJ, he wasn’t half the boss NJ is.
We’ve also been far smarter in the transfer market under NJ. Before our first season back at this level, we signed a vast array of Championship journeymen like Jacob Butterfield, Callum McManaman and Ryan Tunnicliffe. This summer we brought in players with a point to prove at this level, like Tom Lockyer and Jordan Clark, and a couple of Premier League youngsters on loan. That, coupled with the rest of our squad having played a year at this level, means we look a far, far stronger unit.
How does Nathan Jones set his side up tactically?
We have either played a 5-3-2 or a 4-3-3 this season, fluctuating between both quite regularly. In all honesty, we’ve produced both good and bad performances in both formations, but I’d be a little surprised if we moved away from the 4-3-3 after some good recent performances in the past few weeks.
Our press has been really impressive recently, winning the ball back high up the pitch. An admittedly injury-hit Norwich couldn’t cope with it, our home victory over Preston was our best performance since promotion and we were the better side against Bournemouth. It has been a little different away from home - take out the 4-0 defeat at Cardiff and we’ve only conceded seven and scored four goals on the road.
What are the main strengths of this team?
Our defence has been our main strength this year. We have kept seven clean sheets in 20 games; it took us 45 games to reach that number in 2019/20. It hasn’t been the case of the same back line featuring every week either - there have been numerous changes and everyone has slotted in. Look out for Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall in the middle, too. He’s on a season-long loan from Leicester and is an absolute Rolls Royce in the middle of the park.
We have lacked quality in the opposition box at times. That is both our final ball not being good enough and missing big chances that have ultimately cost us points. If James Collins doesn’t score, you do question where the goals are going to come from at times.
What have you made of Reading this season?
Surprised! I actually predicted you to go down in a prediction/betting slate I do with friends - that looks silly now. I did the live blog for Sky on your games with Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest, so think I’ve seen both the best and worst of you. Some of the attacking football is easy on the eye and I think Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise would get into basically every Championship side.
On the flip side, your defence has fallen off a cliff and I don’t think you’ll get near the play-offs due to the issues there. I may be misreading the room but after the upheaval pre-season, finishing in the top half would seem a real success for the Royals.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
I can’t see anything other than a tight affair - that’s the way our away games go and there is no reason this will be any different. I also hope to see a bit more quality on show given every Championship side have enjoyed a midweek off. I do think the schedule has really affected the standard and entertainment on offer in the league this year. Head says 1-1 draw, heart says a 1-0 victory for the Hatters!