Christmas tree delivers a point for Royals

Posted by Jon Keen

Warren Little/Getty ImagesThe work rate of Reading midfielder Jem Karacan was a big reason why the Royals were able to slow down Swansea in their Boxing Day contest.

Loyal Royals will take heart from this match. As well as winning a hard-fought point which lifts them off the foot of the Premier League table, they'll rejoice in the clear fact that Brian McDermott and his team are starting to learn how to compete in the Premier League, and that McDermott, in particular, is prepared at last to adapt his formation away from his long-beloved 4-4-2. After nearly coming away from Manchester City on Saturday with a 4-5-1, he again played a variation of this formation against the Swans. Perhaps with an eye on the calendar, he opted for a 4-3-2-1 "Christmas Tree" with Jem Karacan (back from injury) and Danny Guthrie playing as the "two", behind lone striker Pavel Pogrebnyak.

- Match report: Reading 0-0 Swansea

And this was largely effective in stifling Swansea, with the partnership of Karacan and Guthrie being an absolute revelation. Hassling, harrying and hard-tackling, working hard to close down Swansea possession while always ready to break forward at pace, this partnership just clicked from the start. It is known that Karacan always had this kind of game in him, but Guthrie, although much talked about, was a largely unknown quantity who many thought needed the ball to be won for him. On this showing, he was more than capable of doing his own donkey work, and he and Karacan are now bound to the first names on the team sheet every week.

But while Karacan and Guthrie were doing well winning the ball in midfield, unfortunately they had Pogrebnyak in front of them, a striker with the pace and maneuverability of an oil-tanker. He also showed little willingness to chase the ball, allowing the Swansea defence to pass themselves virtually to death. But the majority of this passing was deep in the Swansea half where it couldn't hurt Reading, and their chances were few and far between in a drab first-half, although Michu for Swansea did spurn two great chances to take the lead.

Early on, Michu went on a solo run, beating three Reading defenders before putting his shot wide. However the worst miss came just before the half-hour mark when he wasted a gilt-edge Christmas gift from Royals -- a cross came in which was chested down by Chris Gunter to Adam Federici on the six-yard line only to see Federici ignore it and stay rooted to his line. The ball fell to Michu who shot well over the bar from close range. In an otherwise unremarkable first half, there were minimal other talking points, but those of a superstitious nature might view those misses as an indication that Reading's luck, which has been dismal for weeks now, may just be starting to change.

In the second half, Reading took the game much more to Swansea, and looked vastly more effective once Pogrebnyak was replaced by Adam Le Fondre just after the hour mark, after Pogrebnyak slid into a tackle late and with his studs up and received a yellow card. That tackle seemed almost to be played out in slow motion -- with a bit more speed and energy, he might have received a straight red card, but that lack of speed and energy summed up Pogrebnyak's whole performance today. At the same time, Hal Robson-Kanu was replaced Jobi McAnuff, which is another indication that McDermott is learning some adaptability and flexibility -- for most of this season McAnuff has seemed immune from being substituted regardless of his performance or the state of the game.

As the second half went on, Reading looked more and more like the team most likely to score. Their wingers had some useful runs forward, instead of being constrained in defence as they so often are. A restriction of Reading's current system is the need to provide cover for the porous defence, meaning that the wingers' defensive duties take priority over any attacking role. Jimmy Kebe, for instance, spent much of the first half and virtually the entire Manchester City match covering back almost as a second right-back.

But playing with pace and aggression, Reading looked a different team to that of recent weeks, and for the final 10-15 minutes it was Swansea who were holding on against Reading pressure. A superb header by Chico Flores from under his own bar to keep out a Le Fondre pile-driver ensured the game stayed goalless, and the less said the better about Le Fondre's embarrassing punch of the ball into the Swansea net, for which he was booked and gained no credit in anyone's eyes.

So, although it's not a win, this might well be a turning point in Reading's season. Certainly, the downwards plummet has been halted and there is now scope to start climbing out of trouble, as well as the notion that today the team showed more imagination and creativity than they have for many weeks, with a midfield partnership of Guthrie and Karacan that has transformed the team's options. But most importantly for Loyal Royals was the desire and fighting spirit shown by the team. Both of these have been largely absent for weeks, and although the revival may be too late to keep Reading in the Premier League this season, we at least know that they now won't go down without a fight.

ESPN Conversations