Championship side Reading took a small step in dragging themselves away from relegation danger on Saturday afternoon, as they secured a vital 3-2 away victory at Swansea City.
Not only was this important for their survival prospects after being dragged down the table by their six-point deduction for breaking profit and sustainability rules, but it was also their first competitive win against the Swans for over 13 years and they had never won a league game at the Swansea.com Stadium before the weekend.
Tom Dele-Bashiru and ex-England internationals Andy Carroll and Danny Drinkwater were the goalscorers on the afternoon, responding immediately to both of the home side’s goals and with that, are now a more comfortable four points above the drop zone.
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But this is just one important match of many for the Berkshire outfit with others around them also picking up points at the weekend – and they will be hoping to win as many games as possible over the Christmas period to set themselves up nicely for the next calendar year.
If Liam Moore and Ovie Ejaria’s absence on Saturday reinforces anything though, it’s the fact they will continue to face challenges throughout the next month.
Manager Veljko Paunovic will have his own dilemmas to contend with as we approach December – and we have selected just two of those in this piece.
The Royals have played with a back three and a back four this season, with Paunovic opting to choose the latter for the previous two games against Sheffield United and Swansea.
Having played three central defenders against Nottingham Forest prior to these two games, Tom Holmes was the man to drop out in favour of an extra midfielder against the Blades, a decision that was not popular amongst many fans after seeing the former perform well against Steve Cooper’s men.
Although the back four didn’t work well in midweek, it did against Swansea and this may persuade the Royals’ boss to persist with it going into their December fixtures.
A return date for centre-back and captain Moore hasn’t been set just yet, but his return and Tom McIntyre’s potential comeback will cause a real selection dilemma with the Berkshire outfit arguably suited better to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation.
With their lack of threatening wingers at this stage and a sufficient amount of squad at centre-back when Moore and McIntyre return, they may benefit from moving away from a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 system in December if they want to make the most of their talented squad.
The second-tier side may also get the best out of the likes of Andy Carroll, George Puscas and Femi Azeez if they play two up top, so adopting a 3-4-1-2 with Baba Rahman and Andy Yiadom providing the wide threat and John Swift playing in the number ten role could pay dividends.
How to manage Andy Carroll
Carroll’s injury record during his playing career hasn’t been the best – the main reservation some supporters had when he arrived at the club on a short-term contract earlier this month.
After playing half an hour against Forest and the Blades in his first two appearances for the club, he made his maiden start against the Swans at the weekend and played 81 minutes before making way for Puscas.
He was a vital asset against Russell Martin’s men, winning his aerial battles and scoring a magnificent goal to put the visitors 2-1 up in the 30th minute.
With five games coming up in December, not the most gruelling schedule considering how packed last season’s fixture list was, there may be the temptation to start the 32-year-old in every game.
That could work with the Royals only playing one per game week for the majority of the month, but a Boxing Day clash at Peterborough United is shortly followed by a home tie against current league leaders Fulham before they take on Derby County on January 3rd.
Ideally, Carroll would be rested against the Cottagers but against such a formidable opponent in Marco Silva’s men, it would be almost impossible to drop the ex-Newcastle United man if he’s in form at that stage.
They won’t want to risk an injury though with Yakou Meite expected to be out for the long-term and Lucas Joao’s own injury record coming into question.
Joao is expected back in January, but keeping their current number nine fit will still be important in their quest to move away from the drop zone.