Tottenham Hotspur vs. Reading: 5 Things We Learned
After going behind to an early Pavel Pogrebnyak strike, Tottenham responded swiftly with a headed Michael Dawson equaliser.
Emmanuel Adebayor contributed a header of his own before Clint Dempsey sealed the three points with a long-range shot that deflected wickedly over a helpless Adam Federici.
Andre Villas-Boas' side were deserving of the win, approaching the relegation-threatened Royals with a suitably relentless tempo that had the visitors on the back-foot for the majority of the match.
It was not the most eventful days for either team, but still, there were a few things to learn in this first game of 2013 for both.
Kyle Naughton Is Getting Better at Left-Back
This writer has been critical of Kyle Naughton's deployment at left-back, questioning the merit of using a player so easily exposed on his weaker side by any winger of note.
As a right-back proper, there was an understandable logic to using him as cover on the opposite flank, but beyond that it seemed foolish to have him learn on the job in an environment as challenging as the Premier League.
Naughton's improving performances in the position are proving what a rash judgement that was.
Reading did not give him as much to do as Sunderland did in his previous outing, but the 24-year-old once again demonstrated his increasing aptitude for the demands of a familiar position in reverse.
Positionally Naughton is becoming more aware of the adjustments he has to make in accommodating for the different perspectives of being on his left, and with that awareness he is finding greater success in stopping the opposition in their tracks when they enter his area.
Right-back is Naughton's stronger position, but Spurs will be happy to know he can cover elsewhere when needed.
There Is Life in the Adebayor/Defoe Partnership Yet
Tottenham fans have been concerned at Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe's struggle to click in their strike partnership this season.
Injuries elsewhere in the side have meant Villas-Boas has persevered with the two of them, partly for want of a better option, but also because there have been hints of the duo being quite effective.
A return to the 4-2-3-1 formation Spurs favored for much of the season is possible at some point, but the pair's performances in relation to each other against Reading indicated there is hope for them yet.
They made their mark on the game more individually than as a twosome (Adebayor scoring a fine second for Spurs), but their were a few instances in which they linked up nicely together.
While it is not working for them on that front as much as they may like, the benefits of having two natural forwards upfront have been and were once again there to see.
Both in their own ways give the opposition something to contend with.
Adebayor is a presence that cannot be ignored and Defoe is always likely to get in positions to get a few shots off.
Villas-Boas Will Have to Settle on His Preferred Defense Soon
Villas-Boas' rotation of his defense has been partly necessitated by injuries, but mostly it has served as a way of giving one or two of the group a rest at a time while getting a good look at whoever has played.
The Spurs boss has some quality defenders to choose from, something that was not always apparent in their failure to organise themselves adequately and the subsequent goals that cost them.
It is to the credit of all parties concerned that they have made a concentrated effort to improve here, and the hope will be they can maintain this greater level of focus for the remainder of the campaign.
The back four against Reading (Walker-Dawson-Vertonghen-Naughton) performed well overall, but there were a few situations they found themselves caught out, and not by particularly inspired Reading attacks either.
This happens sometimes, however with plenty of tough fixtures coming up Spurs could do with minimising any potential reasons for the errors that previously plagued them.
Establishing a preferred defensive line-up would aid these attempts considerably.
Having used virtually all of his available options recently (and with others like Benoit Assou-Ekotto due to come back), Villas-Boas will likely have a good idea of who he would like to proceed with—which names they will be remains to be seen.
Spurs Can Get by Without Gareth Bale
Tottenham will be keen not to have to make do without Gareth Bale too many more times this season.
The winger is so often a thrilling part of Villas-Boas' team at their best, ideally they will want him as an ever-present from here on out (injuries and diving practice permitting).
But the Reading game showed there is more to Spurs than Bale and that they are capable of getting by without him.
There was pace and penetration from the likes of Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe, while Mousa Dembele and Sandro were among those kept the team playing and full of ideas, even when Reading made it hard to get through.
Overall it was a performance that showed Spurs' ability to play an attractive and effective brand of football is not reliant on just one player.
However with that said, they are undoubtedly a stronger team when Bale is starting.
Reading Need to Beat the Teams Around Them to Survive
It might sound incredibly obvious, but if Reading are to avoid relegation this season they are going to need to beat the teams around them.
Unless there is a marked improvement in quality (or Brian McDermott is able to bring in some new faces to achieve this) it is hard to see them getting too much more out of games with the Premier League top six or seven teams—something which is worrying considering wins against such opponents are nearly always vital to inspiring some sense of momentum.
This is not to say they cannot—their win against Everton and the problems they caused Arsenal (albeit in the Capital One Cup) and Manchester United showed they are up for the fight—but any good team on their day should have little trouble dispatching them.
Tottenham were a little lucky not to be caught out in the second-half by them, but they were playing well enough they probably would have come back even if they had conceded a second goal.
Positively for Reading the teams around them at the bottom are similarly struggling to get anything against the top sides.
If they can start picking up points against their fellow relegation rivals it may be enough to see them safe.
But that is a big "if."