Reading were pointless, goalless and bottom of the table after four Women’s Super League games this season – now they are four points off a Champions League qualification spot and undefeated in six matches.
Kelly Chambers’ side saw off defending champions Chelsea before Christmas in one of the shocks of the season.
They carried that momentum into the new year with victory against Leicester last weekend and they will be hoping to do the same against league leaders Arsenal this Sunday.
Chambers said they expected a “slow” start to the season because of a high turnover of players in the summer. They “needed time to gel” but, after four straight defeats, the Reading boss knew something had to change.
In their fifth match, against Aston Villa, they switched to a 4-4-2 formation from 4-3-3 and it paid off as they came away with a 3-0 win – the first of their six-game unbeaten run.
“You always have your ideas going into the season. One thing we’re not afraid to do is change things when we think we need to,” Chambers tells BBC Sport.
“After that fourth game we came together as a group and decided we would change shape. We wanted to take some risks.
“Players were fully on board with it. We identified a window from the Aston Villa game to the Chelsea game as a real period we could compete.
“We built great momentum. When you go into games like that you always think ‘what can we get out of this one?’ We did that on the pitch.”
Since the win over Villa, Reading have beaten Birmingham City, Brighton, Chelsea and Tottenham, and drawn with West Ham. Striker Natasha Dowie has scored three goals in five games and Chambers was named Manager of the Month in December.
‘We have our own culture’
Reading lost several key players in the summer, including midfielders Angharad James and Fara Williams, and defender Molly Bartrip.
Chambers said Covid also “had a bit of an impact” on finances so it was crucial they recruited well.
Former AC Milan striker Dowie, forward Deanne Rose and defender Gemma Evans are among those who came in and have made a big impact.
“I think the recruitment we did in the summer have shown to be exceptional signings,” says Chambers. “We looked for ones that wanted to work hard, were professional and understood what it was going to take coming to a club like Reading.
“We like everybody to chip in and help each other. We wanted to form that family feel. That’s something we have going on right now and you can see it coming out on to the pitch.”
A tireless work ethic and smart recruitment have been key factors in creating what Chambers describes as “our own culture”.
“We have girls that are experienced in this league and others that have experience of international football and playing under different cultures,” she adds.
“It’s been nice to bring all that together. We have our own standards here and our own culture. It’s about ensuring everyone is pulling in the right direction.”
Is Champions League qualification achievable?
Reading face league leaders Arsenal on Sunday but Chambers is keen to “not get carried away” despite their sharp upturn in form since October.
“Some people might say we could have done without the Christmas break but I think everybody needed a rest,” she says.
“It was all focus when we came back in and picking up three points against Leicester was important. We still have the same aims and goals that we originally set though – we don’t want to get carried away.
“We have a team full of winners but we’re also very realistic in terms of where we believe we can pick up points. Our aim is to finish better than we did last year and we’re definitely on course to do that.”
Reading’s form has propelled them to sixth in the table, level on points with giants Manchester City and just four points off Tottenham in third.
Champions League qualification is within their sights – but are Reading are aiming for that?
“The league is completely open right now. It’s literally anybody’s to grab right now,” Chambers says.
“It’s not really something that’s been spoken about in camp but all the players do it – they look at the league table straight after the game to see where we’ve jumped up to.
“There’s definitely ambitions to achieve that. But we don’t need to put pressure on ourselves to say ‘we need to do this to get us to third place’.
“We’re an ambitious club though, we always have been and I have some ambitious players that would look at third place and go ‘why not?'”