One narrative above all others is capturing the imagination of the English football press ahead of an otherwise mundane FA Cup third-round weekend – Jaap Stam's return to Manchester United with surprise Championship promotion contenders Reading.
An integral part of the legendary 1999 treble-winning side, the formidable Dutchman won five major trophies during a memorable three-year stint in English football before being offloaded to Lazio in the aftermath of his controversial autobiography Head-to-Head. Sir Alex Ferguson would later lament that sale as one of the biggest mistakes of his illustrious managerial career.
Despite the contentious nature of his exit, Stam, a ferocious and uncompromising but altogether cultured centre-back, remains a popular figure at United, and is sure to be treated to a rousing reception by the Old Trafford faithful on Saturday (7 January). But while much of the pre-match chatter will inevitably focus upon the 44-year-old's stellar playing past, it would be remiss to neglect to mention what a positive start he has made to his fledgling managerial career in Berkshire.
Having began coaching at PEC Zwolle and helped his old side to win the Eerste Divisie (Dutch second tier), Stam returned to Ajax and spent three years as an assistant coach in the historic Amsterdam club's fabled youth set-up. Overlooked for the senior job in favour of Peter Bosz following the departure of Frank de Boer in May 2016, the 67-cap ex-Dutch international later took advice from compatriots Ronald Koeman and Guus Hiddink before accepting an offer from Reading to succeed Brian McDermott on a two-year contract.
It was a brave decision from Stam to choose such a notoriously competitive, unpredictable and wholly unforgiving division for his first foray into full-time management. The Madejski Stadium was certainly not a hotbed of positivity prior to his arrival, either.
The Royals, three seasons removed from their last spell in the Premier League, had seen an initially promising campaign under Steve Clarke totally destabilised by the manager's flirtation with Fulham. Affable Brian McDermott was hardly a unanimously popular replacement among fans, despite his previous success. A truly dismal run of six defeats in seven matches both ended his short-lived second spell and ensured a second consecutive lower mid-table finish.
The arrival of a big name like Stam was greeted with cautious optimism by supporters, although a lack of prior experience – coupled with three managerial changes under the club's Thai owners – led many to pessimistically speculate if he would last beyond Christmas. The departure of highly-rated and long-serving director of football Nick Hammond to West Brom also provoked concerns over how things might change in the transfer market, although such fears appear to have been misplaced.
Forming a productive understanding with previously unknown technical director Brian Tevreden, the early stages of Stam's Dutch revolution have injected some much needed excitement into proceedings at Reading, banishing dread that two seasons spent circling the drain would inevitably be followed by a first return to the third tier since 2002. More than that, it has generated genuine optimism that a third stint in the top-flight, or at least another play-off berth, is a real possibility.
Reading's bloated squad was essentially gutted before Stam's appointment, as a trio of out-of-contract players departed alongside several disappointing loanees. The loss of midfielder Oliver Norwood to Brighton also spelled doom and gloom to many, but together Stam and Tevreden defied a lack of resources to replenish the stocks with a whole host of affordable new signings. Chief among them were former Chelsea midfielder John Swift and ex-Leicester City defender Liam Moore, two English players below the age of 24 with huge resale value that have been worth their weight in gold thus far.
In addition to implementing a cast-iron team spirit perfectly evidenced by a remarkable 3-2 comeback victory at Bristol City on Monday (2 January), Stam has demonstrated an astute tactical awareness and flexibility that was sorely lacking during the latter stages of 2015-16. Whether it's 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 5-3-2, 3-5-2 or 3-3-4, the principal aim under his leadership in simple terms is to monopolise possession and tire out the opposition.
This can sometimes backfire away from home when such domination is coupled with a frustratingly ponderous approach to creating chances and a propensity to concede soft goals, although at home, where Stam's side have been particularly strong, it has helped to grind out a series of hard-fought victories. Even the tedious "just get it forward" brigade, who earlier in the campaign booed and churlishly banged seats when Reading's backline passed it amongst themselves, are coming around to the new way of thinking.
Currently third in the table, separated from both the top two and seventh place by a six-point gap, it will be intriguing to see whether or not Reading's unlikely promotion bid can be maintained during the second half of the season and survive a potential change of ownership that, if approved by the Football League, will see wealthy Chinese brother and sister duo Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li purchase a majority stake. A reported club-record deal for Liverpool defender Tiago Ilori suggests that takeover could be edging closer to completion.
If the first seven months of his reign are anything to go by, Stam is destined for bigger and better things than Reading. However, they will certainly enjoy his refreshing approach while it lasts. A battle of wits with Jose Mourinho and an in-form United side that have won seven straight matches across all competitions should provide a good early test of his coaching credentials.