There’s no getting away with it; the first-half on Monday was as bad as anything we’ve produced in the last eighteen months and despite a marginal improvement in the second half, once the goal went in, neither the fans nor the players had any thirst for the fight.
It’s timely then, to criticise, not something I’m inclined to do, but I know I could be accused of ignoring the fact, despite explainations, bigger pictures and alternative views we are, still, on a pretty awful run.
So, here are the problems. The list is neither exhaustive nor exclusive; there is no one problem – “Fucking jump”, “Get fucking stuck in Burgess”, “play 4-4-2” doesn’t answer it.
It took 17 minutes to hear the first boo on Monday. There are several different crowd characteristics. When things are going well, like at Manchester United, the approach is generally to turn up in expectation of a win. If you go a goal down, there’s shrugging acceptance that victory will be secured, eventually.
Then there are those fans who’s emotions are expressed in a series of panics. Victory will come, but it won’t be easy, it’s a rollercoaster where players go from shit to shit-hot in minutes. Most teams have supporters like this.
Then there are teams like us, damaged, with fragile egos, expectant of trouble; who boo almost regardless of the score; like a reflex action. It’s like the death throws of a marriage where the husband waits to find something to criticise his wife; just for the niggling satifaction of point scoring. That is what Oxford fans are currently like.
4-4-2 will not solve our problems, but we’ve lost the discipline of that makes 5-3-2 work. Brevett and Johnson are both being caught in position too high up the pitch. Earlier in the season, they would venture forward in support, arriving late to deliver a killer ball into the box. Now, however, they drift forward before the attack has matured, when the ball reaches them, they’re not in enough space and the opposition are not on the back foot. They get closed down quickly and concede posession.
We don’t understand what role the midfield has; the busy tough tackling of Pettefer and Hagreaves are replaced by the culture of Rose and Burgess. We’re veering from one to the other without getting the balance.
The back five are panicking. Early in the season even a cleared goal mouth scramble would see Gilchrist, Quinn and Wilmott jogging back into position with a ‘job done’ attitude. Now the same scrambles result in bickering and shouting. Even little drills are being ignored; there are no options in throw-ins, corners a taken short, but there’s no urgency in getting the ball in.
Clubs like us are brittle, and the fanfare of the arrival of Smith and Merry has created over-inflated expectations. The club have made no attempt to dampen this; big crowds, flags, players and communication officers going on about it ‘being a different club’, columns in the Mirror and BBC documentaries all suggest we’re going to dance our way to glory. A bit more pragmatism would have helped us regroup and come back a stronger force.
We’ve never been quick starters, but early in the season the ability to battle in the chaos of the opening stages of the game saw a dampening of the opposition’s zeal. This has been replaced by a strolling arrogance; the game will start when we’re ready. Don’t worry about the goal line clearances, we’ll sort it out in the bit. Early in the season players were being booked and sent-off; not anymore. Take Monday – Gilchrist could have done with dumping Simian Jackson on his backside a couple of times, drawing a booking perhaps, just to put him in his place. Instead he allowed him to get his eye in, find a rhythm and do us damage.
Getting the right mix of youth and experience is the holy grail. Jim Smith’s early strategy in his first spell was to bring in experience to get the momentum rolling; Bobby MacDonald, Ray Train and Colin Todd were all brought in to create a sense of managed progression.
However, experienced players tend to have ravaged bodies, meaning recovery times are longer, injuries more likely, and down in the Conference you’re likely to pick up experienced players with very little fuel in the tank. Gilchrist, Santos, Brevett and Johnson have all picked up injuries and/or seen alarming dips in form, which in part may be the demands being placed on them week in, week out.