An unfamiliar sense of control

Despite opticians’ insistence otherwise, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Especially on a Tuesday night when I’m tired. Our new block yellow kit helps me, at least, to make our which team is us but I find it quite difficult to read shirt numbers on players’ backs, let alone the names.

So I’m still getting used to our new signings and working out which is which. I can’t really tell the difference between Rigg, Cox and Forster-Caskey, although I’ve worked our that although I know that Michael Raynes  is the tall one at the back.

It may be the relative anonymity of the individuals which did it (well, to me at least) but Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Southend showed how the team has evolved over the summer. In our first season back in the Football League we were full of joi d’vivre which although fun came with a lot of naïveté; like watching teenage boys jumping off bridges into a river – thrilling and foolish in equal measure.

Last season we added to this raw talent with some much needed experience, most notably Michael Duberry and Peter Leven. This built on a base of talent including Constable, Wright and Clarke. What resulted was almost an over-compensation on individuals with buckets of experience. With so many captains on the pitch we became, perhaps, over-reliant on their individual performances. As injuries took their toll on these key players the rest of the squad struggled to fill the gap and eventually the wheels fell off our promotion charge.

Perhaps we were lacking a single unifying squad culture that we could rely on when the big names began to fall away. If you like, it’s the difference between Real’s chaotic individualistic galacticos policy and Barcelona’s more singular corporate approach (focussing on systems over individuals). Both can work, but in different ways.

This season’s squad is notably  less starry and as a result we appear a much more solid unit as a whole. Greater than the sum of our parts. This seems exactly the environment in which creatives like Alfie Potter thrives – his performance on Tuesday as good as he’s had in an Oxford shirt and fully deserving of the standing ovation he got when substituted.

The change is perhaps best illustrated in the back-four. Last year we had Liam Davies and Damian Batt raiding the flanks with Michael Duberry being a dominant personality in the middle. With so much going on Jake Wright seemed prone to occasional, but signifant, mistakes. Was everyone trying to be a bit too hard to be as good as Duberry et al? Playing too close to the rivet, too close to a mistake? Similarly, were our midfield trying to offer a like-for-like replacement to Peter Leven’s creative? Is it wrong to think of Dean Smalley as a replacement for James Constable?

It seemed on Tuesday that players were playing their game, and not to a tempo set by others. As a result it was much more settled and patient and, as a result, we were in control throughout. That is not to say that the likes of Duberry and Leven are a detriment to the squad, far from it, we just need to know that we have a squad that can succeed with or without them. From the last week or so, there are encouraging signs that we might have.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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