Matthew Syed is a journalist and former international table tennis player. He tells a story of interviewing German tennis player Michael Stich. For the benefit of the camera, some of the interview is done with Syed and Stich gently rallying across a tennis net.
Syed, feeling confident, asks if Stich will serve a ball at him from the baseline. He’s a a former table tennis player, an Olympian indeed, so he feels his naturally fast reactions and his general competence at hitting balls with a round shaped bats means he should be able to return a couple of boomers.
Stich winds up and fires an ace past him. Syed doesn’t move. He fires another one. And another. Five balls are fired down, five aces, Syed doesn’t move. He asks Stich what the trick is to returning a tennis ball from a world class player. Don’t look at the ball, Stich says, watch the server’s body movement and shape as he tosses the ball into the air.
With this advice Syed returns to the baseline, Stich fires another one down; another ace. Syed still can’t get close. The point is that despite the many similarities between table tennis and tennis, he simply isn’t competent at the latter despite being more than competent at the former.
In reality; one had no bearing on the other because professional tennis players spend years learning the relationship between body shape and movement and the direction of the ball. Only through what Syed calls ‘quality practice’ is this possible, innate talent is a myth.
When Eales, Ashton and Appleton swept into Oxford, they implemented a new tactical philosophy which turned the club on its head. It provided the peculiar spectacle the football being aesthetically more pleasing but the results markedly worse. Appleton has defended the approach with dogmatic promises about there being no alternative and not taking a step back.
But, what he failed to recognise was that the ‘quality practice’ that the players at the club had been engaging with for nearly half a decade was significantly different to that which he wanted to implement. The transition was always going to be a difficult and long one, and it was naive to think otherwise.
Take someone like Jake Wright, an imperious defender when fit, there is no better player when being asked to absorb pressure and actually defend. He looks decidedly uncomfortable in the new system where he’s being asked to bring the ball out of defence and turns defence into attack.
On Saturday, he found himself needing to do just that with nobody from midfield dropping back to help him out. It’s all very well expecting Wright to do something differently, but assuming he’ll just switch it on is daft. Not putting in place the tactical support from midfield is doomed to failure.
There are other concerns about the system; fitness, for example. Tareiq Holmes-Dennis had a magnificent opening 35 minutes on Saturday, but was sucking on energy gels before half-time. Andy Whing was also quick to take on board fuel.
Both may have had mitigating circumstances but is there the fitness or quality in the squad to be able to turn the principles into 90 minutes of winning football? And can it be done every game? Tranmere, a clunking shadow of their former selves, hardly offered a threat, and a better side probably wouldn’t have given us quite such an easy time.
But, the good news is that it would seem that the system is working enough to mean that we shouldn’t need to worry about relegation. Tranmere look desperate, although you’d expect Mickey Adams to improve them. There are others – Hartlepool, Carlisle, Accrington, York, Dagenham who are either blighted by a suicidal free fall or a distinct lack of resources. It doesn’t really matter, to us, who might recover, but as long as at least two don’t; which seems likely, we should be OK.
Of course, avoiding relegation is a very low bar for a club that was threatening promotion or at least the play-offs this time last year. And there’s still a long way to go to reach even parity with those heady heights. Yes, the system is better and yes, we should be reasonably confident that relegation isn’t a concern, but the true tests are whether we can perform away from home and against the best in the division. That’s the next milestone in our development.
To do that we either have to compromise the system to make it a more prosaic, pragmatic beast fixed on results more than style, or we have to invest in the squad to replace what already exists with both the quality and quantity of players we need to make it work. Or, patience is the key, and we need to get in plenty of quality practice. Of those three options – the last is most likely part of the plan – there is little evidence of investment and no sign of compromise, but it will also be the slowest one to pay dividends.