Three months is not a long time to have had to negotiate two ‘must win’ games, but that’s what Michael Appleton has had to do since the start of the season. The game against Accrington, which we went into without a league win, and the game against Tranmere where we potentially faced defeat at home to the bottom club. These represented potentially pivotal moments in our season and perhaps Appleton’s Oxford career. He negotiated both, but the fact we’re even talking in these terms is a source of lingering concern.
Wycombe wasn’t a must win game, but it was a key barometer as to where we are and how we’re getting on. Whether the game represents a derby or not is still subject to some debate but the animosity between the two clubs does seem to crank up as the years pass. It’s not so much a rival sibling, more like a cousin from ‘that’ side of the family. One that you find yourself having to invite to parties even though you think, depending on which side you sit, they are stuck up and living above their station or from the wrong side of the family who brings down house prices when they park in your drive. Whatever the game is, it is a ‘something’, and that in itself gave it importance.
But, more than that, Wycombe last season avoided relegation from the Football League by the skin of their teeth. When we played them at Adams Park they looked hopeless. Despite the late goal and narrow scoreline we completely outplayed them. Now, they’re at the top of the table and yet, there’s been no obvious investment in playing staff and Gareth Ainsworth – who looked out of this depth and lost – is still on the touchline. How have they gone from one end of the table to the other ? And how have we done the opposite?
Here’s my take based on Saturday. Let’s employ a deliberately over-simplified measure of quality; for example, the average number of effective touches that a League 2 team might make in a game. Let’s give that a figure of, say, 1000 touches. Since we came back into the league in 2010, there have been teams able to spend money on players beyond that base level – Chesterfield, Swindon, Fleetwood and Crawley all spring to mind – perhaps they were able to deliver, on average, say, 1200 touches per game. As a result, whilst it is still possible to beat them in any one-off game, over a season they dominate the division leaving all the others to pick the scraps out of whatever was left over.
Last season was slightly different, although Chesterfield eventually eased home, most of the rest of the division were ‘1000 touch’ teams. With everyone pretty much of a muchness, those who used those touches most efficiently succeeded. This was illustrated by our own form and style which was as average as at any point since we returned, but we found ourselves at the top of the table. Our away form, in particular, was spectacular; because when we got the ball we used it well.
This season is much the same; the teams that came down – Tranmere, Hartlepool and Carlisle appear to be in a terminal decline, those who have come up from the Conference are doing OK, but not because they’ve got a sugar daddy sitting in the background. In short, we have much the same kind of profile of division that we had last year – a whole world of average.
So, what’s changed with Wycombe? Perhaps its necessity or desperation, or perhaps Ainsworth is learning his trade, but Wycombe have evolved into a tough and direct unit, in other words, it’s not that they have more touches in the team, it’s that they’re using their 1000 touches well.
They illustrated their robustness early on Saturday with the foul on Andy Whing and subsequent elbow to his head, which was probably deserving of two yellow cards. I don’t fully understand the rules around red cards for penalties or agree with their automatic double-jeopardy nature, but the first penalty could have been another red.
Early on we knocked the ball around; along the back, down the flanks, back along the back, and along the back again. We had one free-kick that everyone went up for and we played it short, and then backwards. We used up our 1000 touches knocking the ball around ineffectually. If you are going to use up your touches so quickly, you’ve got to hope that you’ve got a few goals out of it. We had just one.
As much as we matched Wycombe for most of the first half, the second half we were all but spent, all our touches were used up. They were still chugging away with plenty in the locker. The goals, when they came, were the result of robust, direct football at a time when we were done for. The chance of coming back were limited because we didn’t have the spare quality. We wasted so much energy playing it around nicely and getting nowhere, when we needed more, we didn’t have it.
The difference between the teams, therefore, is purely tactical. Ainsworth and Appleton both stood on the touchline dressed like young fathers ready to go for a curry with their wives in Chelsea boots and skinny jeans. They’re very similar people with just a few years between them. But Ainsworth appears to have learned that, as a manager, you’ve got to work with what you have to get results.
The answer to this problem is either to invest heavily in ‘1200 touch’ players or go through the coaching process to get them up to that level. I don’t think Appleton has the luxury of either option, so it’s all about working with what he’s got. He can argue that he hasn’t had time to implement players with the ‘right DNA’, but he’s got Clarke, Mullins, Wright, Whing, Barnett and Hylton at his disposal he should be doing better than he is.
One telling shift came in Appleton’s post-match interview. Whilst I’ve been critical of him and the new regime, he has always spoken well and eloquently in interviews. On Saturday he struggled with a coherent analysis of the game; from hearing it you might have thought we’d controlled it and won. His conclusion about the penalty? That’s what happens when you’re at the bottom and they’re at the top.
Not true. He’s got the cause and effect the wrong way round. You don’t miss chances because you’re at the bottom; you’re at the bottom because you miss chances, or because you spend all your touches fannying around along the backline rather than creating goalscoring opportunities. Now that Appleton appears to be reverting to claptrap of being ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’, perhaps he’s running out of ideas.