There are three versions of the truth; my version, your version and the truth. There are more than three ways to win a game of football. Plymouth have adopted a model for promotion that is tried and tested for this division. In the opening minutes on Tuesday night, they advanced as a unit into our territory and turned on The Crusher.
The Crusher (my term) uses the whole team as a single unit, it suffocates the opposition; overpowers them physically and tactically, and deprives them of the ball. The Crusher just keeps pounding away applying more and more pressure until something breaks.
For the opening 5 minutes they stretched from one side of the pitch to the other and from just inside their half to our penalty box. We couldn’t go round them, we couldn’t go through them, for a while we couldn’t get the ball off them. It looked like we were in for a long night where, possibly, we’d finally discover our level. Most teams will capitulate under such sufferance this year. The question was; would we?
All machines have a weak spot; even the Death Star had an exposed exhaust vent, a tiny chink in its armour which led to its destruction. Speed and agility were key; locate the weak spots and then jimmy away at them.
Roofe, the obvious threat, sat quietly on the flank. Danny Hylton frequently drifted down the other side. MacDonald, Hoban and Taylor; players who have been criticised this season, filled the gaps; each hitting the woodwork. It was a constant change of shape and position which Plymouth’s machine couldn’t calibrate fast enough to counter. Eventually that left space into which Liam Sercombe confidently lolloped for the goal.
This was art versus science, flare versus intensity, Ali versus Fraser, Barcelona v Real. It’s no criticism of Plymouth’s approach; their football is good and if I had the choice it’s exactly how I would go about winning a League 2 promotion.
As with all art, there were times it didn’t work, we were fussy in front of goal, choosing to cut in rather than shoot. Sometimes, despite our pressure and chances, The Crusher would eventually overcome us; we burn a lot of energy and sometimes looked to be hanging on. At one point we were forced to defend on our goal line; that’s how close we were to buckling.
I said a few weeks ago that it felt like a selection had been made with five teams at the top all with the ability to go up. A few weeks on, and with the opening third of the season complete, it feels like an elite is establishing; Plymouth, Portsmouth and us.
Can we keep it up? In the last seven games we’ve played five teams in and around the promotion and play-off spots, plus Swindon. The next month or so is far less intense on paper. It won’t be a test of ability, more a test of concentration. Can we play with the same intensity when the stakes feel less high?
I think we can, it looks like a joy to play in this team and hopefully that will carry us through games where the crowds a quieter and more sparse and the result less anticipated, more expected.
Pound for pound, this is the best football we’ve seen at Oxford in 30 years; since the double promotions of 1984 and 1985. Wilder’s promotion team applied The Crusher, Denis Smith’s ’96 vintage were direct and pragmatic. We’ve not seen the art form exploited like this since Jim Smith was in charge and look where that took us.