Carlisle wrap – Oxford United 1 Carlisle United 1

Team selection for the Carlisle game was the conclusion of a three-part logic puzzle. Michael Appleton didn’t want too many players playing all three games we had last week. It was difficult to know which game was key to solving the riddle. Was it the Carlisle game itself? Comfortably the most important of the three. Or was it the Yeovil game because of the JPT’s complex and bizarre selection rules?

Whichever it was, by the time we got to Saturday’s game the team largely picked itself; only O’Dowda and Dunkley started all three games. Dunkley, the best player across the three games, might have made way for Jake Wright on Saturday, but otherwise the team was self-selected.

The disruption couldn’t have been easy to handle and it’s admirable that we’ve come out of it with two wins and a draw, but for Saturday’s game there was one nagging issue. Did we actually have a game plan?

What I mean by that is did we have a clearly defined method by which we were trying to win the game? It feels like we have the fastest Formula 1 racing car, but sometimes not the skills to overtake someone. A logic based on the idea that if you have the fastest car, why would you need to know how to pass someone?

Yes, we play really nice football, but there’s still a lack of goals at home and when we concede, as we calamitously did, that makes us vulnerable. For example, we frequently get the ball at the corner of the opposition’s penalty box. Unless the game is stretched we seem to get stuck. Typically, whoever has the ball cuts inside or tries to dance through an ocean of defenders or passes backwards. It doesn’t seem to work very often in producing a goal.

It’s difficult to know what the team are trying to do in that final third. Go for the byline and cut back? Ball to the back post? Ball in to pressure the keeper with someone like Liam Sercombe marauding in to pick up the pieces? If pure skill and technique doesn’t work there doesn’t seem to be a method backing it up.

When we played West Brom last year, I was struck by their reliance on their ‘quality’; they would keep the ball, pass it around and, it seems, hope for an opening. There was no obvious game plan. When we started to disrupt their flow, we found ourselves in the odd situation of outplaying them at their place.

Carlisle did that to us; while we tried to out-quality them, they had a very clear plan, get balls into the box, be organised when defending. And we struggled throughout. In short, you could say we got League Two’ed. Maybe it’s no surprise that our two defeats this season have come against two of the most League 2 managers in the business.

Much like the reality that a team like West Brom would beat us nine times out of ten just because they have the quality, I guess we’re built to be better than most teams most of the time. Sometimes we’ll be unpicked, but generally, it should be fine. I’m generally happy to concede the lead at the top of the table, let someone else deal with the headwind of being league leaders. We’ve got two more teams to play and then we’re in the second half of the season, so far it’s been very good but a lack of tactical cunning appears to be a weakness. Perhaps most of the time that’s not going to be an issue; you would hope.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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