Oxford United 1 Walsall 2
Saturday was a bit of a mess from start to finish. So, where did it all go wrong?
Let’s start with the obvious, much discussed, strategic issue. Walsall wanted to overload the midfield in order to control the game, or at least subdue Ledson, Rothwell and Payne. With the pace of Roberts and Oztumer always offering an outlet against our paceless back-four, presumably the plan was to keep going for as long as possible in that vein and see where they were after, say, an hour.
I’m guessing they didn’t expect to be 2-0 up, and that’s because the issues ran deeper than that.
Starting from the back – John Mousinho is no full-back, but I doubt very much that’s why he’s been brought in. It’s difficult to be critical because his role is probably in the middle; in an ideal world, we’d perm any two from him, Williamson and Nelson. On the other side, Ricardinho is very much a modern full-back, but if things aren’t going his way he has a habit of reverting to petty fouls and histrionics. It’s too easy to blame it on his Latin temperament; I suspect it’s because he plays with such flare, he’s more likely to find himself out of position when under pressure. Lunging and fouling becomes necessary because his positional discipline is lacking.
The lack of full-backs has an impact on Rob Hall, he does his best, and usually very well, but he’s isolated and so his impact is more limited. Ledson and Rothwell were OK on Saturday, but they were overwhelmed and couldn’t get a grip on the game while Payne had no space to operate.
Which leaves us with the nub of the issue; the decision to play van Kessel and Obika together. It confused the shape of the team – do you play into Obika or over the top to van Kessel? Is it a question of Obika playing in van Kessel? That worked well against MK Dons, but we had the game more under control in the latter stages. The opening phase of any game is chaotic and the key is to try and bring it to heel before looking for the win. Obika is the better starter in my view; van Kessel better for latter stages. Playing them together also limits options coming off the bench. van Kessel’s pace might have hurt Walsall late in the game, if he wasn’t already tiring himself.
From the sweet spot of Bradford to two frustrating defeats. Curtis Nelson is right to say that we shouldn’t panic, but with a division full of teams with ambition, we can’t let the gap grow too much further.
Bury 3 Oxford United 0
It’s very easy in hindsight to criticism a wrong decision, so there was logic in bringing in Mowatt, Ruffels and Henry to face Bury. The aim, it seemed, was to maintain more control of the game than we had against Walsall.
For an hour it worked, albeit with a liberal use of the long ball to van Kessel. Had we held out for another 10-15 minutes we would have had options to either shut the game down and go for a steadying draw, or become more adventurous by introducing Rothwell and Payne.
We didn’t, of course, the eight minute aberration which resulted in the defeat all came down Ricardinho’s wing, plus some pretty clumsy defending once the ball reached the box. The penalty looked soft and the second goal clearable.
Is Ricardinho a fun liability? Less capable than we’d like to believe? Is he suffering from the imbalance across the back-four meaning he’s being forced to do things that aren’t his strength?
Consider, perhaps the question of Mike Williamson, but then Pep Clotet’s hands are tied to some extent because of Riberio’s injury and his belief that Carrol’s game-time needs careful management. Still, I think that’s the lesser of the evils, and would prefer to see John Mousinho moving inside to partner Nelson.
The underlying theme to all this is the constant juggling that’s needed to cover injured players – we have two long term injuries, while Obika, Thomas and Ribiero look set to be in and out constantly through the season, the disruption plays havoc with team shape and strategy.
Doubts are creeping in, but comparing Clotet and Appleton’s starts is unfair. Undoubtedly Clotet is in a more stable environment than Appleton was and pound for pound he has better players, but the disruption to the squad has been as significant as the one Appleton faced in 2014 and we can’t under-estimate just how difficult it might be to bed the team down. For all the woes of the last three games, we also shouldn’t forget strong performances against Gillingham, Bradford and Portsmouth.
Peterborough on Saturday means we’ll have faced five of the top six, and while we would want to be competing with those teams and higher up the table, there is plenty of opportunity to come to steady the ship and start moving forward again.