Where the hell do you start with all that?
In some ways, you don’t even try. It was a carnival of ineptitude, a performance so spectacularly poor, 0-7 flatters us. I was at the 1-7 reverse against Birmingham in 1998, and I don’t remember defending as suicidally poor as we saw on Saturday. It was, without doubt, the worst Oxford United performance I’ve ever seen.
But, because it was such an anomaly, it is not necessarily helpful to use it to illustrate a broader state. We are not a team that’s going to concede seven at home on a regular basis. Nor are we likely to face a better team than Wigan this season. And nor are we likely to play that poorly against a team that good again.
Pep Clotet was right to try and play down the scale of the catastrophe on the radio. There is little value in simply finding new ways of reminding everyone about how terrible it was. We don’t want to prolong the pain any longer than we need to, as tempting as it might be to want to punish the players for the performance. Ultimately, we want them motivated to play well, constantly berating them does no good to anyone.
Clotet didn’t get it right, of course, it wasn’t a young team and we didn’t, at any point, look in the game. Wigan’s oldest player was 26 and their starting eleven had an average age of 24, three years younger than us.
But, Clotet has seconds to decide what to say while we have a lifetime to analyse it. There’s no guidebook on how to deal with a situation like that. In fact, there was an ounce of truth in what he was saying; the average age is dragged up by our defensive unit which are all over 30. In midfield, however, we had Mowatt (22), Xemi (22), Ruffels (24) and Jack Payne (23) with Rothwell (22) and Ledson (20) coming off the bench.
This is at the heart of our problem. A squad which is polarised between young players with loads of potential and older players with loads of experience, but not much in between. The reason this is important is that we’re a squad with no core to set the tone and style for the team. It is a lot to ask Ledson or Xemi to stamp their authority on a game in the way Chris Maguire or Marvin Johnson might have done when they’re playing with players nearly 10 years older and from three or four different countries.
This is more than meaningless football-babble; at one point on Saturday Ricardinho chipped a ball to Josh Ruffels which was too high to control but too low to let go. The ball clipped off Ruffels’ head and to the feet of a Wigan player. We lost possession, a midfielder, as Ruffels recovered from his jump, and we were suddenly under pressure. We need players that demand other players play to their strengths, instead, the likes of Ruffels are left trying to manage the individual stylistic preferences of his team mates.
It’s not all Clotet’s fault, he might have expected at least one of Lundstram, Maguire or Johnson to stay at the club when he joined, but all left. Since then he’s been stripped of Curtis Nelson and Rob Hall. He’s had to rebuild at record pace while suffering more injuries and there are gaps and mismatches all over the place. The result is a bit of a mess.
January is not going to fix the problems, there simply isn’t the time to bring in the players we need and ship out those we don’t. He can plug some of the gaps, but he’ll never get all of them. Despite this, and the result on Saturday, we should still be expecting an unspectacular mid-table finish, but not without more wobbles along the way.
Clotet was right when he said that all we lost was a point, but he has a battle on his hands to contain it to that. It has the potential for finger pointing and blame which could drive divisions in the squad without strong leadership. He needs to maintain the confidence of those above him and those in the stands. Michael Appleton faced similar problems in his first year, but not only did he have a motivated owner with plenty of skin in the game, he was facing the total obliteration of his career if he got it wrong. It took an almighty effort and a bit of luck to turn it around, but by Appleton’s own admission, it was an all consuming task. Does Clotet have the appetite to take it all on?