Match wrap: Lincoln City 2 Oxford United 0

The office at work re-opened at the beginning of August; it only has 25% of its original capacity and you have to sign a piece of paper where, theoretically at least, you could be disciplined for making someone else a cup of coffee. There’s no requirement for anyone to go in, but it’s available should anyone want to use it. After six months working at home and having changed how we work to fit the new world, while I feel I have a moral responsibility to go in, I can’t find any specific reason why.

The reverse is true when it comes to watching these lockdown games on iFollow. It’s convenient and cheap but the problem is that I can’t find a reason not to watch them. I probably wouldn’t have gone to Lincoln in normal times – I’ve been to Sincil Bank before and I can think of no particular reason to go again. In fact, I quite like the inaccessibility of some fixtures, I like the effort required to attend them, but also the reason not to. 

When I started watching football, there wasn’t even regular match commentary on the radio, I remember the Saturday afternoon Radio Oxford show having a ‘prayer mat’ that they’d metaphorically get out if we needed a goal. There would be periodic updates, a bit like we do now from Witney Town or Berinsfield. The football happened while you did other things.

iFollow demands your attention in the way radio doesn’t, you’re stuck to your sofa, shutting out as many distractions as you can so you can follow the game. But the convenience, price and the lack of an alternative – that is, actually going to a game – makes it compelling, though not in a good way.

One benefit is that you get the commentary from the local BBC radio, which at least gives a virtual away day a sense of some of its mystery. Amidst debates over the word ‘athletical’, goal updates from Gainsborough Trinity and a lengthy discussion about how Lincoln’s play-off failures hadn’t damaged their ability to climb the divisions (until it was pointed out that there had been 18 years between their play-off failures and their next promotion), Radio Lincolnshire were reassuringly bias and ill informed throughout. 

Above all, though, they gave off a sense that Lincoln’s principal role was to contain us because we were such a dangerous opponent. It was similar to how we might treat the visit of Portsmouth, Ipswich or Sunderland. Our new found status, following our play-off defeat, may have delivered us a reputation we need to play up to.

The problem is that we can’t bring the whole package; it is very likely that we’d have sold out the away end at Lincoln, we’d have brought the noise and the occasion. The pent up momentum that has built up, even over the last week, would have flowed through the game, toppling anyone not braced for it. Fans don’t win games, but they can change the dynamic.

Stylistically they weren’t a team we’d recognise as being Michael Appleton’s. Their shape and discipline meant we couldn’t play round them, through them or over them. Added to that was an efficiency in attack that Appleton’s Oxford didn’t really have; when they did get a chance it was decisively executed. Dare I say it, it reminded me less of our 2016 promotion team and more of Wycombe Wanderers.

In a sense this has echoes of the 2014 World Cup, where Spain came to the tournament as World and European champions full of the tika taka only to find the Germans had invented a new, direct way of playing which simply bypassed all the passing. Surely Gareth Ainsworth hasn’t stumbled across a revolutionary way of playing at this level?

If so, League 1 is going to be a massive challenge for us – we have plenty of firepower and creativity, we moved the ball well but as was rightly pointed out, there was little penetration until we were 2-0 down. Teams built on a solid shape with a super efficient, well-drilled, attack against our defence could present some difficulties. 

As much as Rob Atkinson has impressed during pre-season, it is still asking a lot for him to perform 46 games at this level, and John Mousinho surely doesn’t have a lot of games in his legs. It feels like there’s a big gap between Atkinson’s physical ability and Mousinho’s experience and dependability. Let’s not forget that Elliot Moore is still only 23 himself; it feels like we have emerging talent and dependable but fading ability, but nobody in that mid-career sweet spot that we can definitely rely on all season.

Add to this is Simon Eastwood, whose shot stopping appears to have returned to form, but decision making remains decidedly shaky. Though perhaps his occasional surges out of his box are a sign that he lacks a bit of confidence with those in front of him. You don’t get a sense that we have a defence which will ship a ton of goals, but when an attack is efficient and direct, these minor lapses will get punished.

For all the excitement of bringing in Winnall and Taylor, our defence remains a blind spot. Losing Rob Dickie and John Mousinho’s age are no surprises, even before that Curtis Nelson’s departure was always known. In the whole time Karl Robinson has been at the club, he’s yet to sign a centre-back with games under his belt. I think Atkinson and Elliot will come good, but they’ll do it in the glare of real games with lapses along the way. In a promotion hunt, it won’t take too many lapses to turn success into mid-table.

Of course, it’s only the first game and it doesn’t mean much. It puts pressure on the upcoming games to find some form and get points on the table, but it’s far from proof that we’re a poor team. Robinson has had a good transfer window, but if there is money in the budget, then a mid-career central defender wouldn’t be the worst investment. But, then again, perhaps that’s the problem with games on iFollow; you watch them rather than feel them, analyse them rather than enjoy them, consume rather than participate. Maybe I need to find an excuse not to watch them as much.

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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