Match wrap: Gillingham 3 Oxford United 1

I was talking with a someone at work this week who’d been beating themselves up about a conversation they’d had with our Chief Executive. In the preamble to a meeting, the CEO asked a couple of questions about something she was working on. She didn’t know the answer one of the questions and felt exposed and unprepared.

It was likely our CEO was just asking the question to pass the time. She readily admits she hasn’t got time to think everything through, prepare for every meeting, she’s not even very keen about being the polished, indefatigable leader people expect her to be. She likes to chat, she understands that people don’t always have all the answers at their fingertips.

My colleague said since she’d started managing people, she noticed how much they expected her to know everything and how every decision was taken as gospel, even though she was only ever making a judgement. She didn’t really like the pressure of being the sole decision maker, she wanted people to help her, question her if they felt the decision was wrong. But, at the same time she felt the pressure to be seen to know everything.

It’s very easy to assume that people in charge know everything, that decisions are precise, objective and well thought through. The illusion of control is part of leadership. Except, we are, ultimately all flawed humans winging it the best we can.

As a result, I’m not really keen on criticising people with responsibility for one-off decisions, most people are trying to do their best, single mistakes shouldn’t define a person. We all act irrationally sometimes, we all suffer anxieties, stress and blind spots. We make mistakes that we regret. Trends, data and track record should be the key to assessing someone’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses. 

Karl Robinson is over 900 days into his time at Oxford United; it’s been a progressive and positive experience. It’s hard to criticise both in the sense that it seems so unfair in the context of his success, but also because it’s not easy to find anything to criticise.

But, in that 900 days he’s never signed an experienced centre-back. Elliot Moore and Rob Atkinson were both signed with no league experience to speak of. John Mousinho, at the other end of the spectrum, pre-dates Robinson’s appointment. Likewise, he was gifted Curtis Nelson and Rob Dickie from previous managers.

It’s not like he’s lacked resources, he’s signed an array of strikers and midfielders. He’s been less successful with full-backs; perhaps over-ambitious. He got Chris Cadden over the line, but only by sacrificing control over how long he had him for.

This has been exposed this season, no more so than in the defeat to Gillingham, we had 31 shots and dominated possession. Robinson thought we deserved more, and we did. But it wasn’t a case of converting one of the chances for the three points, we needed to convert four because of our porous backline.

We’ve had a decade of success with centre-backs – a rolling programme through Mark Creighton, Jake Wright, Johnny Mullins, Chey Dunkley, Curtis Nelson and Rob Dickie. Dunkley, Nelson and Dickie are all in the Championship, a destiny that was evident long before they left. There was lots of time to prepare for their succession. John Mousinho has provided stability to allow the others to develop, but age is no surprise, and even Karl Robinson tried to encourage him into semi-retirement at the beginning of last season. This is a problem that has been over a year in the making.

Maybe Elliot Moore was expected to step into Dickie’s shoes, but Dickie stepped into last season with significantly more games under his belt than Moore has now. There’s absolutely no blame on either Moore or Rob Atkinson, it’s a more deep-rooted issue than individuals and their ability.

I’m generally satisfied with a manager if I can see the logic of what they’re doing, I could see what Ian Atkins was doing even if I didn’t like it, for example. If this is all planned, I can’t see how we’ve got to a position where we have such a lack of experience at centre-back. 

It isn’t quite as simple as that, of course, effective defences are units, full-backs, centre-backs and goalkeeper. They become greater than the sum of their parts – Joe Skarz and Jonjoe Kenny were improved by Jake Wright and Chey Dunkley, Mark Creighton and Jake Wright were improved by Damian Batt. But weaknesses in the unit impact everyone. Sean Clare seems to be taking some time to settle in, Simon Eastwood, Josh Ruffels and Sam Long all seem a bit out of sorts. It’s not likely to be a simple solution as each area will affect another, so isolating the cause is a real challenge. But, the lack of an experienced, mid-career central defender is an undeniable fact.

Simon Eastwood made a great point in the Oxford Mail this week, he doesn’t watch highlights, he said, because you never see any saves, just goals. it supports a theory I have about football fans; they love strikers, watch them all the time, they’re the ones that make the edit. We learn about their movement and ability. Midfielders are similar, we see the passes that make the chances. You rarely see a back-line simply shutting up shop, we’re not that interested in it, it’s boring. Ian Atkins is the person who Chris Williams described as ‘the man who taught him everything he knows about football’. Atkins was a master at creating defensive units. Fans have almost no idea what goes into that, more so about what makes a good goalkeeper, they’re judged only on how spectacular their saves are or how big a howler they made. The fundamentals – organisation, distribution, positioning is mostly lost on us. Andy Woodman never made spectacular saves because his positioning meant he never had to. 

I recently heard Bradley Wiggins talk about his Tour de France victory in 2012, it’s widely viewed that the course was suited to his ability because it contained lots of time trials, his speciality. He pointed out that he still had to ride the other stages and win those time trials. “Perhaps you should try becoming a world class time trialist.” was his trade off.

The same with goalkeepers; we have virtually no idea what it takes to make a good one. They train separately from the team, with specialist coaches. Even a penalty save is frequently described as being ‘at a good height’ as though it’s easy. Perhaps you should try saving a penalty that’s ‘at a good height’. 

One of Karl Robinson’s great qualities is how he relates to the fans’ experience of football. He gets it like no other manager I can think of. His football plays to the fans’ sensibilities – exciting, attacking, entertaining. It’s the stuff that makes the edit. Perhaps that other side, the technical, organised defensive line is simply a blind spot. He takes a fans’ view; defensive organisation is boring, goalkeeping saves are at a good height. He’s not as interested in what that takes; it’s the bit of his job that he puts off and puts off until it becomes a crisis. We all do it. 

There was so much in the Gillingham performance that suggested we’re ultimately going to be fine. But fine and successful are different things. We genuinely could have scored four. But, if we are a team that expects to concede one or two goals a game, then the margin of success narrows. If promotion is the goal, that’s a pressure we don’t need. 

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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