I don’t know which way is up anymore. The hours seem to drag, but the months fly by. It’s nearly November and the football season’s just started. Last night we watched MK Dons’ operate a suicidal ploy of playing from the back using their goalkeeper as a right-back. It was like something Barcelona would try, but in the hands of lower league footballers, the move was so telegraphed, they ended up in a panic each and every time. You wonder how many times their manager might have to look at it before deciding it’s a bad idea. More than twelve, judging by last night.
As if that wasn’t confusing enough, last night’s win has made this Oxford United’s best start to a season under Karl Robinson. That’s Oxford United who were bottom, are now 20th and who are shipping an average of two goals a game. I repeat, never at this stage of the season have we had it so good.
What that shows is that Karl Robinson’s Oxford are traditionally slow starters. I don’t buy the idea that we should all just accept that, relax and wait for the inevitable tsunami of glory. Coventry lost three games last season on the way to the title, Luton, Wigan and Sheffield United won their League 1 titles with only six defeats. If you have ambitions for the title, you can’t throw four of your six lives away in the opening few weeks.
Admittedly, the play-offs are more forgiving, historically you can make the top six with more 13-15 defeats, such is the inconsistency of teams further down the ladder. But, it’s the height of arrogance to assume you can take a few punches in the face and not find yourself lying on the canvas with your teeth in the lap of a gangster’s moll at ringside. You can’t just accept these things, you have to question why they happen.
Management guru Peter Drucker coined the phrase ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’; you can have the best plans, processes and targets, but if you don’t have the right norms and behaviours your plans are meaningless.
Michael Appleton was a strategy guy, he famously had Plan A and no Plan B. He literally played things by the book – and that book is Legacy by James Kerr. Pep Clotet was so strategy orientated, he was blind to the impact it had on everything from culture to results. Like Jeremy Corbyn claiming he’d won the argument during the last election when he’d, metaphorically at least, conceded seven at home to Wigan.
Karl Robinson is more a culture guy; he’s all about developing the whole player and by extension the whole club. But while strategies are written, cultures are grown, they take time, need a lot of tending and protecting and can be unpredictable.
I’ve always thought that Robinson’s slow starts have been down to his hectic way of playing football. New players end up hanging onto the coattails of their teammates as the ball pings round and players switch from one shape to another at a bewildering rate.
Think of Alex Gorrin last year, he was booked in his first four games for the club with his late lunging tackles. His time at Motherwell hadn’t prepared him for life under Karl Robinson. Then he looked like a liability, now, judging by his performance last night, he looks like the lynchpin to our defensive security.
Sean Clare, who has looked out of sorts, had a much more assured game against Peterborough, and was better still against MK Dons. Marcus McGuane was similar; last night he had his best game in an Oxford shirt having looked off the pace in the first few weeks of the season.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that Karl Robinson is unique, but short termism in football is likely to promote a more strategic, command and control approach to a team. The average length of a football manager tenure in the Football League is a fraction over a year. That’s all you’re given to make a mark. In most clubs, the only chance the manager has is to drill their players like an army to get them to perform. There simply isn’t the time to develop a productive culture.
So new players perhaps need more time to settle into a culture which wants them to take responsibility for their role and doesn’t treat them like unthinking automatons. Perhaps that’s why we tend to start more slowly, players simply need to grow into their new club.
Tiger is an important factor in all this; there have been a number of times when he would have been justified in getting rid of Robinson because the results haven’t been good. But we should benefit from the patience he shows, offering Robinson the space to grow the culture he needs. That can only benefit the club; not only in short term goals of play-offs and promotions, but in the longer term by creating a rolling programme of good quality players to enhance the first team and generate transfer revenues. In a world full of distant foreign owners with a short term views of success, I’m constantly impressed by Tiger’s strategic foresight.
That’s not to say we’re out of the woods just because of a win over MK who, let’s not forget, have gone 13 months without winning on the road. We still look shaky at the back and won’t be helped by Rob Atkinson’s injury. This is a microcosm of the issue; there were times that he looked excellent, a worthy replacement for Rob Dickie, but the question is whether we can keep him on pitch.
None-the-less, a weight has lifted a little, particularly when considering what’s coming up on Saturday, if we can ignore the occasion – which will be much easier to do without a crowd – and continue to evolve the culture and embrace the new players into it, then things will begin to look hopeful.