Match wrap: Wigan Athletic 1 Oxford United 2

I used to work with someone who could fix things in an instant. A dispute in her team? They’d had a chat and it was sorted. A performance problem? They’d had a meeting and everything was back on track. As I got to know her, I found out her home life was much the same; an argument with her husband? A problem with her children? There’d been a problem, but everything was fine now.

She was very convincing and had a reputation as a bit of a fixer; if there was a problem, she could fix it permanently in an instant. But, the longer it went on, the more I became aware that the problems never went away for long. There was always another issue, argument or crisis that she moved to extinguish in the blink of an eye. But, as much as she assured everyone otherwise, the issues got gradually worse, she dealt with the effect, but not the cause. Eventually, she was firefighting on so many fronts people started to realise she was the constant when something went wrong.

She was convincing because it was how that’s how she assured herself that she was in control of her life when, in fact, it was gradually unravelling. She had practiced tirelessly to convince herself and others that she could fix the problems and achieve some kind of permanent stability. But, team issues became bullying accusations, arguments with her husband became divorce threats and one day, it was announced that she was leaving. 

As important as the result was, the idea that the win over Wigan fixes everything is a fantasy. With Portsmouth, Ipswich, Swindon and Hull coming up, it’s like successfully unlocking the door to a burning building. There are way bigger tests to come, even though it was welcome, and enjoyable, and necessary and expected. But, nothing is fixed.

And it never is. We all want things to be fixed in an instant, like the pandemic, we want to switch it off or to prove it’s not as bad as we’re being told. But that’s not how these things work, they’re a constant remoulding process, fixing something here, addressing something there, hopefully improving the overall direction of travel. James Acaster does a routine about the daily grind of ‘jobs and jobs and jobs and jobs’; an endless procession of trivial stuff that fills your time between periods of sleep.

I have a fundamental rule about managers; I’ve learnt that whether I agree with them or not is not a good measure of whether I can support them. Instead, I focus on whether I can accept their logic, the root of their decisions. I struggled to enjoy Ian Atkins, but understood what he was trying to do. Aesthetically, I could get on board Graham Rix’s football philosophy, but the logic of trying to turn Matt Bound and Andy Crosby into Iniesta and Xavi was beyond me.

Karl Robinson’s Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday helped to provide some assurances. One fan asked when the ‘right-back experiment’ would end. It was a veiled, even dehumanising criticism of Sean Clare. He’s not a player trying to find his form and settle into his new surroundings, he’s ‘an experiment’. If you take that metaphor to its logical conclusion, if the experiment doesn’t work, you throw it away. Given that other full-backs Josh Ruffels was a central midfielder and Sam Long was a central defender, when do their ‘experiments’ as full-backs end? 

Robinson went onto the front foot, Clare wasn’t an experiment and this kind of criticism was not going to help the player. Clare is a real person with his own strengths and weaknesses coming into a new system and a new team. He showed on Saturday (and has shown previously) he is a genuine threat as an attacking wing-back. Re-watching James Henry’s goal on Saturday you can see how much ground he makes up to pick up the ball that he crosses for the goal. A lack of effort is not a problem. It’s clear he’s not a Scott McNiven-type whose job is to defend the corner of his own penalty box nor is a Damian Batt player who seems to play in both boxes simultaneously.

Robinson also defended his use of the salary cap and keeping some in reserve and dealing with unknowns such as Cameron Brannagan’s eye issue. He’s right, football management is a constant work in progress, a process of moulding and reshaping. Working with what you have, managing the consequences of your decisions. It’s not a question of fixing a problem never for it to return. Given that Robinson is the root of the club’s culture, that’s encouraging to hear.

We’ve taken 72 points in the last 46 games, at one point last season we’d picked up 81 points in a 46 game sequence. Under Karl Robinson in any given 46 game sequence we’ve picked up on average 69 points. What we may be experiencing is not so much an evident failing, but more a readjustment from an over-performance from last season. Let’s not forget, had Josh Ruffels not scored in the last minute against Shrewsbury in March we wouldn’t have made the play-offs and all that came with it. The season will have been remembered as a much more moderate improvement.

On Saturday it was reassuring to see Henry and Taylor looking more threatening and I’m sure it will help with their confidence too. But, we were also reminded of our defensive frailties. We are neither wholly fixed nor wholly broken. Either way, the fact that Robinson remains on top of that brief suggests we’re still OK.

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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