There are many things which puzzle me about the building of the Death Star. It was the size of a planet, took twenty years to build, was begat with construction and political problems and yet somehow its completion took everyone by complete surprise. “That’s no moon” says a wide eyed Han Solo “That’s a space station.”
I feel somewhat the same about the current squad – how did we get here? We seem to have built a fully operational battle station on the quiet.
I have no real tactical understanding of football, but I’m aware of the concept of ‘gengenpressing’; the overwhelming high pressure game championed by Jurgen Klopp. I remember watching Match of the Day when Klopp first took charge at Liverpool. The analysts identified a new intensity in the team, at least for a short while, it’s hard to overstate the physical and mental challenge of executing the philosophy and eventually they fell away, but it was a sign of things to come.
We didn’t outplay Bristol Rovers last night or even outthink them. We just seemed to overwhelm them. They tried very hard, but we just seemed to strong-arm them out the way. This has never been the Oxford way, we’ve never been a dominating kind of team, sure, we’ve been good enough for promotion before, but we’ve never had this kind of personality.
I’m beginning to develop a theory that a manager’s football style is very similar to how they might be in the pub. Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce would be all nobbly glasses of real ale. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola would be wine and spirits only – sophisticated, but boring. Jurgen Klopp and Karl Robinson would invade your personal space, tell you stories they find much funnier than anyone else and slop their lager over your shoes. An assault on the senses, a density in the experience, we have a team which is everywhere all the time, if you’re down on your luck, like Bristol Rovers are, it’s crushing.
So, if Doncaster was Robinson being told to ‘SHUT UP!’ by someone across the bar, Bristol Rovers was him ignoring them and starting another rambling story about a mad night out in Prestatyn he once had. There is no story too boring, no joke too unfunny, confidence just oozes from every pore.
I tend to watch games on a Tuesday while cooking dinner, then often with the sound down so as not to disturb programmes about architects with small penises who build massive houses or the Great British Tapestry Quest, or whatever. I tend to miss bits of the game as a result, not least substitutions which are a constant rolling theme rather than an occasional punctuation. Last night was a great illustration of the strength we have; not content with Matty Taylor, Mide Shodipo and Elliot Lee up front. In the blink of an eye there was Sam Winnall, Brandon Barker and a revitalised Mark Sykes. All garnished with an ever fragrant James Henry and Cameron Brannagan. It must have been terrifying and, when you’re on the run Rovers are on, endlessly dispiriting. Steve Kinniburgh didn’t so much call for the referee to blow his whistle to end the game, but plead with him to show some mercy.
The immediate impact of our January signings has been very apparent. Where often players need to grow into a Karl Robinson team (hence the slow starts to seasons), Elliot Lee looks like he’s been with us all season while Brandon Barker is a dragster in the mould of Marcus Browne. If anything, we look like we hold him back.
We are still wafer thin at the back, it’s our ventilator shaft, we just need a cocky kid whose been shooting Womp Rats in his T-16 back home, and the whole thing could be destroyed. We’re solid in terms of the first choice back five, but there’s little in reserve should anything go wrong. Against lesser teams, it’s not so much of an issue, because if a team is struggling to control the ball along their backline, they’re unlikely to construct any kind of effective attack. Against the better teams yet to come, they’ll inevitably see more action. Form, fitness or pressure could strike at any time; I’m reminded of Joe Skarz in 2016, when everything seemed to be heading to an inevitable successful conclusion and Skarz himself appeared bombproof we were suddenly plunged into an injury crisis. Something similar is still entirely possible this season.
But, at the moment, I’m just happy being tossed around in the swell of success. The unrelenting force of our battleship, I’m not, yet, anxious about where it’s all heading. It’s a strange thing to be following the club simply to be entertained.