Match wrap: MK Dons 1 Oxford United 1

It was the Scots who invented modern football. Their ‘combination game’ introduced passing between players as a guiding philosophy. Technically, it was far superior to the English code where dribbling was considered the highest skill, and where brute strength, handling the ball and hacking were all admired qualities.

The English considered the style effeminate, a dereliction of personal responsibility. It caused some to break away and create rugby, but even today there’s still admiration for players who are physical and aggressive despite England’s comparative failures as a national team. At club level, English teams started importing players from Queen’s Park; the great innovators of the combination game and so the philosophy travelled south. In 1882, the Scots beat England 5-1 at Hampden Park; part of a sequence of seven wins in eight and the combination game firmly took root. Passing was the underlying feature of the Hungarian team which destroyed England in 1953, the Brazilian World Cup winners of 1970 and the Spanish dominance of the 2010s. The English were left behind kissing their badges, getting stuck in and knocking it long.

It’s hard to imagine a tactical innovation with a greater impact; I’d argue that pretty much all tactical evolution since has been underpinned by improvements in fitness and sports science. Take, for example, the tactic of taking a goal kick to a defender stood inside your own penalty box. In the past, goal kicks were all about territory; the ‘keeper launching the ball to the halfway line.

This is an innovation of Pep Guardiola’s at Manchester City, presumably to counteract the ‘gengenpressing’ of Jurgen Klopp and the German school. If you can draw your opponents deep into your own territory, it’s possible to play in a counter-attacking style even though you have the ball. But, this is only possible if your players have the fitness to play with high levels of technical ability from one end of the pitch to the other. It’s hard to imagine Gary Briggs and Malcolm Shotton passing the ball to each other inside the six yard box with strikers baring down on them.

MK Dons have an almost kamikaze version of this approach. It’s like a public information film warning teams against it. The goalkeeper passes to the defender and then acts as an auxiliary full-back to receive the return ball. At one point yesterday their keeper was more advanced than their centre-back at a goal kick. More often than not, they find themselves in trouble, with strikers closing down as they dither. They were doing it in the first game earlier this season and seem not to have learnt a single lesson since.

In the iFollow commentary Eddie Odhiambo made the point that with 4-4-2 largely extinct, players now have one and a half jobs to do. Again, the improvements in fitness mean we expect players to do more than they did in the past. 

Karl Robinson’s obsessed with pace and energy; a reflection of his personality. Everything is breakneck, fitness levels need to be high, injuries are more likely. Against Portsmouth, that was used against us; creating such a noise that we couldn’t settle to anything. Against MK Dons, we came up against some shrewd heads and a decent amount of defensive discipline meaning that though we were dynamic throughout, they were able to cushion any blows we tried to land.

Take Brandon Barker, in full flight he’s an exciting player, but yesterday he found himself running into the traffic of a packed MK defence. With a bobbly pitch, he couldn’t quite carve out an opportunity. But, all over the pitch it was the same, Mide Shodipo and Elliot Lee struggled. We’d advance at a fierce pace but ran into trouble and the attack would break down.

There’s a lot about this that works; Dan Agyei’s impact was stunning; watch the highlights on YouTube almost everything we do involves him, even though he was only on the pitch for 19 minutes.

Against many teams, we’d get a couple of goals and be cruising by this method, but when we concede or struggle to make the breakthrough, the insistence of playing at the same breakneck speed works against us. Earlier in the season we’d tire, as we did against Swindon, but more recently we keep pounding away for the 90 minutes. But, it’s like in rugby when the ball is passed to the number eight with the intention of simply gaining a few yards before being bundled to the floor. We advance, but there’s little hope of making the breakthrough. We need someone to change the dynamic.

What was lacking yesterday was what we lack generally; leadership, someone to calm things down a little. We don’t lack experience, but it’s hard to see who is dictating the tempo or changing the angles when things aren’t working, or if we simply need a breather. John Mousinho was an organiser, John Lundstram could do it with his passing, we have James Henry, but presumably he’s not fit at the moment so is unable to act as the brains of the operation. 

It’s not on the YouTube highlights, but in the build up to the goal the ball is worked down the right flank. In a split second James Henry realises he may be offside, and leaves the ball to Anthony Forde. Henry stands still, allowing the play to move past him, bringing him onside and into play. It’s a smart move; it would have been easy for Henry to get caught up in the urgency of the situation and take a touch, potentially conceding a free-kick for offside. Forde and Henry exchange passes giving Forde the space to cross for Agyei to head across goal and Lee to bundle home.

Lee takes the glory and Agyei not only the assist, but hopefully the congratulations of his manager, but it was Henry and Forde’s clarity of thought which allowed the attack to develop. I was always struck by something Gary Neville once said about the Manchester United side under Alex Ferguson. In the last minute, the objective is not to bombard your opponent, but to create one quality chance. That’s what happened here.

In our 1996 promotion season, one pivotal, but underplayed aspect of our success was the prominence of Stuart Massey in the latter stages of the season. We had started with Chris Allen, who was fast and exciting, but working at that speed meant he was more prone to mistakes. When Allen fell out of favour, Massey came in. He had a bit more experience, and was a little more one dimensional, but he demanded the ball in a certain way; he didn’t have the pace to run half the length of the pitch, so he wanted the ball at his feet within the final third. Once he had it, his crossing was pin sharp. This alone unlocked the goal scoring ability of Paul Moody, whose job was to get on the end of the crosses.  The modern game doesn’t really allow for a water carrier – a Martin Gray, Dave Smith or Simon Clist – as Odhiambo said, players are expected to be fit enough to do the job of more than one person. But if we are going to take the step from play-off hopefuls to play-off contenders, we might need a little more brain and a little less brawn.     

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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