Match wrap: Bolton Wanderers 2 Oxford United 1

I recently read Economist Tim Harford’s book; How To Make The World Add Up. It’s about interpreting statistics; less about the maths and more about the philosophy. For example, being aware of our internal bias. I follow a daily covid reporting Twitter account – every day’s post attract the same responses; some read the reports as high, rising and worrying, others think the pandemic is over because cases are below the 100,000 a day some predicted. Our preconceived biases drive our interpretation.

Harford presents the idea of slow data; news websites report in real-time and are likely to be full of extreme, often bad, things. Imagine if that information came at us more slowly and there was only a newspaper every ten or 100 years; what would make the headlines? It would report improving health and increasing prosperity (alongside increasing environmental problems). Ultimately, it would be more measured and positive than a daily paper.

Football has its own units of time; a goal is probably the smallest and brings the most extreme response, but Matt Taylor’s goal against Bolton was irrelevant in the context of the outcome of the game. By a similar token, one defeat is not likely to be significant in the context of the season. Going further, the season’s outcome may be irrelevant in the context of the decade. While they both had their ups and downs, it’s fair to say the 2000s were pretty bad and the 2010s pretty good.

I’m not too worried about losing an individual game; in fact, it’s quite good to get the first one out the way. The longer any unbeaten streak goes on the bigger the potential whiplash we’ll suffer from an inevitable defeat. 

Back in 2006, immediately after our relegation to the Conference, we went nineteen games unbeaten and there was talk about stretching that run throughout the season. Defeat to Wycombe in the FA Cup shouldn’t have been a disgrace in the circumstances but the impact was grim; we lost to Ebbsfleet the following week and won one of the next twelve. We thought we were invincible but let our guard down and it killed us. An early defeat can serve to give you a useful early reminder of your own mortality, a reminder not to get too complacent. 

This period can play a role in shaping the season; think back to 2009 and Mark Creighton’s winner against York or the victory over Luton or 2015, Pat Hoban’s last minute equaliser at Luton and the blistering win over Brentford. Both set a tone that ignited a promotion charge. 

We’ve yet to see how this season might be characterised, look at the table and we’re pretty much where we’re predicted to end up, though we’re also significantly ahead of where we’ve been previously at this stage. We haven’t seen the spark of previous promotion seasons but we’ve been reassuringly solid. I imagine, under Karl Robinson, being top in August would be the equivalent of being winched to the top of particularly big rollercoaster.

Eventually, the season will grab us and we’ll become a small fishing boat in an angry sea. Injuries, fatigue and confidence can carry you to glory or sink you, and there’s very little you can do about it. You just hope that you’re built well enough to withstand the inevitable storms; success is not about individual moments, but something deeper and systemic. 

And while our start has been on a par with where we might have expected to be, there is a subtext not to be ignored. We’re already being pulled out of shape even without the storms to come. Against Crewe and Charlton Ryan Williams played right-back because Anthony Forde and Sam Long were both injured. Our centre-backs – McNally and Thornily are both unfamiliar to the club – because Moore is injured and Mousinho can’t play ninety minutes. Apparently Sam Winnall’s inclusion up front against Charlton was partly to cover Moore’s defensive strength at set pieces. Yesterday we played in a new shape – not my area of expertise – partly out of necessity. While this sort of thing does happen (think Josh Ruffels playing out of position in place of Joe Skarz in 2016) it’s very early in the season for these juggling acts. 

Worrying? Maybe, and best not to be ignored, particularly as the transfer window is still open, if we’re able to benefit from that. But, perhaps not, maybe we just need to let things settle and wait for the longer term trends to emerge, head towards the angry sea and see if the wind catches our sails.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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